Picturing a brighter future

By Nell Walker

Stefano Zenti, Executive Vice President of Emerging Markets at Canon Europe, describes the company's growing presence in Africa and its dedication to supporting the needs of the local people.

Canon, a name which naturally connotes top-of-the-range image capture, is evolving to create a far more diverse presence and offering for itself. Executive Vice President of Emerging Markets for Canon Europe, Stefano Zenti, is one of the best-positioned to facilitate this change and watch it flourish.

Zenti began working for Canon in 1990, with the majority of his career since spent in his home country of Italy. His role shifted through various managerial positions and across multiple European nations, before he became responsible for the emerging markets business unit spanning EMEA regions. He now oversees operations in numerous countries with a focus on under-developed territories, particularly in Africa.

A focus for Zenti and his team is the adjustment in image for Canon. While photography is generally on the decline in Western Europe, Africa still holds huge opportunities for Canon's core product ranges, and this is something the business utilises to create better options for the local population. Not only is it able to develop its traditional offering here, but Africa is enjoying a huge boost in developing technology, leapfrogging from where it was just a few years ago to where some European nations are – and this only enables Canon to become more deeply ingrained in Africa's digital revolution.

“As we evolve our European offerings all the time, we are learning from that and bringing the experience to Africa,” Zenti explains. “In Africa, images are very important because every document requires pictures, so we have things like the Selphy photo printer. We tried to provide a solution for certain people to be able to communicate pictures with print and send the picture immediately to the person.”

This is just a tiny fraction of the way Canon alters its offering to suit the needs of the African people. It complements all of its activity in the continent with a sustainability initiative which provides a social contribution to the local people, as well as simply supplying jobs and valuable experiences. In 2016, Canon's aim in Africa was to create a $200mn revenue by 2020, and it has already reached $150mn. And with more than 250 African people on staff (and growing), there is no doubt for Zenti that the $200mn mark will be reached in time thanks to the talents of the people and their growing expertise.

“Canon has such a wide range of products and solutions on offer, and in Africa, this is something new,” he says. “We are showing that Canon does have a traditional offering, but alongside that we established a community programme from the very beginning that addresses young people especially. Using and leveraging our technology and expertise in imaging, our ambition is to establish jobs in key African markets and facilitate that.”

Hence the creation of the Miraisha programme, which provides African people with the skills necessary to allow them to carve out careers in professional photography or print. Last year alone, 22 students of the programme received awards and industry recognition, 42 students had their work published, and 128 of them received paid commissions. Nneka Iwunna was part of Canon's first 'story telling workshop' in Nigeria, after which she was selected as a grantee for the Magnum Foundation Fund. Furthermore, Obayomi Anthony – another student on the same course – continued his project beyond the course and entered his entire body of work to the National Geographic portfolio review – his reward was $10,000 and having his work declared 'best portfolio'. Not only is Canon providing this training, but it is creating new African trainers to continue and expand the programme, as it has proven not only popular but fruitful for those involved.

Canon has been able to create this project and serve its African customers by being an agile, adaptive business. “It's easy to do when you have people on the ground discovering what the local requirements are,” says Zenti. “This is the difference for us. Three or four years ago we managed the business remotely from London or Dubai, and we made the big decision to move our focus into the country with local people and our own senior staff, to develop the business and really invest properly in the locals. Of course, we still needed to see a return on investment, but more than that, we wanted to support Africa's development. Canon's corporate philosophy is 'kyosei', a Japanese word meaning 'living and working together for the common good' – it's part of our DNA to really dedicate part of our profit or our investment to the local communities.”

It's not just freshly-trained individuals who have benefited from Canon's expertise, but pre-existing businesses too. On the B2B side, Canon has organised training for 25 small 'mama and papa' shops to teach them about new applications and opportunities to print on different materials in a variety of ways, creating a competitive edge away from the traditional printing proposition. This not only sells Canon products through more channels, but spreads knowledge and passes the benefit onto those small businesses. “In the end if they are happy they will buy more, or at least speak positively about our brand, but for us the goal is to make sure we can give back something that's not just in Europe,” says Zenti.

With Africa truly becoming a hub of innovation, it's no surprise that Canon's presence there is such a welcome one. The eternal question for Zenti is how he and his team focus and invest in the proper way, because there is a risk of seeing the entire continent as one whereas the reality is that in every country – and indeed every city – there are different realities, and any business permeating all of them must address its own behaviour there in the right way.

“Africa and its population is so intelligent, and the education level is growing – they're so eager to learn from the US or Europe and bridge the gap as quickly as possible,” Zenti says, “so we need to make sure we can answer these people and create value for them in the way they need.”

Canon's goal is to continue to grow in Africa whilst simultaneously helping Africa to develop. The business has expanded 20% year on year in the region, and its goal this year is a more modest 15% –  primarily due to political unrest. Still, Zenti is confident that there are many available opportunities, and Canon is able to be selective. It is opening new offices across the continent and hiring new people in eastern and western Africa to complement its large southern African team.

“Africa is showing the highest promise,” says Zenti, in relation to the regions he oversees. “I am excited because I worked for many years in Italy and Europe, and it is very difficult to grow in Europe. I'm not saying working in emerging markets is easy, but the level of energy, motivation, and positive thinking in the behaviour of the people is great. When we talk to people in Africa, the attitude is 'yes we can' and that affects the motivation of the entire organisation.”


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