Records and Papers relating to the French West Africa Company (CFAO)
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French participation in the trans-Atlantic slave trade was probably less significant than the activities of the Portuguese, Dutch and British. Trading by the French was focussed on gum arabic, groundnuts (or peanuts) and other raw materials from the interior, particularly the Senegal River area and its hinterland. In Saint-Louis, Senegal, established as a trading post in 1659, the French began what would eventually become their colonial project to assimilate West Africa as a part of France.
By the late nineteenth century, when industrialisation and economic conditions in Europe came to influence the expansion of European interests in West Africa, a 'scramble for Africa' occurred. In February 1885, the Berlin Act was signed by the principal European powers looking for control and partition of the continent. The Act provided the guidelines by which each power then defined their territories and by the early twentieth century the French held most of what would come to be their colonial territory in West Africa, including: present day Senegal, Mali (formerly French Sudan), Mauritania, Burkina Faso (formerly Upper Volta), Benin (formerly Dahomey), Guinea (formerly French Guinea), Ivory Coast and Niger.
Meanwhile, Compagnie Française de l'Afrique Occidentale (CFAO) was founded in Marseilles in 1887. In 1888 the Company opened its first African agency in Saint-Louis, and from 1888 to 1902 began to expand across Senegal, and into Guinea, Gambia, Sierra Leone, Ivory Coast and Nigeria. This coincided with the creation of the federation of French West Africa in 1895 to consolidate French holdings. The federation was definitively constituted in 1904 and was ruled by a Governor-General with a residence in Saint-Louis (capital of the federation from 1895 until 1902, and capital of Senegal and Mauritania from 1902 until 1958) then in Dakar.
After the Second World War, the process of de-colonisation began in Africa and between 1955 and 1961 the headquarters of CFAO transferred from Marseilles to Paris and the Company mutated into a multinational service company and becoming a leader in specialist distribution in sub-Saharan Africa. This coincided with constituent parts of the African federation becoming autonomous republics. CFAO then began to diversify its activities outside Africa and in the late 1950s the CICA group (marketing Ford, Opel, Mercedes-Benz and Fiat automobiles in France) entered CFAO. In 1990, CFAO itself entered the Pinault group, today called Pinault-Printemps-Redoute. After the devaluation of the CFA franc in 1994, CFAO was able to consolidate its position in Africa and acquired the activities of SCOA and Optorg, two large vehicle distributors with interests in, for the former, Cameroon, Gabon, Madagascar and Niger, and for the latter, Mali and Senegal. In 1996, CFAO became established in the health sector through the acquisition of Eurapharma which had been a subsidiary of SCOA.
By 1997 CFAO and SCOA had merged and expanded into Mauritius and Equatorial Guinea, and in 1999 Eurapharma became established in Kenya. In 2000 CFAO had developed its activities in Algeria, Morocco, Kenya, Tanzania and Zambia, and more recently in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Egypt and Malawi. Today the multinational CFAO has a strong position in motor distribution, pharmaceutical distribution, trading, telecommunications, networks, and office automation across Africa and in the French overseas departements and territories (Dom-Tom).
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- Records and Papers relating to the French West Africa Company (CFAO)
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