A few points to “Doing Business in Africa”
For several years, I have been enjoying many good and interesting articles about doing business in Africa, but today, on this cold and lovely winter Friday in Copenhagen, I would like to start my weekend by contributing to this topic with a few points on the matter. My motivation comes from the fact that I have lived, studied, worked and done business both in Africa & Europe and still continue to have both worlds in my system on a daily basis. I hope so much that a lot more can be done with Africa & Africans, not just to Africa and Africans!
I will start by addressing the basics. We all know that when one decides to work in a different culture all the basics like greetings, communication style, personal space, eye contact, views of time, gender issues, gestures, taboos, law & order etc. need to be taken into account right? This is even more important when you decide to work in Africa because Africa is a very complex continent where each of its many countries come with a rich and unique set of culture. In many of the African countries, you will find races within races and that culture has elements of both internal and external forces. The external being primarily that which is adopted from colonialism.
I will share a short conversation I had with a business acquaintance a while back, where we were discussing corruption and how to identify untrustworthy or wishy washy characters in the process. I found it interesting when he revealed that he could easily do so by means of eye contact. Basically he said that when during a conversation someone didn’t give back a good eye contact and showed signs of discomfort that is when he knew. I would be careful about that one, because it’s important to understand that in some cultures or social classes in Africa, it is rude to look someone straight in the eye. So when you try to get them to do that, you’re crossing their personal space and making them very uncomfortable!
I must also say that after living in Denmark for many years, though thankfully slightly improved now, there is still a tendency to put Africa in one basket, as though it were just one big country. It is crucial to study your chosen African country individually and without ignoring its “adopted cultures”, the latter particularly when operating in big cities. For instance, in most Western parts of Africa it’s the French influence, whilst Eastern and Southern parts are predominantly British colonies etc. Then there’re also other dynamics like location in each individual country that must not be ignored. Are you going to work in a big city, small city or rural area? Again depending on where your business is going to be situated, those internal local structures must also be studied individually. Trust me, there is a significant difference in doing business or setting up something in each of these locations. You will also find that most African countries have structures with hierarchical setups existing in each of these individual locations as well.
In conclusion to my short contribution, I would like to leave you with two points;
- Define your intentions very clearly; are you a non-profit or are you looking to invest or make profit? Failure in doing so will naturally result in a confused penetration and overall strategy for everyone involved.
- If you want to work with a local partner, define explicitly what sort of partner you need. For example, is it an equal/strategic partner – i.e. one that compliments your efforts and where you will learn from each other? Or is it a partner who can act as a platform for transfer of knowledge (meaning you will be teaching and grooming them along your way)?
There’re of course many other forms of partnerships, but I deliberately choose to highlight these two because this is an area where I have observed the most confusion, hence resulting in many un-necessary “partnership” challenges and lost resources.
It is these varied native cultures and adopted traits that make Africa a very intricate but exciting place to work in, so study them, digest them, define your plan or intension explicitly and then act accordingly. Enjoy your journey. There is a lot to be had … if you do it right from the start!
Africa is open for business and the cultural diversity it presents is only a plus as it is diversity that creates a platform innovation!
By Florence Charamba Christensen
Founder, Afrika Consultancy