“If you want to go quickly, go alone. If you want to go far, go together” – African proverb
Media coverage has often emphasised the negative sides of Africa; the wars, the famine, the disease. However, the continent which is the birthplace of humankind has a lot to offer culturally, in terms of natural resources and in the way of business; in fact business is thriving and there are expat communities across the continent.
When it comes to business culture, Africa should neither be seen as one country (which, surprisingly, it still is by some), nor 54. Africa is huge, diverse, complex and rich. There are overarching regional differences reflecting the colonial past, as well as differences both between and within countries. Safe to say, Africa does not lend itself well to generalisations.
With this in mind, here are some general tips on how to succeed as an expat leader in Africa.
1. Nice and slow. In Africa the pace is slower and the outlook more long-term. This does not mean Africans are not able to take quick decisions, but it emphasises the importance of consultation and consensus in the decision making process. Drop-ins are commonplace in African business culture, and interruptions are to be expected. This may all be frustrating for someone coming from a more fast-paced culture. As a leader in an African country, it’s important that you don’t show impatience or annoyance with these interruptions and the decision making process as a whole.
2. Socialising is key. Socialising is important and often a prerequisite for doing business. Some outsiders misinterpret the emphasis on leisure to mean laziness, whereas in fact leisure and socialising form the groundwork of group solidarity, something central in many parts of Africa. The importance of extended family, community, and the fun inherent in many African cultures means that it may take a couple of visits to the golf course or a night at a local restaurant before you get acquainted and can even start discussing business.
3. Respect the hierarchy and the religions. Many African countries are not egalitarian, and respect for hierarchy is considered good social behaviour. Always identify the key person; this will usually be the most senior person; and try to gain access to them. This person will make the decisions, but only after consensus up and down the hierarchy has been built. Although the majority of people in Africa adhere to Christianity and Islam, these are often combined with the beliefs and practices of traditional African religions. Therefore, you would do well to inform yourself of the particular religious beliefs of your colleagues and/or business partners.
4. Don’t be so obsessed with exactitude. The most successful people in traditional societies were not those who made rigorous forecasts, but those adapting to the flux. This behaviour may not always be as risky as perceived in the west, and more valuable than realised. As a leader in Africa, you’ll find there’s great potential hidden if you can move past this cult of precision.
5. Yes means maybe. In some African cultures, agreeing with someone is a sign of respect. As a leader it’s important to follow-up with your team and keep an eye on deals with potential business partners to make sure that that “yes” was not in fact a “maybe”.
Try not to generalise and see our tips as general guidelines, and you’ll do a great job as a leader in Africa.
Do you have any experience of African business culture? What have you learnt working in a culture different from your own? Contribute to the conversation below.