How to do Business in Africa

How to do Business in Africa

I have to say, having done business in much of the world, that the place I find the easiest to do business is in Africa.  Why? Well, the simple truth is that Africa needs just about everything. And at the same time, when people come here to sell something, they are arrogant, demanding and often incredibly disrespectful and rude. In short, they are imperious.

Africa is often poor, but that is changing. It certainly won’t be poor by the end of this century. And people are used to that poverty–they are used to black skin meaning desperation, fear and aggression to get the basics. All of that has an element of truth of course.

Then there are the typically obese strong men who often wear ludicrous army uniforms or the lily white versions of peasant clothing. No one could dress like the former leader of Libya–Gaddafi except maybe the erstwhile leader of Afghanistan in his bearskin hats and capes of many colours. Personally I am no great fan of the English or Italian suit, and I welcome a little variety into dictatorial sartorial splendor, but I would not recommend the business person follow in kind. Simple khakis and a sport coat do nicely. African men tend to wear dark business suits and ties. Women dress formally but are sadly as lacking from high level business as they are in any other world financial capital.

Progress only comes so quickly

Doing business in Africa requires three things:

  1. Win-win. Try to take money from Africa and put it in London, Switzerland, New York or Shanghai and you will probably not get very far. Africa wants to grow and it wants technology transfer. It doesn’t want to be the dependent colonial consumer of throw away technology or big machines and projects that pad resumes but do little local good. It isn’t hard to do a win-win project. Indeed it is simple. Sit down with African people and see what they want and need–and then craft a solution that puts everyone–not just a few–in the game.
  2. Get Local. I do not deny you won’t get very far in Africa without government support. But that is only the beginning. Government support rests on projects that help local people. If you cannot find a way to get your water purifier, tractor, backhoe or cotton gin to the people, you will fail. Not only do Africans want jobs above all else, they are totally on to the fact that if they don’t get what they want, they can vote for someone else. Politicians are on to this too!
  3. Empower value added. What Africans want most of all is to make the transition from raw material suppliers to value added component suppliers. This is of course the natural progression all nations seek who are resource rich. Africa is no exception. But if you seek to extract without a refinery, mill, processing plant or fiber maker thrown in, you won’t get very far.

We do all these things. We are trying to find ways to manufacturer in Africa–to build businesses with the energy we sell (e.g. horticulture and heat related industries) and similar.  We seek partners in those spaces.

Overall, I would say Africa is a systems integration problem–not a product sales problem. Oh, they buy scooters and small motorbikes, etc. but that is small potatoes. What they want and need is partners. We are doing that. We hope you will too. If you wish to partner with us in Africa, we will be happy to show you our approach.  But you need “boots on the ground.”  You cannot sit in Tokyo or Dubai or Chicago.  You must sit in Jo’burg, Lagos, Dar, Accra, Luanda, etc. and be local.  We can help. I recommend “my town” of Kampala. It is easy and awesome. Come visit with me!  Nairobi, Addis Ababa, Kigali, Abuja, Dakar–all merit focus–as do many others. Give us a call especially if your project needs energy.  We would like to help–so long as we are helping Africa too!

Paul Flynn

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