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How To Do Good Business In Africa

Today’s business leaders often grapple with the contradictions between providing maximum value for shareholders and building a sustainable business.


In a world that wants meaning and purpose, how can a company show that it cares about more than just profit? And how can leaders do this while balancing the seemingly contradictory needs of shareholders and customers? For me, company culture is the glue that can bind together the needs of these disparate but equally important stakeholders.


Renowned author and thinker Peter Drucker is credited with saying, “culture eats strategy for breakfast.” This lends enormous credence to building cultures, personalities, and core values when creating a business. But why?

Great company culture is a competitive differentiator and creates a glue that binds the people in your organization together and gets them focused on a strong, singular direction.


Culture is communal


To me, a company’s culture goes beyond the environment it has set up internally for its employees. Consumers and the community are important too. This really becomes apparent when a company wants to grow into other jurisdictions.

Many companies want to expand their footprint into Africa, but culture often remains a major stumbling block. That’s because it often dictates the way these businesses look at the market, segment it and determine its size. It’s also how that brand approaches the market.

Culture informs how these businesses explore and parse information to help their decision-making. It also influences how brands work with local teams and forge relationships with customers in sub-Saharan Africa.

Let’s face it, a company’s decisions are only as good as the quality, depth and breadth of knowledge it has.

My experience with global brands in Africa informs me that the level of a brand’s success is directly proportionate to the speed and network of local market execution by its executives and partners. This is where culture really comes into play.


Africa’s young, urban economies


Africa has a young, educated, and rapidly urbanizing population. Today, nearly 600 million live in urban areas, according to Statista. This number is expected to rise year on year.

Over a couple of decades of working in the fast-moving consumer goods market, I’ve seen how global companies with great products and services approach their market.

Awkwardly, some brands with little understanding of this huge continent (and who don’t have a well-developed culture) approached the content with a saviour mentality. Or simply hold onto a superiority complex, thinking they know everything about the market and its people. It is clear that they don’t.

By ‘saviour’ I refer to the perception that there is a great need for a brand’s products and services, without which the market would surely suffer. The superiority arises from thinking that there is no local expertise that can do excellent work. Such attitudes are developed from the values of a company and personality of the company.

The fact that a company has a great product or service doesn’t automatically mean that people won’t exist or make do without it. Rather, the better position would be that the firm’s desire should be to use its products and services to improve people’s quality of life in a sustainable way.


Hire local and reap rewards


It is just common sense that a company that authentically understands and builds a strong community where it does business will have a longer runway and make much more profit in the long term.

It is time businesses born outside of Africa appreciate that they can find great suitable talent in Africa. Give local teams an opportunity to work in and grow your business, and compensate them well for their results.

After all, they are the talent with relevant and resonant knowledge, local insights and a deep understanding of the nuances that can make or break your business. Local teams in touch with markets and customers will deliver the business’s desired market performance.

Local talent possesses the cultural awareness and the native wisdom necessary to navigate and connect emotionally with the customers in a way that a foreign team could take years to muster.

International research can paint the potential market negatively, framing it as challenged by various malaise such as corruption, insecurity and a skills deficit.

The result is that some firms act on this unbalanced and biassed information. And they end up with a bad reputation for paying local skilled workers atrociously low salaries compared to the ‘international experts’.


Invest in Africa’s talent


Global brands have also ventured into undesirable practices such as polluting the environment and selling substandard products. But they can only do this for so long. It is obvious that this is not the way to grow a sustainable global business, yet these practices persist.

Savvy local business leaders do not go down this road. There are more than enough smart executives in Africa who are authentic, skilled and ready to roll up their sleeves and create a work culture that builds great, sustainable businesses.

Global firms just need to find them. And hire them.


Lionel Marumahoko has over 25 years of executive experience in the FMCG sector. At the Coca-Cola Company, he navigated multiple roles in general management while working and living in five countries in Africa. Today he counsels CEOs on effective leadership, problem-solving dexterity, and entrepreneurism.

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