Expat entrepreneurs who choose an African partner are viewed much different than those who try to go it alone when starting a business in Africa.
1. Expat Entrepreneurs are Individualistic
Entrepreneurs love the success of a profit. They often will not trust anyone, but themselves, to get the business to profitability. That drive, passion and single-mindedness does go a long way in turning an idea into an empire, yet an expat working in Africa must be aware of how he projects himself to his clients, most of whom are African.
An entrepreneur is selling a brand, service, or a product. Not himself. Some consultants would go as far as saying brand image is everything. There are other important factors, but brand image is certainly near the top of the list. In a face to face, relational culture found in most parts of Africa, the brand image is developed through a person or persons more than anything else.
Due to the fact that an expat entrepreneur or business owner is not fluent in all the relationship dynamics in Africa he could easily project an image that is not as favorable as it could be. He comes from an individualistic western culture. Africa is more community, family and group oriented. The nuances in behavior matter when developing an image.
It is best, especially in the beginning to let an African partner or co-worker be the out-front communicator with customers and government officials. Some African countries require that expats partner with Africans, giving them at least a 51 percent share of the business. Whether that is the case where you plan to start a business or not, as an expat you will do well to spend most of his time working on the creative end of strategy planning and product development and let an African develop the image in a very natural manner.
The expat should be an observer, taking in the communication style of this partner or co-worker. Paying attention to how far people stand apart when speaking, what hand gestures do they make, and how much time to the spend on non-business conversation with a customer. You, the expat entrepreneur, will become more upfront as you master the culturally appropriate practices that you have been observing.
2. Culture Shock and Culture Jolts
When as an expat entrepreneur you first arrive in Africa you most likely quickly fall in love the carefree, laid back people. It will not take to long for the honeymoon to end however, especially when you are setting up a business. So much of what you learned back home does not work or is inappropriate in Africa. The laid back lifestyle will start to look like laziness and time wasting. The long conversations about “nothing”, get in the way of your “real business.” Delays by public officials seem pointed specifically at you. The smells in the city, the traffic, the beggars….oh wow! Irritation mounts until you begin speaking sharply toward those around you and your attitude turns sour. This is all normal. Almost every expat goes through it. The good news is, it will go away as you adjust to the new environment.
When the honeymoon wares off, you need to be out of the way, interfacing less with officials and customers so you do not cause serious damage to your business.
3. Africans Know How to Handle the Tough Stuff
Knowing how to grease the wheels of bureaucracy, properly terminate a worker, or change a supplier can be difficult in ones home culture, but in Africa, count on it being a special challenge.
As an expat, if you give a bribe to get an official to act on a permit or to expedite a delivery, you can count on having to give one, maybe even a greater one, every time. Africans know how to make the “bribe” come off as a reward, or “thank you”. The expat is seen as having never-empty, deep pockets filled with money. Africans do not normally view each other in the same light.
Extended family loyalties are prime in Africa. When an employee needs to be terminated for an overt breach of trust or lack of performance, the parting must take place. How it is handled is important. The reasons for dismissal might have to be explained to extended family who have a business two doors down, fill a public service position, or are a respected elder in the community. An African partner, or worker, will know who must be given explanations so they do not spoil the reputation or smooth functioning of the business.
Expat Not off the Hook
In the scenarios above, you, the expat entrepreneur must still know how to communicate well with your African partner or upfront worker. It takes special skills to delegate in a cross-cultural environment. These are skills that can be taught and should be learned by the visitor desiring to make a go of a venture in Africa. You will do well to seek out an experienced and knowledgeable coach.
Africa Mentor has years of experience with training people in cross-cultural communication. We can prepare you for starting business in Africa. Write us and we will set up a free consult to explore how we can be of assistance to you.