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Four Challenges Often Overlooked by Expatriates Beginning Work in Africa

There are great rewards for working in Africa. I would not trade my twenty-five years of residence on the continent for anything. The results in changed lives, both mine and the African people around me, were more than worth any sacrifice I might have made. Any non-profit organization working in Africa has a tremendous opportunity to contribute to the development of the people of Africa. Likewise, entrepreneurs wishing to start a business on the continent stand a good chance of making a profit while providing employment and goods and services that will improve many lives. Yet, anyone wishing to work in Africa must squarely face four, often overlooked challenges:

  • Corruption
  • Tribalism
  • Aid dependence
  • Lack of infrastructure

Despite being resource rich, Africa is the poorest continent on the planet. War, thuggery and thievery present genuine security issues. Government bureaucracy can be a constant burr in the foot.  Most expatriates recognize these problems and with some guidance can find solutions to overcome them. Yet, the four often overlooked challenges listed above often sneak up on outsiders.

Corruption in the form of bribery, embezzlement and extortion are faced by expatriates, as well as nationals, from the local village to the offices of the highest officials in many African countries. Should you succumb to the demands of bribery? What effect will giving a bribe have on your project or business? Why would an employee, whom you pay well, take money out of the cash register and feel no remorse when confronted?

Most foreigners have little understanding of the role ethnic identity and loyalty play in everyday life in Africa. Deep-seated mistrust and lack of respect cause members of different tribes to fight or harm each other. Why would a national co-worker continuously recommend only family members or people from the village back home for employment? Why do workers hide or even lie about their ethnic identity? How is an ethnic mix among employees going to affect your business or project?

Due to rampant poverty in Africa, foreign governments and aid agencies have poured billions of dollars into Africa without training people to manage the funds or generate their own income. Many have been conditioned to depend on and demand aid. Why do workers continually ask for advances? Why does it seem that someone is always sick, needing school fees, or is out of food? Power outages, patchy phone services, potholed roads and antiquated banking systems are all signs of an undeveloped infrastructure.  These problems can be overcome by appropriate planning.

There are many advantages and rewards for expatriates to work in Africa, but they must face the above realities head-on. They need not discourage nor prevent non-profits and entrepreneurs from experiencing success. Knowledge of African cultures and some serious planning can go a long way in overcoming or managing them.

In the next four posts, I will discuss the realities and misunderstanding of each of these challenges and offer some actionable solutions.