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Starting a Business in Africa? Learn the Culture

Acquiring a knowledge of African culture is an important ingredient  contributing to the success of starting a business in Africa.  The marketing and managing of your goods and services in will be greatly enhanced by knowing how people relate to each other in their daily lives and in the business world.  Not just any African culture, but that of the region of the continent in which you aspire to gain a market share.  The faster you acquire this knowledge and are able to adapt your business and behavior to it, the quicker you will be able to bring it to bare on your profit potential.


Modern Business in Africa

Contemporary media continues to portray African culture with natives dressed in sheets or skins, jumping in the air, twirling spears or villagers with emaciated bodies scratching the ground to prepare their fields.  That is may have been the Africa of yesteryear, but it is no longer a realistic screen shot of modern Africa – the Africa in which you will be doing business.

Surely you, as an American or European entrepreneur seriously desiring to start a business in Africa do not have a vision of making money among “primitive natives.”    You see Africans dressed in the latest fashions, walking three abreast down the sidewalks of capital cities composed of sky scrappers and traffic jams.

That is indeed a reality in some African cities. But, what about the city in which you desire to market your goods or services?  What does it look like?

What People Think is Important

What the city and its residents look like is not nearly as important as what they think.  What motives them?  What causes them to jump for joy?  What will they stay up late watching on TV?  What are some of their greatest challenges in life? Knowing the answers to these questions is much more important to your entrepreneurial aspirations that what they look like.

What about business in the city?   You have probably scoured plenty of online resources to that give economic and commercial data for African countries and cities.   You have read studies that forecast future trends on the continent. You would not be reading this blog if you did not already acquire the knowledge that the African continent has not only the potential but is currently demonstrating economic advances at a more rapid pace than most of the world.

Add to Your Present Knowledge

You need to now go beyond knowing the facts and data.  You should now gain an understanding of African people, those that will be your customers, suppliers, and partners.  Do you know the proper etiquette for presenting yourself to a potential business partner? What is appropriate to say in an email? How should you great a government official when you enter his office in Nairobi or Lagos? Does it make a difference which African city you are in?  The you behavior can make business advance smoothly or bring it to a halt.

How long does it take to learn a new culture and its expectatons? Well, observing people in your target community and asking questions will yield many valid and helpful understandings. Anthropologists and missionaries have successfully learned African cultures by observation.  When they are the some of the first foreigners to enter the culture it takes them years to learn the culture.

Learning by Mistakes – A Mistake

Business people, like yourself, do not have the time afforded anthropologists and missionaries to learn a culture.  You have to set up a business: apply for licenses, rent offices, contact suppliers, hire workers, advertise you product…where is the time to learn culture amidst all of that activity.  Many foreign entrepreneurs starting a business in Africa have assumed that they will learn by their mistakes. Not a bad strategy in most circumstances, but inappropriate for an entrepreneur.  Improper behavior can offend and leave your first impression on a prospective partner or customer as the last impression they will ever allow you to make. Doing it right, or at least close to right, the first time, is essential.

business in Africa

Learn from Others

Fortunately, business people like you are rarely among the first foreigners to have entered the culture. Others have gone before and gleaned understandings that will be helpful to you. Learning from those more experienced in the culture will shortcut your culture knowledge acquisition and get your quickly on the way to appropriate behavior.  You have the advantage of taking their knowledge and making more refined approaches to your customers or potential partners.

So how to you acquire the knowledge held by others?

There are some helpful books written by experienced people.  There is The Africans, by David Lamb who was a Los Angeles Times correspondent who wrote many culturally insightful reports African destinations.  Understanding Contemporary Africa, by April and Donald Gordon is a good topical overview.   For revealing glimpses of the modern, African city dweller and his dealings with economics, society and identity, pick up Urban Africa: Changing Contours of Survival in the City or The Power of African Cultures.   The London Observer offers the 10 Best Contemporary African Books for a fictional or documentary approach to learning culture.  If you just must read something of a cross-cultural experience in rural Africa, you would be hard pressed to find a book better than The Poisonwood Bible, written from the perspective missionary children adapting to Africa.

If you are more academically inclined, there is The Journal of Modern African Studies.  For the entrepreneur who believes that the internet is the prime, quick source for knowledge, click to Stanford’s Africa South of the Sahara Selected Internet Resources.

Africa Mentor has decades of cross-cultural experience in Africa.  We can help you with cultural understandings that will jump start you relationships as you begin your business in Africa.  Connect with us for a free consultation.