Something as simple as watching pedestrians cross a busy road in an African city can help to inform the business decision-making process. It could even mean the difference between operating a failing and successful business.
Far-fetched I hear you cry and I might have agreed with you if I had not attended a debate by think-tank the Policy Centre for African People’s (PCAP).
The event was geared to helping entrepreneurs do business on the African continent with a Pan-Africa outlook.
The idea that knowing your business market may not be new but all too often African cultures and traditions and even expertise, are overlooked because it assumed that the West has all the answers.
Whereas no one thinks twice about accepting the application of Western or Asian philosophies as frameworks for doing business, using African practices has yet to have the same gravitas. But this is where Cameroonian entrepreneur and PCAP founder Sylvie Aboa-Bradwell believes she has found a niche.
“I use African lifestyle philosophy as a starting point to provide leadership and development classes to business people who want to penetrate the African continent,” said Aboa-Bradwell, founder of Medzan Lifestyle.
In the same way that Confucianism is a system of philosophical and ethical teachings that can be used to provide leadership and self-development lessons to people irrespective origin or background, Sylvie points out that African lifestyle philosophies can achieve the same purpose.
Medzan Lifestyle is inspired by teachings from African philosophy Feg Beti to educate. The Feg Beti stipulates that human beings are beneficiaries of the work and commitment of the people who came before them, Sylvie said. Therefore, all humans have a duty to do everything they can to ensure that they contribute to humanity to the best of their abilities by working hard to achieve their life goals, improving themselves, and committing fully to the development of whatever community they find themselves in.
A prime example Sylvie has encountered in her work is helping Western companies improve staff punctuality in the workplace.
The issue of Africans arriving late is not that they can’t arrive on time, Sylvie said. But the European concept of work has strong links to forced labour, obligation and even punishment, which is linked to a loss of dignity for Africans, she said.
Comparatively, in most African lifestyle philosophies, work has an enjoyment factor – hence singing while working was and is widespread across Africa. Work is also seen as an opportunity for individuals to contribute to other communities.
“The fact that the modern form of work was introduced in Africa by Westerners through brutal methods including forced labour, confiscation of land only exacerbates these differences,” Sylvie said.
As a result, the courses Sylvie offers are designed to teach business people how to use this positive conceptualisation of work. The aim of using these aspects of African philosophies is to make their employees not merely arrive on time but more importantly, contribute to their companies and communities to the best of their abilities.
Under her direction, she advised clients challenged by punctuality to introduce a breakfast morning that would encourage employees to get to work earlier and allow them to socialise.
“What Africans value is the concept of family and story-telling so try having a business breakfast if you want people to get there on time,” she told the audience.
As much as Africans have shared experiences linked to colonialism and slavery, their cultural heritage is much richer, and more distinct and needs to be recognised when doing business on the continent, she said.
For Caleb Tamfu, being able to harness these cultural nuances has helped him develop his businesses on the African continent.
Caleb is an investment banking specialist and country director of think-tank and civil society organisation Africa 2.0.
“In Ghana people cross the road and look in the opposite way – they don’t actually look at the traffic,” he claims. But in Sierra Leone and Nigeria, they face the direction of the traffic and this is reflected in how they do business. In his experience, Nigerians and Sierra Leoneans look at you when you look at them…the suggestion is that Ghanaians are less direct….
Former catwalk model Theo Omambala learnt to make similar distinctions when negotiating contracts with African designers as part of her new business venture TVLHC (Theo’s Vision La Haute Culture).
“I realised that the negotiation process differed in Nigeria, (where she originates) compared to Senegal,” she said. “Nigerians are always thinking big, whereas in Senegal it’s a different type of bargaining power. They think very small and for them, it’s about very small, products, high volume, and inexpensive pieces,” he said.
“I travelled to Niger, Cameroon, Senegal and I started to understand the difference in terms of the cultural dynamics but also the economics, the language, all those things that you need to be able to understand how to do business in another country.”
Think outside the box
Equally important is encouraging a shift in mind-set that allows entrepreneurs to challenge the status quo and develop their own business roadmaps.
The assumption that the bottom line is all that matters when doing business was also explored. It was later rejected and replaced by a focus on the collective human experience and preference for protecting our environment or the triple bottom line as Theo referred to it.
Caleb said: “The bottom line doesn’t mean you have to sacrifice others. Without the people you will not be able to make bottom line long term. And within African culture, you need the buy-in from the culture to survive. When you pay one person, you are actually paying two people.”
Equally important is the focus on collectivism through the Ubuntu philosophy. Ubuntu loosely means ‘I am because we are’ and has become the bedrock of Theo’s TVLHC business. It illustrates that the company relies on the success of the collective to achieve individual success.
Theo used that philosophy to bring together designers from across Africa with the aim of creating quality African aesthetics on an international platform. She successfully showcased African designers at the 2012 London Fashion Week, and is currently developing an online platform for marketing African designs.
Instead of seeing challenges as obstacles to success, would-be entrepreneurs should find solutions instead, Caleb urged. And don’t think that because you are small, it will impede your growth because the smaller you are the quicker you can move – something that Theo believes young people do well.
“The youth have dynamic ways of penetrating the market using the internet,” she said. She was referring specifically to one young Cameroonian man who set up an online service delivering goods from Paris to his home village.
Problems versus solutions
Finding business opportunities where others may see problems provides a further niche, Caleb said. “It is about looking at the problem, having a vision of the solution and finding ways to manufacture that solution within that process.”
“Ninety-eight percent of Africans economy is being run by the ocean but the continent doesn’t even run one per cent of that. This is why I could leave banking and go into ship repairs….. Why no one is looking into the blue economy, I do not know.”
Andron Engineering, which Caleb is the managing director of, was established in 2010. Within two years the industrial services provider expanded into three African countries and now has a company reach that extends from Gulf of Guinea to South Africa.
Andron Engineering’s unique selling point is in using locally trained staff on the African continent to provide a service for shipping repairs instead of delaying that work to fly in engineers from the West.
In Caleb’s capacity as country director of Africa 2:0, he has already set up a memorandum of understand with a central African government. The aim is to develop ways of harnessing the country’s extractive, mineral, agricultural, and water resources using the participation of the youth. The aim is to pull Africans from all over the continent that have a solution they can offer and match with infrastructural solutions that governments can’t find.
Policycap is a UK-based think tank that provides a platform for the engagement and education of African individuals and key stakeholders. During the seminar, two films charting the development of pan-African financial institution Ecobank through the eyes of the founders were aired courtesy of The African Channel. The event was hosted by UK/Ghanaian broadcaster Henry Bonsu and included a performance from the Africa Jambo band. By Kirsty Osei-Bempong
* Since writing this piece a kind friend shared a wonderful post with me about African philosophies from an organisation called ‘Philosophy Bites’. Check it out here.
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