How to do business in Africa successfully

Africa, this vast continent of untapped investment opportunities, is attracting foreign business interest from all over the world. At a time of global economic uncertainty, companies with the means to expand into new territories are looking to countries like Nigeria, Kenya, Mauritius and Rwanda to grow their operations.
However, as with any expansion plan, success doesn’t come overnight – nor is it all that easy to achieve. There are plenty of challenges to doing business in Africa that many multinationals either ignore or stumble through unawares. These issues typically relate to navigating local languages, customs and legislation.
To be successful in Africa, you need to focus on the people, not just the job you’re trying to do. A strictly business attitude won’t get you very far – instead, you need to build personal relationships with your potential clients and advisors.

Put people first

The western approach to business is fast and efficient, there’s no time for pleasantries – people cut straight to the chase and move onto the next task swiftly. Africa is different. Time is less of a bully and people value small-talk and personal interactions.
Relationships matter; acknowledge the people you work with and take the time to ask them how they are. Be sure to remember what they tell you so you can follow up next time you see them.

Do your research

Every country has its own ways and means, defined by its history, cultures and religions. Before you go into your first meeting, make sure you know what to do. For example, is the standard business greeting in Kigali a handshake or a kiss on each cheek? Will the meeting be conducted in English, French or Kinyarwanda?
No matter how big and powerful your business is, remember that you are on someone else’s turf. Chances are you stand more to gain from opening a new office than the local economy so show respect and don’t ever be condescending. And when in doubt, always hire a translator.

Be patient

Adhering to local legislation is absolutely crucial. If your business is not 100% compliant you could face severe penalties and fines. Your new office launch could also be delayed indefinitely as you jump all the hoops to regain full compliance.
An in-country service provider can help your business access the local information it needs. However, it’s possible to get it right without a local contact. Legislative compliance depends less on knowing the right person, and more on having a patient approach. What’s more, a local service provider in each country of operation creates an enormous administrative workload. It makes much more sense to work with one cross-border provider that covers the continent.
If you do go direct, don’t call up a stranger in the tax office and ask them to give you everything you need without showing them some interest in return. In my experience, it pays to have a conversation first, build the relationship and then call them back a day or two later to ask them for the information you need.
Email, text or call?
Communication, even when everyone speaks the same language, can be a minefield. This is especially true over channels like email and text where the tone of voice is easily misinterpreted.
How you word a message is as important as how you choose to deliver that message. For example, an email that uses direct writing with minimal greetings and an emphasis on deadlines and requirements – will simply get lost in various inboxes.
Fortunately, mobile penetration across the continent is extremely high. Rather than fire off emails into the ether, pick up the phone and call people. Be polite and emphasise the common ground you have for doing business together – but only after you’ve enquired about the person’s health and family!
When it comes to establishing and running a successful business in Africa, you need to do your homework. It’s no good behaving as you would in your home country; as you might not get very far. Africa does business its own way – the sooner you demonstrate a real understanding of, and respect for, the continent’s various languages, customs and legislation, the sooner your business will benefit.

Written by Corne Welman, Head of Compliance, PaySpace