ARE THERE SECRETS TO DOING GOOD BUSINESS IN AFRICA?
Last year, Teresa Clarke, the founder and CEO of Africa.com addressed an audience of US business people at the White House, and she presented them with 10 interesting insights about doing business in Africa. The essence of her speech was later published on the website’s blog as Doing Business in Africa: Ten Things No One Ever Told You.
As an African business operating in more than 50 ports around the continent, SABT is certainly on the inside track when it comes to doing business in Africa, and I thought Clarke’s advice was generally sound, and of value to potential investors. She makes the point that similar to Asia, Africa’s business culture is, at its core, driven by relationships. The authentic human connection carries far greater weight than the amount of a proposed transaction. With a long history of exploitation at its back, trust is vital if you want to do business well on the continent today. Taking time and making the effort to genuinely know the people you want to do business with is crucial to getting opportunities off the ground and sustaining business over the long-term. SABT’s modus operandi has always been the African way of valuing local expertise, tapping into the indigenous networks, building strong relationships and engaging fully so that the benefits of doing business are widely experienced.
The much-talked-about ‘Corruption in Africa’ has long been flaunted as the deterrent to doing good business on the continent. The expectation of corruption is frequently used as an excuse to not venture into Africa at all, or to justify ‘hands-off’, unequal and manipulative short-term ventures as the only possible way to do business on the continent. Both continue to starve the under-developed economies of African countries. Of course, there is corruption in Africa. Like there is everywhere in the world where people are doing business. Clarke points out that the reality is that it is not just a Western anxiety; it concerns many Africans too who want to drive economic growth, boost entrepreneurship and increase investor confidence in their countries. SABT is a testimony to an alternative reality of business in Africa that is corruption-free. We maintain a rigid adherence to doing business by the rules and trading only in quality fuel products that meet the requirements of the international standards. Over the years, we’ve won acknowledgement for the fact that that’s the way we do business; and instead of limiting our opportunities, we’ve gone from strength to strength in helping build a legitimate, safe and efficient African marine fuel sector.
Another interesting point that Clarke made at the White House briefing was to raise that, in contrast to their commonly-held perceptions of Westerners, “Africans think China is good for business. Firstly and perhaps most importantly, Chinese treat Africans as peers, not children who need incentives for good behavior.” In this, she perhaps skirts neatly around the issue that the age-old Western biases against Africa and Africans remain alive and well in the 21st Century. Clarke is spot on that the failure to engage with Africans as peers creates an impenetrable barrier to building trust, forming local partnerships and doing good business on any kind of sustainable basis. From that perspective, all you can do is the kind of ‘snatch and run’ business that has perpetuated the stunting of economic growth in African countries for many decades.
I would say that for anyone wishing to be part of the abundance of business opportunities in Africa at this time, it is essential to look at Africa and African people at this time with new eyes. Africa is in an undeniable phase of economic growth. The continent is full of mobile-connected, brand aware, brand loyal people who are aspiring to ‘the good life’. Infrastructural development is continually increasing. Africans, we find particularly West Africans, are absolutely open to business. Yes, of course there are still challenges and frustrations, but with the right outlook and a sustainable business model, those are not insurmountable obstacles to doing great business in Africa.