Africa is a continent that boasts a wide variety of cultures, languages, and beliefs. Therefore, it is imperative that as a new entrant in the African market that you work to understand the African culture – the nuances and practices present. Doing so will ultimately help improve the way you conduct business on the continent.
Listed below are a few tips that will help you navigate the cultural landscape of the African market.
Acknowledge differences in languages and communication styles.
While African nations have very rich cultural histories, the way business is conducted often reflects a nation’s colonial past. With that said, from a business perspective, this past has segmented the continent, Sub-Saharan Africa in particular, into three groups: Anglophone countries, Francophone countries, and Lusaphone countries. Most business in Africa is done in these three languages.
However, even though business is conducted in multiple languages, you should not expect business people in Africa to speak your language even if they understand it. Furthermore, while your business objectives might be the same as your local business partners, you should be prepared for a difference in the methods of implementation and communication styles.
That is to say, what might be acceptable in your home country in regards to communication may not be in an African culture. This makes the development of cross-cultural skills and social-cultural awareness all the more necessary.
Don’t set strict deadlines.
Business is conducted at a much slower pace and most business partners place more emphasis on working towards long-term outcomes. This pace may be frustrating to businesses based in the Western World, as you tend to move at a quicker pace and your practices oftentimes emphasize both short-term and long-term goals.
While the pace is slower in Africa, it is important to note that local business people are actually capable of making quick decisions. It’s just that their decision-making process often reflects the community-oriented nature of their culture, which is to say decisions are made through consultation and consensus. This is why it is essential that you don’t give concrete deadlines, but rather suggestions of desired outcomes, so that the partners you’re working with can consult with their team first.
Also, when it comes to scheduling meetings or other time-sensitive events, one thing within the African culture that you should take into consideration what is called “African Time”. African Time is a more relaxed attitude towards time, which makes meeting start times and deadlines a bit more flexible in nature. You should have this concept in mind as you plan meetings and follow-up proceedings for projects as a way to ensure that goals are still met in a timely fashion.
Learn how to build and maintain professional relationships
In many markets in Africa, you must socialize in order to establish trust within a business relationship. This socializing is oftentimes done informally (e.g., over meals, in bars, home dinners etc.). While some might view this process to be lazy or inefficient, it is important to understand that each informal meeting lays the groundwork for the group solidarity required when engaging in business in Africa.
Therefore, it is important that you refrain from conversations that dive directly into business matters until this trust has been established and your business relationship blossoms. Also, make sure you participate in some “social talk” before discussing business matters moving forward – asking about the person’s well-being and family is usually a safe place to start. This will deepen trust and help you maintain important business relationships, which is extremely important in African culture.
Respect plays a very big role in most African culture and societies, which is something you should keep in mind as you consider doing business in Africa. Many cultures have a hierarchical structure with a societal deference of respect based on age, title, status, and sometimes gender. Knowing how these roles are interpreted in the country you are doing business in will prevent cultural mishaps that can hamper your business relationships from occurring.
In fact, there are several things you can do to ensure that you are respectful when engaging in local business relationships, some of which include:
- Greeting your business partner properly and engaging in some appropriate social talk before every business meeting and event.
- Making an effort to pronounce names properly and ask for correct pronunciation if you are unsure.
- Checking all your biases at the door by refraining from engaging in any patronizing or bigoted behavior.
- Respecting the local knowledge and expertise of the people you are doing business with.
- Remaining patient while engaging in business activities, as patience is considered a virtue while doing business in Africa.
- Remembering to stay humble, because if you could have done it all on your own then you would not have needed the assistance of a local business partner.
It is very important to be aware of the various cultural nuances of this emerging market, as Africa offers a cultural diversity that is quite unique compared to other parts of the world. By paying close attention to cultural differences, being respectful to local business people, maintaining a flexible schedule, and authentically engaging with those you are conducting business with, you will foster long-term relationships that will ultimately garner your company success.