The Zurich insurance company has an advert with a catchphrase – “because change happenz”. The truth is, in Africa, change is always happening. Actually, that may be an understatement. Change will be happening in Africa for a long time to come. By the way, I am referring to business. For the smart African business man or woman, it means that sentence could be re-written as “Opportunities will be available in Africa for a long time to come”. It all depends on what angle you see it from.
This article will attempt to share five innovative ways that African business people, small or large can take advantage of the current waves and make excellent gains in their profit margins.
Africa’s business changes stems from a myriad of factors and it is the vastness of this variety that lends to the assurance that these changes, and hence its opportunities will continue over the long term. Firstly, there is the hard truth that western economies are riding dryer and dryer every day. As a result many previously solely western businesses and people are heading for Africa, and with it come opportunities and also the possible disadvantage that if not well embraced, Africa’s fledging business originality could be swallowed into the stronger western way of doing business. That is not to say, opportunities should not be tapped into by the indigenous African business.
Secondly, Africans more and more are becoming aware that their governments do not (and in some cases, will not) have a lot to offer in terms of providing consistent and progressive financial freedoms. As a result of these failures, a somewhat good tree has sprung out of bad seed – the birth of an entrepreneurial spirit among many African citizens now venturing into business and trying to make things work. Thirdly, the world is becoming very mixed very global very “one”. China lives in Africa and so do Europe and the Americas. Africa is simply not just Africa anymore and for this same reason, business in Africa isn’t just business as usual anymore. In whatever level of business you find yourself in however, I am certain this article will either give you a spark or a lift. Hopefully, I can at least get close to achieving that aim.
Remain Original, Be innovative, Serve Beyond Africa
Remain original, but be innovative; and when you have achieved both of these, then you can capture a market beyond your usual borders. You see, businesses in Africa need to start seeing beyond Africa. Currently, markets are not seen as the continent or country within which the business exists. In today’s world, the market is the world – and that’s where the real money is. I say to many business people “your profit is only limited by how far you see your market as reaching”.
In fact if you own a business that resides in Ghana or Malawi and your view of the potential market for your product or service is the four boundaries of Ghana or Malawi respectively, then that’s exactly how much profit you’ll be restricted to. If you dare to sell beyond Africa, your profits break beyond its current boundaries – the hard reality however is this – the boundaries are not real, they are only in your mind.
Once you are able to visualize a market beyond your country’s bothers, by all means, research it (and this is not as scary as you may think) and attempt to understand how your product needs to be adapted in order to be accepted in such markets – this, I can assure you will improve your ability to innovate; because what such a process essentially does is to force you to take just one product (at a time) and think through how many different ways it can be made appealing, useful or relevant to other potential customers beyond your current boundaries.
You may be surprised that in about seventy per cent of the cases the adaptation you need to make your service or product acceptable to other markets may not be anything big. I walked through a shopping mall recently in London (the supposed fashion capital of the world) and a pair of women’s wedge shoes caught my eyes – its straps and crossover bands were made from Kente, a traditional hand-woven fabric used in Ghana and many other African countries. “That’s innovative I said to myself” and not long later, I saw tie-and-dye batiks on the high streets too; and now, many people on the streets of Europe are wearing beads – the very beads Africans have worn for centuries.
It is not only limited to fashion I assure you. Here is an exciting newsflash…..the world is increasingly becoming hungry for new ideas, new products, raw talents, exciting originality etc.; the rarer it is, the more the hunger for it – and that’s the exciting advantage that African products and services have internationally. Africa and its products are now being seen as the new, hitherto unavailable “must have”. Those innovative enough to turn everyday African products into international desirables will be making huge killings in the next couple of years. All you have to do is to look around you, innovate what you have available in Africa to meet international tastes, and VOILA!! The world will is your market place. Get innovating, get exploring – you may be pleasantly surprised all the way to the bank.
Embrace Basic Technology
Yesterday, technology was seen as “the machines” that took away our fathers’ jobs. Today, technology is “the thing” that can magically show your products to and allow a million people to buy from you all at once. Today, technology is “the thing” that can expand your ideas, your views, your connections and your possibilities to millions perhaps even billions. In the past, this was only a dream, today it is a reality; but alas! It is only a reality for those who embrace it albeit it will continue as a nightmare for those who don’t. My advice? It’s a lot more costly to ignore it than to embrace it.
You see, I run very close to tears when I advise small and medium businesses to put themselves out there on the internet and I get the response – “Charles, I am a small business now, we’ll do it when we become big”. The untold mystery being missed is this – in today’s world, you and your business will NOT get big if you don’t embrace technology from the start. You don’t need to become big to get on the internet. Rather, you need to get on the internet to become big.
Many business people shudder away from technology because of the preconceived notion that it’s a difficult process to maintain. It’s false. It is relatively simple to engage in and maintain. And it doesn’t cost you anything most of the time. Here are a few examples: At least start by having a website developed for you. It’s a one-time cost and that’s it really. There are even websites you can set up yourself on the internet (three pages will be enough) for a fraction of what it will cost a professional to do it for you. But of course if you can afford a professional, get it done, it’s a one-time investment that will serve you well into the future. Have a page that summarises what your business is about, a page showing some of your products or services (which you can amend or add to) and another page to show your contact details.
Following this, respond to every random contact very promptly – you never know which may turn out a major business lead. Business people worldwide interpret your swiftness of response, politeness and timeliness to mean you respect them and that you are worth doing business with. It’s that simple. Secondly, set up a social media page for your business – a blog, twitter or more popularly, Facebook. By doing this, you will be engaging potential business contacts or customers in a more relaxed social setting – You are meeting with them, where they want to be met. Engage them, answer their questions and give them suggestions. It is worth understanding that business in the world has changed drastically. It used to be that you only needed to make a product, and customers who needed it would look for you and buy it. Today, making the product is just one thing. You also have to engage customers to buy your product and after that, sustain their engagement until they come back for more. The latter has become so important because customers are getting used to choices and it doesn’t take a lot for them to move on to the next supplier.
Now, let me give you a reason to consider getting an internet presence for your business. Human beings have insatiable needs, and there is always money around to satisfy those needs. The internet is the world’s market place; it is the one place where the whole world believes they can find anything they are looking for – so quite logically, if you have a product or service to offer and you are not present on a platform where the whole world can look for your product or services at, you may as well forget about providing the product or service you are dealing in. Today, businesses are not sold by word of mouth (literally). Today’s word of mouth is the internet. Today’s recommendation is your product being mentioned on Twitter or liked on Facebook. And here’s another reason to be available on the internet – many more people see you, than just those on your street; and that is equivalent to increasing your chances of success.
Brand your business as Different
When I was taught to use the computer, one of the phrases that really stuck in my head was one with the acronym WYSIWYG – What You See Is What You Get. Interestingly, it doesn’t have to be the case in business. The world has a perception about the way business is done in Asia. It affects the way anyone does business with the Asians; for example in Japan trust and respect are core elements of any business transaction. There is also a perception about the way business is done in Europe and it defines the way business is done with Europeans; for example, the British are known for timekeeping. Africa is no different, there is a way business is perceived to be done and it influences how the world does, or wants to do business with Africa.
We cannot go into the full range of perceptions about the way business is done in Africa but a hard truth is that some of such perceptions are not fantastic – for example it is (albeit painfully) considered normal that lateness, bribery and lack of customer care are standard components to doing business in Africa. There are two sides to this – on the one hand, it is a global default, that such a perception (though true for some African businesses) is considered “the norm” for most African businesses.
To the international business person trying to do business with Africa’s entrepreneurs and business people, this is the default position. For some of them, this default perception stems from what they may have seen themselves in Africa, in which case the concept of “What You See Is What You Get”, influences, their business dealings with Africa’s business people. For others, it is what they have heard from others like themselves who have had unpalatable experiences dealing with Africa’s businesses; therefore the concept “What You Hear Is What You Get” influences their business relationship.
In all of these, opportunities abound for the discerning African business person – these unpalatable perceptions present opportunities to differentiate yourself and your business from everyone else. It is an opportunity to use your business operations to create and make the bold statement – “What You See Is Not What You Get”. It is an excellent opportunity to do the little things that set you apart from other African businesses and creates the branding that doing business with you is different. These little things make the whole difference: the little things like consciously always being on time and being aware of business diplomacy; it’s the little things like stamping out bribery in your business operations and even having an Anti-Bribery Policy for your organisation. This will go a long way to show potential Business partners that your non-tolerance for bribery is woven into the fabric of your business.
It’s the little things like instilling customer care in your employees that give an assurance to current and potential customers that they are valued and relevant to your business. It’s the kind of customer care that brings your staff to understand that without the customers, there wouldn’t be a business and hence no job for them. The customer care that breathes the understanding that it is much cheaper to keep a customer, than find a new one.
These little things make the difference as to whether your business receives the default perception associated with the African way of doing business on the one hand, or an outstanding business entity on the other hand – the choice is really yours. Let me explain finally. America is headed for Africa; China is already in Africa, Europe is running to Africa; and in all of these, you CAN’T expect to do business the same way. Africa is not just Africa as it used to be. The customer constitution or make up is changing.
It is no more African Businesses serving only African people. Gradually, there is no more “African People” in Africa. It’s more now, something like “African Businesses serving the world within Africa” – the world indeed has and is coming to Africa and in order to succeed, African businesses have to adapt their way of doing business to be able to cater for the changing needs of a gradually changing customer demographics.
Connectivity BETA (CB)
Every great business person at some point in their career or business history has had the involvement of someone. That first major sale or contract is always linked to someone. The success of that signature product or service is always going to be linked to someone. There’s always going to be that someone who made the important recommendation or introduction through which the first rays of success came through. It could be anybody, but more often than not it’s somebody you know. It’s what I call the “connectivity beta”. It is a measure of the number and quality of people you know. The higher the number of people and their quality that you know, the greater is your chance for business success.
This is the way it works – the greater the circle of people you know in business (or you make the effort to know), the greater the chances that someone in your circles will know something that you don’t know, but which you need to know in order to succeed. The mistake people make is that they leave this entirely to chance when in fact it needs to be done consciously and very precisely. If you wish to run a successful business, then you have a responsibility to your own success to be able to go out there and get connected to as wide a range of persons as possible.
The Golden rules are just two – firstly, don’t wait for them to come to you; you go to them, search them out and acquaint them, not aggressively, but purposefully; not in the way that appears you want to take advantage of them but in ways that make your relationship mutually beneficial.
Rule number two is this – list at least twenty areas of business activity that are relevant to the business you want to be in and ensure that you make at least three very useful connections or friends/acquaintances in these business activity areas. Example would be to make at least three friends each who are into accounting, law, branding, events management, banking, shipping, advertising, financial management, logistics, religion/faith, project management, sales, marketing, insurance, communications, information technology, business consultants, procurement, etc. Here is a much needed reality check – if you are going to succeed in business, you need to have one critical understanding – you can’t do it all, so you will need people. If you enter business with this mind set, you will better appreciate why you need to put in an effort to ensure that the connections you have are quality connections.
In the African perspective, the word “connection” usually denotes someone we know, who can bend the rules to favour us through a bribe or other undue relationship advantage. The latter is certainly not the type of connections I am referring to. It is worth noting that engaging in this latter “dirty connection” will soon give you more disadvantages than advantages. The truth is, it doesn’t take long for people to realise they are being used, exploited or taken advantage of, and when they withdraw from your connection circle, it most often happens when you need them most. Just be aware what “connections” you are building.
Over the years, I have learnt an interesting concept where connections are concerned – your connections are people, not books on a shelf which you can go back to only when you need to read them. It doesn’t take a lot. In today’s world of emails, text messages, Facebook, etc., it shouldn’t cost you anything to stay in touch with your connections. A one line email, a simple text, a Facebook wall post…. It’s that simple to let your connections know that you don’t only come to them when you need them – that’s equivalent to being used, and no one likes being used.
If you set yourself a target to at least remember their birthdays or send them one email or text once a month, you would have gone a long way to ensuring you stay connected to your connections and improving the quality of your connections. These are the little things that bring you first to their minds if a business proposal or deal comes up. They are the little things that make your connections feel you value them and they in turn should value you – remember, you don’t know it all, somebody else will and business will be a lot more promising if it is someone in your circle.
Remember, in any area of business that you are stuck in, there will always be someone, who knows someone, who knows somebody, who knows someone, who has the solution. Increase your Connectivity Beta (CB)
Kill Bribery and Corruption
Image is everything in business. That’s what they say for physical appearance. But it is also true for the non-physical image of your business. What is the image of your business in the mind of your current customers or clients or even potential ones? Here is an assumption that kills the image of many businesses – people say to me “we don’t practice corruption or bribery in our business”. That’s good, but is that how your clients, customers, and potential ones see you? Yes you are right; everybody else is practicing it except you.
Unfortunately the view from the other side may read “if everybody else is doing it, chances are that your business is too”. The point I am trying to make is this – the general notion that bribery and corruption is part of the way African business is done is a deadly killer to any business’ image even though such businesses may be very clean and ethical. It’s just human nature to lump the image about your business with everybody else, and especially to international clients who generally haven’t known your business for many years and who have a split moment to make decisions on whether to do business with you or not. It’s not the default psychological business disposition.
Here is the way; you, as a business person, have to make a conscious effort to decide what ethical image people have about your business when they see your logo or name. You have to do that. People (customers, suppliers, partners etc.) cannot be assumed to automatically know what your business ethically stands for. You have to paint that picture for everybody else to see. Interestingly however, there is an alternative; and that is to allow everybody else to paint their own picture of your business – I can assure you, you wouldn’t like what you see.
The way you choose to go about this is quite up to you, considering there is a wide variety of approaches to it – you could have a two to three minute video on your website of yourself or the CEO highlighting what the organisation stands for and what customers mean to it; you could support a pressure group or charity or government initiative fighting against bribery and corruption and make such support or allegiance evident on your website and on your official materials; you could even pay for an interview to be done on you as an organisation, where you choose the questions to be asked because you know the answers you wish to give and have it splashed on your Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, or company website or if you are daring enough an article written on your organisation and published in selected business forums locally and internationally, or finally, even get yourself on a TV interview show – surely, you have something to offer the world out there. The choice really is yours but remember these approaches really don’t have to cost you an arm and a leg.
The case for making your business look clean from corruption or bribery is quite easy. Investors, clients, suppliers, governments or for that matter, anybody who wishes to do business with you, wishes to do so with some degree of “predictability or certainty”. That predictability makes it easy to plan the most effective use of their time and resources. Where that predictability is missing, there is volatility – and volatility is the one environment no one wants to do business in. Let me explain. Bribery and Corruption in any environment make it very impossible for anyone to know, determine or plan how much it will actually cost them in time and money to do business. If you wanted to do business in country A and were told it would cost you $30,000; your final decision to go ahead with such a deal will largely be dependent on your assessment of whether the real cost will come up to $35,000 or $40,000 after factoring in bribes and the deals with corrupt officials (if any). Sadly however, no one can really put accurate values on bribes or corrupt payments – that’s the volatile cost of doing business.
Its unpredictable and it has the power to make what could have been an otherwise straight and profitable business dealing, become long, unpleasant and unprofitable business experience. No businessman wants to be engaged in the latter. So you see, Bribery and Corruption simply just increases the cost of doing business – and by how much, NO one will ever know.
By Charles Kofi Fekpe (FCCA, CFE)
The author is a Chartered Certified Accountant currently managing the Finance Operations of a Development fund in excess of $90 million for one of Europe’s premier Governments. All views expressed here are personal.