Understanding Business & Social Culture In Sub-Saharan Africa

images-3Sub-Saharan Africa consists of 48 countries and is more than three times the size of the USA. With the Democratic Republic of Congo as large as all of Western Europe, sub-Saharan Africa presents immense investment potential. Africa has 90% of the world’s cobalt reserves, 80% of the chrome, 50% of the gold, 50%+ platinum, 33% uranium. Nigeria is the fifth largest supplier of oil.

Social and business culture reflects the past colonial history, which divides this vast land into three groups:

  • Anglophone countries           (English speaking)
  • Francophone countries         (French speaking)
  • Lusaphone countries              (Portuguese speaking)

Social culture

Africans are warm and open to foreign visitors. Sub-Saharan Africa is home to innumerable tribes, ethnic and social groups and as a result the cultures are quite diverse and varied and not static, and like most of the world have been impacted upon by both internal and external forces. During colonialism in Africa, Europeans had a sense of superiority forcing locals to give up their African culture and adopt European ways in order to be accepted. The significant exposure to the West, and the adjustment of local cultural values to Western ideas is a continuing process.

Media coverage has emphasized Africa’s negatives – its droughts and famines, diseases and deaths, coups and wars. As a result much of the world has taken little interest in Africa, with the exception of the situation in Zimbabwe, tribal warfare in Somalia and other headline-grabbing news stories.

Business Culture

Conducting business in Sub-Saharan Africa requires cultural awareness and effective cross-cultural communication skills. What might be acceptable in Europe, for example, may be unacceptable in Africa. Do not expect French or Portuguese speaking business people to speak to you in English even if they understand it. Business objectives may be the same, but ways of implementation and communication differ greatly.

I remember working as a project manager for a global telecoms company in the UK and our focus was on producing quick and tangible results. My Experience in South Africa, on the other hand, differs. The pace of doing things is slower and the outlook is often long-term. Being used to the way I had always done business in the UK and not understanding local business practices, I was often frustrated. The African approach to decision-making does not mean that local business people are unable to make quick decisions. Far from it, what it shows is the cultural significance of consensus and consultation, which tends to guide the decision-making process in Africa’s group-oriented cultures.

Building relationships

Socialising is key and builds personal trust that is prerequisite to doing business and sometimes it’s difficult to see the dividing line that determines where socialising ends and where business begins. Sometimes it takes a backyard barbeque or a couple of visits to the golf course to chat and get acquainted before you can start discussing business. Some outsiders have misinterpreted the emphasis on leisure to mean African laziness. Fact is leisure and socializing form the foundation that is key to group solidarity that is important to Africa.

Newcomers to Africa need the advice of an intermediary or cross-cultural adviser.

Arnold Matimba | Avalanche Consultants Pty Ltd

Arnold Matimba is a generalist consultant with nearly 20 years hands-on experience in industries such as Telecommunications, Aerospace and Defence, Construction, Retail & Hospitality. Arnold has had exposure to diverse cultures making him highly attuned and aware to clients needs in different regions. Despite having lived and worked in the UK, his desire to promote a positive image of Africa led him to set up Avalanche Consultants Pty Ltd, whose main aim is to offer cross-cultural and consulting services to those keen to do business in Africa.

(Twitter @ArnMatimba) 


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