How to be creative in African businesses

Posted on February 17, 2016 12:01 am

Africa is a continent that I love not just because its the land of my ancestors but is undoubtedly the best place to be for those of us who believe in its future.Starting a business is a scary yet exciting experience in Sub Saharan Africa. It can represent the biggest risk as well as the biggest opportunity of your life. Thanks to my experience in more than a dozen markets in the continent, I can confidently say that it makes sense to know what you’re getting into and what’s required to make it succeed.The first rule to adhere to when starting business in the East, Central and Southern African countries where I have personal experience is to get away from following the conventional way of doing things. Forget about the mythical ‘Africans way of doing things’ cliche. It may not necessarily be the right way but you stand to lose nothing by being creative.Being flexible and responsive to quick change by being informed about the marketplace and current events.Collecting data, gathering reliable information, avoiding cosmetic figures published by so called ‘authorized’ source of data as well as identifying the right team to work with are just some of the to do list if your venture into Sub Saharan African market is to succeed.Those of us who have run our own businesses talk about several important factors. Foremost among them is to identify personal goals, what you want in life, where you want to be five years from now, what kind of income would you like to have among other targets.In East African Community(EAC) countries and Southern African Development Community (SADC) countries personal goals should be something that is something truly important to you and the market.Operating a business is demanding in Sub Saharan Africa and as one of my colleague recently told me, hard balls are needed.

My first hand experience shows that to venture in Sub Saharan African markets, you need to ask yourself if you’re doing something you want to do, are you working with the people you want to work with and are you getting the kind of return on investment you expect? Unless you can satisfactorily answer yes to these questions, you won’t be happy and you won’t be a good business person in Sub Saharan Africa and success will never come.In several well-established companies that I have interacted with in Southern African countries, some feel that the concept of blindly following the orders of a superior limits creativity. In one tele operator, an insider told me the unwritten rule is becoming very clear especially during difficult times in business and it worsened when the local currency slid and lost value against the greenback.In SADC region, studies show that employees tend to do what have been ordered instead of developing their creative ideas, just to keep their jobs.In EAC region, studies in my possession shows that creativity, which sometimes involves disobedience, is not popular but is firmly taking shape in the region.In United Republic of Tanzania and Republic of Kenya, the study found that it is very common to find that creativity, especially if leading to failure, is not rewarded. It is then disseminated as a bad example to other employees. In fact, in Kenya, that type of bad example has stopped and is killing creativity in the country’s corporate sector and has led to so many failures in the business sector.

In Sub Saharan Africa, developing a group of people with similar ideas, similar ways of conduct and unquestioned loyalty to bosses for the sake of uniformity are a clear tendencies. Anyone with an opposing opinion, doing things differently, or speaking a different language is mostly unwelcome and soon will be punished.The same applies in government departments where creativity is “rewarded” with transfers and demotions.A reprimand is a normal consequence, but it also leads to making the employee redundant due to an inability to mesh with the team.It is true that naturally groups are developed for similarities of their members’ idea. But for an organization to excel in the business, differences certainly need to have their place and should be valued properly. Organizations should also recognize leaders who value creativity to develop a growing organization.I have in the past witnessed first hand where leaders in the business value their own ideas and anything smarter than theirs, is shot down and archived.I find it very flattering for people be part of a big organizations in Africa where everyone in the organization is similar and does things in a particular way. However, there’s room for innovation since most of operations-related activities do need to follow the rules, but without disregarding the necessity to follow, it is advisable to give room for creative thinking.Performance measurement system infrastructures might need to include this type of exception, so that the system will not kill fresh and creative ideas which Sub Saharan African countries need badly.True rewards should be given to both success and failure, and punishment should be given to inactive employees.

Me think Human Resource personnel in organizations should be able to encourage supervisors to encourage their subordinates to be creative, or at the very least not creative idea killers, and especially not to put creative employees on the blacklist.In Sub Saharan African cultures, disobeying the elder is most certainly discouraged and any sort of defiance can lead to marginalization in community and even within the organizations. In Sub Saharan Africa, your business idea must be accompanied by a personal desire to start and operate a business. It must be a part of what you want out of life. Does starting and running a business in Sub Saharan Africa fit into your personal goals? If not, the ideas you came up with have no meaning because they stand little chance of being converted into a successful business in a continent that will see the fastest growth in the next decade.Prior work experience is another key part of any business idea to thrive in Sub Saharan Africa. For example, if you want to start up a manufacturing business and have never worked in such an environment before anywhere in Sub Saharan Africa, it may make sense to first work for somebody. In this way, you can avoid making costly mistakes. After working in the factory and understanding the operations, you can decide whether this is the kind of business you wish to start on your own.A knowledge base is also another important factor when it comes to doing business in Sub Saharan Africa. You must have an idea or a concept that you know more than anyone else.As my mother told me many years ago, instinct or feeling is no substitute for knowledge. She told me that instinct only enhances knowledge.As a person interested in Sub Saharan Africa market you can acquire this knowledge base most naturally by having the relevant work or business experience.

In my case, i never worked for any company in Sub Saharan Africa before my foray more than half a decade ago but I acquired the knowledge by traveling to different countries, asking questions, listening to different folks, reading widely, learning local languages and doing research as well as buying research material from reputable research firms.I must warn that there are very many masqueraders in research industry. Many ideas for starting up a new business stem from a desire to get rich quickly but that won’t work in Sub Saharan Africa. Patience is a virtue that must be fully observed.Starting a business with this attitude is definitely wrong not only in Sub Saharan Africa but also other parts of the world. While money is important, it will only come later than many of would be business venturers in Sub Saharan Africa would like and after considerable effort.The intrinsic reward in Sub Saharan Africa is going to be for all your efforts and that demands doing your best. Give something that people need. In this way, you will get rewarded all the way along even if you are not making a lot of money in the beginning. It has been my inner vision.I have never been motivated solely for profit. Am a subscriber of what experts define as about combining profit, vision and philosophy.Bottomline is that from experience, putting a business idea into effect is normally difficult in Sub Saharan Africa compared to my ventures in Europe and Australia. It only makes sense then that you must be committed to success. I advise that you start your own business only if you have a unique idea and the ability to execute something much better than anyone you see on the horizon. To be considered a success in Sub Saharan Africa, the bar has been raised by competition, so don’t be satisfied with doing an average job but aim to do something superior. If you have this attitude, then you can seriously consider starting your own business in Sub Saharan Africa, a continent of more than a billion people.Vive la Africa!

Contador Harrison