This morning I had the pleasure of attending a “Breakfast Buzz” event in Zurich held by the Swiss African Business Circle. They partnered with Djembe Communications, a comms agency focussed on “amplifying an African narrative founded on opportunity, growth and innovation”, to put on this event entitled “Leveraging African know-how in Switzerland”.
Switzerland is not known for it’s African endeavours, but in recent years there has begun to be an understanding that the African continent has great potential as a market place. Companies are beginning to reach out their tentacles and venture tentatively into Africa, ignoring the negative African stereotypes that have permeated into business thought in Switzerland. But once there, how exactly can companies leverage, and enable local talent to drive their African subsidiaries forward, and ultimately benefit the entire company.
It is not an easy question to answer, and with cultures varying so differently, not only between Switzerland and Africa, but within the continent itself, there is no set system in place that works everywhere. But, what we do know is that there is talent in Africa. Throughout this blog you (if you have read it all, and I urge you to do so!) you will have seen incredible creativity and ingenuity across the continent, and amazing engineering skills to bring those creations to life. But how do companies access and leverage talent, which is highly sort after?
The two speakers at today’s event, Yvonne Bettkober, who sits on Microsoft Switzerland’s board and comes originally from Cameroon, and Charles Thiemele who is leading AOT into West Africa, both spoke of the challenges and potential of Africa to multinationals outside of the continent. It is African’s like Yvonne and Charles that are part of the solution in creating an atmosphere in which non African companies wish to invest in the continent. It is their professionalism and expertise, which, in their senior positions, is being showcased to industries who have not seen many African leaders excelling.
Yvonne may be based in Switzerland today, but she has worked extensively in the African market, as has Charles. Both of them recognised that there are challenges in finding and keeping talent in Africa, especially if there is separation between the head office, the African department, which is often tagged on with the Middle East and Europe, and the location in Africa. It is often an issue when Africa is just tagged on to a department, because often it means that opportunities get lost because the continent is not a priority. It may be challenging in the initial stages, but the most beneficial way to do business in Africa is to open an office there. As a member of the audience from Syngenta mentioned, it is these initial stages that can often be the time consuming difficult ones,. In his example, someone had already taken the Syngenta name in Nigeria, which they needed to overcome with a kindly written legal letter.
But after these stages, a company can begin to make a name for itself in Africa, enabling the expert local labour force to develop.In the case of Microsoft, with the 4Afrika initiative, which I discussed last week in a blog about Aid Vs Investment, they have gone into Africa with no current thought of making sales. They are there to open the market, enable people to learn, get connected and develop themselves. The more people and businesses online, the more there are to buy Microsoft projects.
The talent in Africa is immense, and there is a pot of talent to tap into. Cultural differences may cause some challenges in finding the right fit for for the company culture. Having said that, the African workforce is incredibly adaptable and innovative. In many cases far more so than workforces in Europe and America. In my opinion you need a bridge between the two cultures. Often that comes in the form of someone from outside of the continent that understands the culture of the local office, or vice versa, a local that has experience in other markets around the world.
Finally, very importantly and very relevant to Inventive Africa, technology needs to be harnessed within the African business setting. From farms to large multi nationals, technology can be exploited in Africa which ever the setting. There are also lots of opportunities in the tech setting for companies from outside of Africa. Yvonne Bettkober rightly said, that even though there may not be an ideal mobile penetration in Africa percentage wise, even a small percentage in Africa is a huge amount of people. In Nigeria there are over 90 million internet users! Compare that to the Swiss population of 8 million, or even the British population of 65 million, you can see the potential of the online market! Whether for marketing, education, entertainment or business, technology, and in particular mobile phones and internet offers a big opportunity for companies inside and outside Africa. It is just a case of utilising the local expertise.
Usually we promote African innovation, or innovation directed at Africa. We talk about African solutions to African problems. But, there is a place for the major companies to make change in Africa. By developing the skill base of the youthful population and sharing knowledge, local populations will be enabled in great numbers to push forward their industries and nations and showcase Africa to the world.
Thank you to SABC for inviting me along to the event, it was very interesting!
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