April 11, 2011

Culture & Doing Business in Africa-Lessons from UAE

Adapted from Africa Business Pages

One of the keys to successful business with Africa is a good understanding of African business culture. How does African business culture differ from the Middle Eastern business culture? 


How should Middle East companies introduce themselves to the African buyers? 

These are important questions for the local entrepreneur because success or failure in Africa will depend on the ability to understand and adjust to Africa s dynamic market. The complex and changing African environment requires businessmen to have a degree of flexibility. 

The potential for turbulence requires businessmen to monitor and assess the political risks in the countries with whom they are doing business.

Here are some examples of what you should note:

i) People are sensitive about how you pronounce their names 
ii) They do not want you to be patronising or to show prejudice,
bias, or stereotypical beliefs 
iii) You should avoid condescending behaviour.

Among the Wolf of Senegal and in Ghana, children are trained not to look adults in the eye since this is considered an act of defiance or a total lack of respect. This means that eye contact, considered a mark of trust or truthfulness in the Middle East, may not occur when some Africans are talking to their superiors. In many African countries, using the left hand to receive or give a gift is considered impolite and therefore, unacceptable. 

In most African cultures, greeting is very important, so it is not unusual to see the same greeting, such as welcome, repeated several times. Handshaking is very common in Africa, but it could range from simple handshake to prolonged, and sometimes vigorous forms. 

It is not unusual to find younger people, women, or subordinates offering both hands as a mark of respect. In most cases, women are expected to accept a handshake, not offer one.

Africa's considerable cultural diversity, if understood, is not an impediment to successful business. To manage these cultural differences, one must understand the need for personal relations and the role that connections play in African business and the African respect for hierarchy, titles, and age. One must also comprehend the concept of African Time and recognise it in arranging business meetings, as well as ensure that there is considerable follow-up.

The UAE entrepreneur needs to realise that certain practices that are not tolerated or permitted in the UAE may be rampant in Africa and must draw a line, making a decision from the start and sticking to it. The rule of thumb is to do what is legal and avoid what is illegal. He needs to know how the rules operate and that often laws are openly broken because of lack of enforcement. 

Further, the entrepreneur must understand that although African workers have a positive work ethic, they may lack the motivation and the skills for high productivity and that Africans tend to be communal, emphasising collectivism instead of individualism. Likewise, the UAE businessman must note that there is often a clear definition of gender-based roles. 

The tendency to take decisions more slowly, looking for unanimity before acting, creates a reluctance to contradict or challenge the system. Inter-cultural business is always a challenge; African business is no different. But with the cultural knowledge presented here, the UAE businessmen, if they keep an open mind, should be able to proceed with confidence that they will reap the many profitable rewards the dynamic African market offers.

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