January 06 2014 Mohamed ZIN EL ABIDINE
Investment Research

5 things I learned doing business research in Africa

Over the last couple of years, I have been involved in few research projects on the ground in different regions in Africa, including northern, western and sub-Saharan parts of the continent. Few learnings kept coming up over the course of these assignments showing me what a vast geographical space Africa is ,and that conducting business in the continent can, oftentimes, be challenging, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be fun. Hereafter my top 5 learnings that I thought it would be worthwhile to share:

1- Africa is not a country, but 54 ones

Looking across most of the business literature authored about Africa, the continent is often referred to as a single and, presumably, homogenous entity; this assumption could not be farther from the truth. While African countries do certainly share some common traits, they do differ on many others. Economically, gaps between individual African countries can be so vast: South Africa’s GDP is 66 times that of similarly sized Niger, for example. Those gaps are an important fact to keep in mind when studying Africa, and paying attention to the countless shades of difference between individual countries can mean the difference between a successful business strategy and one that is doomed to fail. Considering aggregate statistics could be a good starting point, but any sound business strategy should go deep into studying the particular African geography it targets.

2- Things are not well structured, and that’s not a bad thing

Things will rarely, if ever, go according to plan: A project planning will serve as a good starting point, but that’s as far as it will get you. While doing research projects in other parts of the world can mean following a well paved pathway, in Africa it can mean totally the opposite, especially in difficult geographies. A certain comfort with ambiguity is necessary to succeed business or research project in Africa, which always comes with the upside of learning creative problem solving skills.

3- Africa changes, everyday

A report done on a fast growing African country is obsolete the year next to its publishing. Starting from a low base point, the continent now is catching up with the rest of the world at an impressive pace: each year, millions of new Africans join the ranks of world consumers and new investments, oftentimes in the billions of USDs, are injected within African economies to build new infrastructure projects, develop industrial platforms or strengthen the continent’s agricultural potential, which completely, and rapidly, changes the economic landscape of African countries.

4- Information is available, but not necessarily in the traditional places you expect to find it

Finding information available off the shelf can be the dream of any business research professional, and that is exactly what it is for those doing business research in Africa: just a dream, as reality can be quite different. Valuable and accurate information is almost always obtainable only via primary interviews with the right people, and by that I don’t exclusively mean senior executives; some of the most interesting insights come from people down the corporate ladder, people who are in touch with the realities of their industry, day in and day out.

5- Sometimes, it’s real fun

Doing business research in Africa can be challenging sometimes, but if one can stop and enjoy what the continent can offer its business travelers, it can be real fun. Africa offers its business visitors rare opportunities to see unparalleled natural landscapes just after few minutes’ drive off any major African metropolitan, and engage in activities not easily accessible elsewhere, from volunteering with NGOs at the forefront of solving real development problems to taking remote Safaris in areas luckily not touched yet with urbanism. However, the real fun comes from the shared experiences you will have, meeting and collaborating, with remarkable and friendly African people; that, above all, is my best learning to date.

Mohamed ZIN EL ABIDINE, Associate, Infomineo.

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