Many of the emerging markets in Africa are both a lucrative and risky potential investment for any company looking to expand into less competitive and less saturated economies. Unfortunately, as with any environment, there are inherent risks, with Africa as a continent having more than its fair share. Many of these potential risk factors are obvious, such as political instability and aging or non-existent infrastructure. Unfortunately, one of the most often overlooked risk factor is, that of the effects of culture.

These effects can be on a personal, or societal level, and both have profound influences on a business’s performance, even after decades of work in the local environment. In this blog, I will explain some of the potential pitfalls and effects of culture on businesses in emerging African economies, and will make a case for mitigating a major risk factor through a thorough research program to understand and highlight the relevant cultural factors at play.

“There is almost no country in Africa where it is not essential to know to which tribe, or which subgroup of which tribe, the president belongs. From this single piece of information, you can trace the lines of patronage and allegiance that define the state.” – Christopher Hitchens

The individuals who make up a business, partner with that business, and serve as potential clients of that business all have an eventual profound effect on the organisation itself. However, the individuals themselves are profoundly influenced by their own cultures, and the interaction of their cultures on one another. In diverse groups, culture can help or hinder with productivity or efficiency.

I will be using my own experiences in cross-cultural research to help illustrate and explain some of the concepts, problems and ideas in this article.
In my most recent research, I attempted to ‘tease out’ the supposed minor cultural differences in emotional reactions. I came to learn that the influence of culture was; at face value, very subtle, but on closer examination glaring. The effects of culture on inter-personal interactions is very much the same.
We can’t begin to work with something as complex and potentially influential as culture without a clear understanding of what culture is.

There are many complex sociological and psychological definitions we could look at, but a brief yet comprehensive list includes; a shared knowledge, history, customs, language, race, belief, values, location, and a self-identification. It is worth noting that not all of these need be present to establish a culture. If we were to calculate the number of possible combinations with just the nine listed aspects, we would end up with an almost infinite list of possible cultures. This washes out any possible understanding of the effects of different individual components of culture.

Whist conducting my own research I found that simply combining race and language was sufficient to distinguish one South African Culture from another. In a wider African context, we may argue the use of race and language, combined with either a location or self-identification modifier, as a way of identifying specific national and tribal identities. The standard practice most often used is, to only use the variables for culture that are relevant in that specific context where they play a role. Although this may sound easy, the number of possible variables combined with levels of subtlety and blatancy of effect, are staggering, and can quickly overwhelm the uninitiated. To avoid this, an application oriented systematic investigation is vital before any large scale action is attempted on the ground. With this cultural road map, specific interventions may be tailored to play to inherent cultural strengths, whilst avoiding potential conflicts and mishaps.

At the end of the day, culture remains very complex, and the effects of culture are often completely alien to those not from the cultures in question. Ultimately, the key to coping with this is to remember that, a person’s cultural identity is intertwined with everything about them, resulting in actions, or opinions that may seem very counterintuitive, and confusing for someone not of that culture. Just because someone may think or act in a way that doesn’t make sense to us, their way of thinking and acting is no less valid or important. Odds are, our own behaviours and thoughts will seem equally alien to them. This lack of understanding can easily lead to potential conflicts and mishaps based on cultural incompatibilities.

A possible example of this can be seen in the role of eye contact within African and European cultures. In a European culture maintaining eye contact is considered a sign of respect; especially with a superior, whilst not maintaining eye contact is often seen as a sign of untrustworthiness. From the African perspective, avoiding eye contact with a superior is seen as a sign of respect, whilst maintaining eye contact is seen as grossly disrespectful and potentially hostile. In this example, someone from a European background may severely insult an African superior while trying to be respectful. This can inadvertently lead to strained relations, or a breakdown in communication that could cripple a major project.

That said, I would like to stress that most of incompatibilities are entirely innocent and accidental, but the effects of which still have serious real world consequences. Not all cultural misunderstandings need be on a personal level. If we examine something as simple as a colour; say in a company’s official colour scheme, it may have profound implications in different cultures. The colour red has an extremely wide variety of meanings and connotations throughout the world. In Asia, red often means prosperity and fortune. In North America, red signifies danger and hazard.

In India, red is the colour of purity. Whilst in many African cultures, red signifies mourning and grief. As simple as this is, the potential effects cannot be understated. People may be turned away from a company whose colour scheme is one associated with death, or turned towards a colour scheme associated with fortune. We can easily imagine the potential cost of changing the entire colour scheme of an established operation, because the original had a strongly negative connotation.

A brief list of the most common cross-cultural friction points would include cultural differences in body space, negotiating styles, personal familiarity, understandings of time, emotional expression, clothing, and even the role of different team members based on their rank within the company.
In addition to potential misunderstandings from a foreign cross-cultural perspective, we need to be mindful of the local interplays of culture. With many African regions still being heavily tribalised, an understanding of the local cultural interplays may help avoid historical based conflicts from arising. Many additional factors can heavily influence how all members of a team interact. Whilst avoiding these types of conflicts can be unavoidable when putting together the best possible team or group, the effects of cultural differences can still be mitigated if interventions are put in place early on.

In many ways, we are witnessing the start of the second great Scramble for Africa. The world’s second largest continent holds untold and untapped potential. Unlike the first Scramble for Africa that was foreign resource driven, the one we see today is an organic local people driven expansion. We only need to look at the growth in the telecommunications industry to realise the still untapped potential in the world’s second largest and arguably least developed continent. Just like the first Scramble for Africa, no true competitor can afford to ignore any potential advantage or disadvantage. The thorough consideration of cultural factors in business in any setting, especially Africa is not only ethical, but allows companies to develop appropriate strategies to mitigate any influences already at play, or more importantly, to avoid culture based problems long before the problems could ever occur.

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