For businesspeople in developed markets, frontier markets are both exciting and daunting. That’s why American, European, Japanese, and even Korean companies tend to keep their distance. Their world and social life are often compartmentalized.

It’s comfortable, but from a business perspective, adopting this behavior in Africa is a death sentence.

You have to get your hands dirty to understand the market, precisely because it’s so different from ours, and because our assumptions won’t hold true there. Here’s what Bharat Thakrar had to say about this: “The other day, we were hosting a Chinese phone manufacturer, and I asked him, ‘Where are your offices in Nairobi?’ He replied that they were on Luthuli Avenue.” Luthuli Avenue is where all phones and electronic devices are sold at retail, in a myriad of more or less official shops. Bharat continued:

“If you ask a bigger phone company where their offices are, they will undoubtedly tell you they’re in a nice neighborhood. The Chinese are located where their market is: that’s the right strategy in Africa. You can’t just sit in a boardroom, devising plans, and bring in expatriates to handle marketing or distribution who don’t understand the local situation, put their children in fancy international schools, live a lavish lifestyle… You have to go out into the field and see what’s happening there.”

When Chris Kirubi invests, he knows what’s happening. Chris has been listed by Forbes among the 20 most influential African CEOs, and one could easily be mistaken about him and take him for a man who stays above the fray. He owns an iconic building in the center of Nairobi, International House, whose name everyone knows. When a visitor comes to see him, the security service picks up a special phone and announces: “A visitor for the president.” Once inside International House: “The president is coming. The president is here.” And when he finally arrives (in a custom-made suit, shirt, and black sunglasses), you hear: “The president will see you.”

But make no mistake. I once asked Chris if he had made mistakes in his life. “Of course,” he said to me, “I was born poor. That’s already a big mistake: having to fight to get out of poverty, to support oneself, one’s loved ones, and others. But learning to get by is the greatest and most enjoyable challenge. If I were born rich, there would be no excitement in staying rich.”

While he could just watch his investments grow, Chris explains that he prefers to get his hands dirty: “I always tell my colleagues that I’m not a mushroom. You leave a mushroom in the dark and grow it with manure. That’s not my style. In all my companies, I know as much as my CEOs. Sometimes even more, because I talk to ordinary employees. I don’t go through intermediaries or bureaucrats. I work with the lowest-paid employee in the company.”

Getting your hands dirty to…

Ce texte est un extrait du livre “These successful businesses in Africa” écrit par Jonathan Berman.

Nous vous invitons à lire l’article suivant “BUILD WHAT WE NEED“.

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