Africa is a continent of exceptional diversity. Much attention is paid to the difference between the governance systems of former French and British colonies, but this is just one layer of diversity. Among the 54 countries, Africa has six official languages inherited from its colonial past and Islamic migrations.

In addition to these languages, there are hundreds of ethnic and tribal groups, many of which do not coincide with national borders. Alongside these tribal differences, Africa experiences great religious diversity. Monotheistic religions and traditional beliefs play equally significant roles.

Approaching Africa as an undifferentiated whole is to do so at one’s own peril. Bharat Thakrar of Scangroup turns pale when he thinks about the mistakes of multinational companies that settle for a one-size-fits-all marketing approach for the entire African continent:

“Why do foreign companies make a mistake with Africa that they would never make elsewhere?

You have to be able to address consumers in a language they understand. When you go to Europe, do you consider it as one market? You know very well that Italians are very different from Spaniards, and Spaniards are very different from French: you wouldn’t design the same communication line for everyone. They do it in Africa because they take Africans for fools. A Tanzanian will watch an advertisement and say, ‘I don’t see myself in that. There’s a Kenyan here, there’s a South African there: it’s not for me.’ Since your communication doesn’t resonate with them, they don’t buy your product.”

Africans are accustomed to seeing their continent depicted with a single brushstroke. This tendency has overshadowed Africa’s takeoff, especially when the brush was dipped in blood.

Sam Jonah experienced this firsthand while raising funds for Anglo-Gold Ashanti. In 1996, Sam came to New York to present the company to American investors. Sam was the CEO of the world’s largest mining company, with streamlined costs and promising prospects for selling its product at a good price. He had just listed his company on Wall Street, a first for an African company. His trip was supposed to be a routine visit following the initial public offering. Ultimately, nothing was routine. The same week, the Rwandan genocide flooded screens with images of African rivers overflowing with corpses and faces distorted by hate. The news provided a monstrous horror film unfolding in real time.

Sam understood that what was happening in Rwanda would have repercussions on his company and his country: “Most investors at the time thought Africa was one country. When we were on our roadshow for the IPO, no matter how many times we told investors that our operations were in Ghana, they thought we were in Guyana or Guinea. And when we started hearing about Rwanda on the airwaves, I knew we were in trouble. Rwanda was all of us.”

Sam spent his life trying to dissociate his company and Africa from such images. He was born in the town where Ashanti Goldfields (which became AngloGold Ashanti) operated its largest mines. He grew up in the shadow of the mine. His father was a subcontractor and managed to grow his business enough to send his sons to school in Ghana. Against his parents’ wishes, Sam chose to work at the mine, where he caught the manager’s attention.

He recommended Sam for a scholarship funded by the company, allowing him to earn a degree in mining engineering in the UK. Back at Ashanti, he climbed the ranks to levels few Africans had reached. In 1986, at the age of 36, he became the first black CEO of the company and the youngest in its history. In 1995, he managed to list the company on Wall Street…

This text is an excerpt from the book “These Businesses That Succeed in Africa” written by Jonathan Berman.

We invite you to read the following article “THINK REGIONS“.

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