Today: March 1, 2024

The art of doing business in Africa

My last trip to Niger was in 2019.

At the time I met these guys in the picture in Maradi, population approximately 270,000.

I don’t speak Hausa (a Chadic language), my French is mediocre at best, but with the help of a translator we had some good laughs.

From Maradi, I drove 4 hours to Zinder – the third largest city in Niger, with a population of 240,000.

Both cities serve as key transit points for goods between Niger and Nigeria.

I met simple, wonderful and welcoming people in both cities.

Despite their discrete importance, there are no international hotel chains in this region, just local simple budget establishments.

In fact, there’s no local national hotel chains across most of West Africa, the Azalai is one that is prominent though, but not present in Niger.

So, like a backpacker I roughed it out.

I flew on a 29-year-old twin propeller Fokker-50 on lease from the Palestinian Airlines, old markings intact, flown by veteran Palestinian pilots in their 60s, in uniforms from the 80s.

Some parts of the cabin luggage compartments were held together by duct tape. There were couple of chickens in economy class as well.

No life vest to be found, the pot belly old steward told me I won’t need it as we’re flying across the desert.

Scary, but fun.

I remember thinking to myself that these pilots have seen the worst in Palestine, likely ex-airforce, so my life is safe.

These are just a couple of the many obscure towns I’ve travelled for hours by car, bus, propeller planes across Africa, to places no one in Singapore would have heard of, and a few would dare to go.

I have also been to Timbuktu, many years ago. But that is a story for another day.

Years back my wife asked me: “Why does your company send you to all these dangerous places?”

I replied: “My company does not send me there; I choose to go there because I heard there’s lots of opportunities there. I need to see for myself if it’s true or not”.
She responded: “You’re nuts!” but she never asked me again.

The borders across Africa are porous, and do not limit yourself to the tier 1 cities, go the distance and see what’s happening at the borders, you’ll be amazed what you see and who you’ll meet.

It’s a wild adventure, one living in comfortable developed country like Singapore does not prepare you for.

But be prepared to rough it out, be prepared for surprises: hope for the best, prepare for the worst.

Expect no regular scheduled flights, cancelations are common and without a reason. When that happens, you’ll have to improvise by hiring a stranger to drive you back 12-20 hours across the desert. You’re at the mercy of this stranger. Hope you found the right travelling companion – this is where your experience and gut instinct will serve you well, which leaves 20% luck to take you back safely.

So many things can go wrong, and they will. Expect them to go wrong, have contingencies.

But always remember to laugh out loud, it’s the only way you’ll handle the frustrations.

Doing business is stressful in Africa, laughter is the best medicine in Africa.

You won’t get your first $1 million deal on your 1st visit, likely not on the second too, if you’re lucky you’ll have a deal on your 4th visit. But with each trip you build the relationships, you earn the trust of your partners and their respect, when that happens, the business is forever.

Risk in general is inherent while navigating the continent’s markets but it’s crucial to recognize that within risk lies opportunity, and Africa offers tremendous prospects.

While risk is inherent, aligning with experienced market operators deeply familiar with Africa minimizes it.

Firms can achieve not only financial gains in African markets but also establish enduring partnerships that go beyond geographical boundaries by incorporating local insights, respecting cultural subtleties, and remaining adaptable in the face of change.

Prepared to travel the distance?