Launching Your Business in Africa

Launching Your Business in Africa? Here is my proven recipe for success.

As far as I remember, for me, the word Africa has always resonated with endless opportunities, hard work, and career growth. Knowing the realities of my homeland – and being raised with a strong Beninese and Togolese culture – I made it a mission to help change the African narrative the best I could at my scale. For almost five years I had this opportunity with my previous employer before starting The METO DIGMA. The mission was exciting and fulfilling; to Help bridge Africa’s Digital Divide, especially in rural areas with the help of our satellite broadband solution. Most importantly, this position allowed me to learn more first hand about the continent from a business perspective. Here are the main lessons learned on how to successfully launch your services in Africa.

1- Understand your audience.

You can’t do business with people you don’t understand. This sounds logical, but all too often we have examples where brands have made erroneous assumptions from one neighbouring country to another when planning their launch in Africa. This continent is a puzzle of 54 countries, and each country is filled with different ethnicities having their own culture and customs. Your communication has to take stock and embrace these differences. For example, you don’t communicate the same way in a French-speaking country as you would in an English-speaking country. Being knowledgeable about these specific cultures helps you to adapt your product to customs and practices and ensure that the solutions you provide are relevant to your customers.

2- Do your homework.

Make sure you’re addressing a real problem that your audience faces. The story of the young start-up trying to replicate a product or a service that has been a success in the US or in Europe is now a cliché in Africa. Most of those experiences ended in failure. Try another way instead. Understand the country and, if needed, start from scratch and create a strategy specific to your market.

3- Good marketing is nothing without suitable logistics.

Make sure that your product can be available for your customers, everywhere. Set up good distribution channels or partner with companies that already have a good network if you don’t have the resources internally. Don’t just focus on the big cities, but also on the small ones and don’t be afraid of rural areas. The closer you are to your consumer, the more likely you are to be adopted by your audience, with the support of the right marketing approach.

4- Test your ideas until they prove right. 

Africa is the place where you can test ideas and try products until you find a good formula. Ridesharing services like Bolt (former Taxify) or Heetch have done that with success. First, develop a minimum viable product then test it and enhance it thanks to feedback.

5- Listen.

In Africa, like elsewhere, things can move fast. A dominant position can be earned by efforts and constant attention. But it can also be lost quickly as soon as one becomes complacent. So, you should keep asking for feedback from your partners, distributors, consumers, etc. Evaluate the feedback and implement the ones that can improve your product. Be really cautious about price-related feedback. Consumers are really price-sensitive, regardless of how good your communication strategy is 🙂

Remember that the vast majority of people in Africa live with less than 2 USD/day. So, not only should your product be good, but it should also be provided at the right price based on your targeted market realities. Price is the first determinant of the buying decision.

6- Don’t hesitate to go digital. 

According to Tidjane Deme, former Google Lead for Francophone Africa, “people underestimate the ability of Africans to adopt and use a technology that can simplify their lives.” Don’t make that mistake. This is something that our current coronavirus pandemic has made very clear: rely on digital technology too! But keep it really simple. The consumer can adapt to it more quickly than it seems, don’t underestimate them. Smartphones sales are exploding in Africa and the connectivity is getting better and better. But keep in mind that a large proportion of the population is illiterate, which is an opportunity to be creative and innovate on the most effective way to address this part of your target. For instance, voice solutions in local languages or clear infographics have proven to be efficient.

7- Use complaints to your advantage.

Complaining is human nature. So when your partners, distributors or customers do it, don’t take it personally. Instead, use this feedback as an opportunity for growth and create a positive outcome from it. Connect to the unsatisfied partner, distributors or customers to understand what the issue is from their perspective, and see how you can address it. Never forget to integrate your partner strategy into your own, especially in a B2B relationship — their happiness is yours, equally, their success is highly linked to yours. In Africa, customer service matters, it is of high importance and valued more than it is in most continents. If you treat your partners and customers well and you’re honest with them, you’ll reap confidence and they’ll be more likely to forgive the mistakes you make along the way. It’s all about developing trust while growing together.

8- The three attributes of success when doing business in Africa

You’ve already heard this, doing business in Africa is quite different from what it looks like in Europe or the US. Nevertheless, there are three attributes that will make your life easier.

  • First: Be resilient. If you can’t develop this mindset, it’s better you give up before even starting. You’ll face many roadblocks. Simple things can become very complicated. A good idea can turn into a nightmare with the wrong approach. Get ready to fail. Reinvent yourself as much as you need while remaining realistic. Don’t be discouraged. If you learn to use failure as a stairway, you’ll eventually succeed!
  • Second: Develop an open mindset knowing that opportunities are endless. In Africa, you’ll never stop learning. You should always be open to new perspectives. Things change fast and respect is a crucial part of a variety of African cultures. Your competitors are out there trying to develop new products that will wipe out yours. If you want to survive, keep learning, keep trying new stuff.
  • Last: Be collaborative and lead by example. Learn to work with everyone and involve your partners at the right stage. Bonding with a partner or a distributor is the most precious asset of a business in Africa. If you make the effort to really understand them, to listen and, most importantly, to respect them, they’ll support you at 100% and your business adventure will be easier.

As the saying goes, learning is sharing, so let me know what you think in the comment section below. Disclaimer: the points listed above are not an exhaustive list and only represent a summary of my experience on the ground. 

Thank you!

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