“In-spite-of” attitude: A necessary attitude for doing business in Africa

Don’t most of us have a perception that African countries are a tough environment for business? Yet, no matter how tough, you can succeed if you have an “in-spite-of” attitude. This is the experience of Nigerian entrepreneur Austin Okere, whose example illustrates this necessary attitude for doing business in Africa.

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Ginni Rometty – IBM President and CEO – with Austin Okere. Source: CWG

Austin started Computer Warehouse Group (CWG) in 1992 as a reseller of computer equipment. About 20 years later, CGW was selling hardware, software, and communication systems, generating an income of $130 million and employing 650 people. From Nigeria, it had expanded into Ghana, Cameroon, and Uganda. And they’ve received numerous awards, as you can see in the picture!

But in 2010 CWG faced a serious setback:  The Central Bank of Nigeria discontinued the deployment of ATMs outside bank branches, and CWG’s ATM sales went from $35 million to $0. They “fell off a cliff,”  in Austin’s words. The company was about to be dissolved. However, in 2014 CWG is getting ready to be listed in the Nigerian Stock Exchange. And the “in-spite-of” attitude Austin has instilled in CWG shares an important part in this:

  • In spite of having lost from night to dawn their flourishing ATM infrastructure business;
  • In spite of paying Nigerian taxes, while many of its foreign competitors were tax-exempt as they were considered “pioneer companies in communications;”
  • In spite of having faced a jump in interest rates from 8% to 25% after the 2009 crisis;
  • In spite of dramatic margin cuts from 2009 to 2012…

…CGW was able to shift their strategy and corresponding business model from that of a provider of IT to an enabler of IT operating in the world of cloud computing. (Their next project is called CWG2.0 and it’s built around a subscription-based model, but that is a topic for another day.)

CWG awards
CWG awards

What if we also embrace the “in-spite-of” attitude? Maybe it’s about time to stop complaining about the difficulties posed by the current environment, think of new projects, and start by taking one small step forward that will lead us to a big dream.

By the way, Austin Okere holds an Executive MBA degree from Lagos Business School, which at the time was conducting the program on behalf of IESE Business School. I met him at an Alumni session at Lagos Business School, and later I interviewed him and his management team in relation to the Africa-to-Africa project I’m working on.


14 thoughts on ““In-spite-of” attitude: A necessary attitude for doing business in Africa

    1. Thank you for your comment, Patricia. And for those things we blieve we can’t change, maybe we can think twice about them: and maybe we conclude we really can’t change them, or maybe we find some aspects that we still may have some influence on.

    2. Indeed! it is the most efficient attitude.
      I also found very helpful the “take the small step forward approach,” as it all starts with small steps, 1 by 1…. ; which is complicate to deal with, specially in these days in which we are all used to quick responses, thanks to certain technologies, and much more the called BUTTON GENERATION, who are used to press buttons which result in immediate reactions.
      They will be the most difficult people probably to deal with the step by step approach.. don´t you agree?

      1. Thank you for highlighting this, Pilar. Austin’s literal words are “Think big, start small.” And this motto fits well in IT businesess that are scalable: try your model at a small scale, and then scale it up.

  1. That level of resilience and responsiveness to market conditions is what makes a successful entrepreneur. Anyway if you wait for the perfect conditions, you never get anything done.

    1. That’s right, Pilar. And I think it applies not only to entrepreneurs, but to anyone in business.

      1. Indeed. Well done with the blog! it’s great to have you share your African experience. After all, Miguel Angel couldn’t be the only star blogger in the family, now could he?

        1. Thanks for your enthusiastic response, Pilar! I hope little by little other people will share also their own African experiences through the blog.
          And btw, Miguel Angel’s blog is a very high bar!!!

  2. We tend to see African countries, I am thinking now about Nigeria, as places that can learn from us Europeans coming from richer and more developed countries. But it seems that we can also learn a lot from them and their “in-spite-off”mentality that reflects their survival capacity and willingness to move forward.
    Yes we can, in-spite-of¡¡

    1. That’s very true, Lourdes: there’s a lot we can learn from Africans, including their attitudes to life. I hope we will all share our experiences in this regard, so that we can all benefit.

  3. The stamina is obviously impressive and points at the importance of strategy execution rather than development (which both academics and CEOs seem to devote most time too). Can you share what exaclty CGW did to make the shift possible?

    1. Christian, in a nutshell, they went from being resellers of hardware, software, and network access, to supplying mobile operators with the infrastructure and software for them to sell to their customers. They are facing some organizational tensions in the transition — as you point out, the real challenge is in the execution!

  4. Africa this is an great motto, indeed! I just wrote it on paper and put it on my desk.
    I look forward to more inspiration “from Africa”! Un abrazo fuerte, Maria

    1. That’s right, María. I find many ocassions for inspiration here. I will share some, and I hope others will do as well. Thank you!

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