When I told a Spanish friend about my engagement with Africa, she said: “I’d love to go there and get them organized!” I thought to myself, “Thank God you’re not going!” My friend’s attitude is the same as that of some MNCs and NGOs: it’s an ethnocentric perspective that doesn’t recognize country differences – not to mention the value of those differences! This is a surefire route to failure.
A good example was shared with me by Jennifer, a top manager of an international Kenyan company with a large MNC supplier from the US. I won’t reveal the name, but I have no doubt you know of it – you are likely using some of their products. The two companies held a meeting attended by both Kenyan and US managers from the supplier. It was clear to Jennifer that the Americans were clueless. For instance, they were planning to collect and analyze certain data according to zip codes. “Zip codes? Don’t they know that it doesn’t work like that here?” was Jennifer’s reaction. Even worse, they hardly allowed their Kenyan colleagues to speak during the meeting. And when they dared say anything, the Americans “corrected” them believing that they were teaching them how things work.
In a previous post, I talked about how it takes local management to succeed in Africa. And local means “local”: not just African but people from the host country. I have found this to be the case across the continent: East, West, and Southern Africa.
A Nigerian friend once told me, “There are foreigners, and there are foreigners”, meaning that there are those who understand the need to adapt to the local context, and those who just try to do things the same way they do at home because “they know best how to do things” – like my Spanish friend.
When companies learn the lesson, they are en route to success. This was the case for a Nigerian company operating in Ghana, and a Kenyan bank operating in Uganda and Tanzania. At first they fell into the trap of operating abroad the same way as they did at home. As soon as they realized that was a mistake and that they needed to consider country differences, they involved locals in their management teams and changed their approach. This was key for re-vamping their international operations.
Can you share successful stories of local adaptation?