An American professor asked an African CEO exactly how his firm was structured. The CEO said it had no structure. Amused, the professor asked why he lied. Unruffled, the African replied that he gives the same answer to every white American who asks, since he has given up expecting them to grasp the facts. "Our firms are not structured in ways whites understand. It is easier to respond as they expect and say we have no structure. None."
How many American managers believe African management principles belong to a primitive past? How many feel African firms just copy Western management methods, or have none at all? This type of thinking is commercially convenient. If both assumptions were true, we would have no need to analyze their system, nor would we need to adjust when launching an African business venture; we would only need to deal with Africans in Western ways.
There are reasons for this type of thinking. Africa is our commercial blind spot—a mote in our global vision. We know little of their current business methods, and even less of their commercial past. The basic reason for this relates to our culture's own history. Having tacitly accepted the racist "dark continent" and "Tarzan" mythologies since childhood, we ignore the richness, complexity, and effectiveness of Africa's 1000 years of mercantile success. Without that knowledge, why would one care about their present methods?
Yet Africa is a closet millionaire, hiding both mineral wealth and agricultural potential. Its oil, diamonds, gold, copper, hydro-electric power, chromium, platinum, uranium, and millions of fertile acres suggest the possibility of great wealth. Historically, much of Africa was always rather wealthy. Until the Europeans intruded after the 1500s, vast regions were not composed of tribes, but of stable, organized, middle-sized kingdoms equal in every way to the stable, organized, middle-sized kingdoms emerging in Europe. Both sets of kingdoms had hereditary royalty, nobility, priest-hoods, traders, soldiers, craftsmen, peasants, and serfs. Like European royalty, African royalty thrived on trade. As a result, African traders developed complex, sophisticated commercial principles that extend back over 1000 years.
Notwithstanding, most of us studiously ignore these principles. African management methods are never taught in U.S. business schools. Corporate trainers do not know they exist. Business text books ignore them, as do popular books on overseas trade. In any U.S. bookstore one will typically always find books on Japanese and European management methods, but none on those of Africa. "Global" titles are the most misleading. One, entitled "The World Class Executive" deals with Europe, Asia, South America and the Arab nations, but not with Africa. Another example, "Doing Business Abroad," examines Russians, Chinese, and Arabs. A third, "International Business Women of the 1990's," speaks of coping with (male) Europeans, Arabs, Asians, and Latin Americans but not with Africans. In short, the African contribution to global business principles is systematically ignored.
It would be useful here to analyze the management methods of a "typical" African firm. In fact, no firm on this vast continent is typical. Each displays peculiarities that reflect its regional history, tribal origins, linguistic structure and even family background. Thus the firms considered in this research, drawn from East, West, Central, and Southern Africa, differ strikingly from one another. Nonetheless, many African enterprises in many African countries organize, manage, and finance their enterprises in surprisingly similar ways. These principles are rooted in centuries of tradition. They have become behavioral ideals, toward which most Africans aspire, and thus form a basis for the methods with which they actually do business. Six of these principles are of particular interest to Americans—for we can use them ourselves.
American firms are organized like American armies, using principles we have learned from ancient Rome. African firms are structured like African families, using principles based on kinship. In Africa, families are defined as all of those people who are descended from a single founder. Many trace their ancestors back 400 years, and some even 1000 years. Thus one family may extend over several living generations, to include scores or even hundreds of members—each of whom know their precise relationship to everyone else. Many of these extended families have entered commerce, first locally, then across national borders and today into Europe, America, and beyond.
Some of these extended family firms are neither small nor primitive. One such extended family of "street hawkers" imports carvings from Central Kenya to downtown Durban. One notable Nigerian clan exports oil across three national borders, defying the law enforcement efforts of four nations. One group of several West African clans first carves, then exports, "fake (antique) masks" to Paris, New York, and Los Angeles. Several extended South African families have formed a thriving car-theft syndicate, that specializes in car-jacking luxury cars for shipment north to Zaire, to be exchanged for stolen gold. These do not match the global scope of U.S. corporations. Nonetheless, they have acquired global sophistication—often enough to outwit equally sophisticated law enforcers. Their current methods, although rooted in Africa's past, work too well within contemporary commerce for us to ignore.
The chameleon's ability to change color allows it to blend with new surroundings. A second African management principle is to blend outwardly with foreign business settings, while retaining an African commercial core. This method developed from centuries of white domination, which forced blacks to adopt Western behaviors while preserving indigenous beliefs. As a result, some contemporary African companies have what informants describe as "white skins and black (African) hearts,"—that is, they present a Westernized external image while retaining an African core.
Sometimes, both styles function simultaneously, as when African firms move into Euro-styled work places, with desks set up in tidy lines, while supervisors work from corner offices and behind closed doors. The African staff gradually move their desks together into the middle of each room. However, the supervisors stay in their offices (as in the West), rather than moving in amongst the staff and thus into the traditional center of commercial action. Sometimes, one style (for example, punctuality) is used with foreigners, while the other (natural time) is used in-house. Thus, if you visit an extended family firm in Ghana, you may be met by Western-educated counterparts with Western business titles in Western furnished offices. Nonetheless, you will not be dealing with a Western firm. Behind the facade, decisions made at the company's heart will be African.
Age is a primary principle of African management. Advanced age is equated with authority. We base leadership on merit, whether derived from education, training or genius. Africans base leadership solely on age. Authority flows from older to younger employees, making no exceptions for those with foreign language-skills, commercial training, university education, or sheer brilliance. Thus, no nephew can supervise an uncle, regardless of ability or training. A Kenya proverb reflects this, "Show me a people where calves teach the bulls, and I will show you a nation of madmen."
This principle is based on a philosophy, found across Africa, that equates greater age with greater experience and thus greater wisdom. Africans believe that aging "cools" the blood, thus allowing elders to consider problems rationally rather than in the heat of emotion. Socially, this means elders must cool (judge) the conflicts inevitably generated by the "hotter" blood (emotionalism) of youth. Thus, in contemporary firms as with traditional societies, the young create conflicts while the aged use their greater wisdom to cool and thus resolve them.
The wisdom of age is also based on intuition and emotion. This conflicts with American beliefs. We are trained to believe that both intuition and "feelings" interfere with business. We try to suppress both of these in commercial settings, so as to decide each issue rationally and even quantitatively. Africans disagree, believing the wisdom acquired through a lifetime of experience may be best expressed in terms of how they feel about each business proposal and its proposer. Such feelings need not be based on business expertise. Rather, past experience is believed to guide them intuitively as new decisions are made.
Americans launching African ventures must thus employ age as a management tool. One place to start is by looking in a mirror. In America, we strive to look younger; in Africa, you should strive to look older. For example, an American businessman with brown hair and a white beard, on returning Africa, should grow the latter, thus adding years to his appearance. He would then become an elder in the eyes of those with whom he deals, thus capable of business wisdom. On returning to America, where age is treated with disdain, he would elect to shave off the beard.
Choose older personnel to launch a venture. The Africans with whom they deal must perceive them as elders, thus capable of business wisdom. This means those chosen must be at least as old as their African counterparts, and preferably older. Choose men or women. In most of Africa, women receive commercial respect. An older woman, married and with children, is perceived as wise. Youth, however, even when backed by commercial, technical and/or linguistic expertise, is not accepted as a substitute for age.
African decision making is actually based on three interwoven management methods: timelessness, consultation, and consensus. Unfortunately, these three principles clash with three of our own managerial expectations.
We seek individual decision makers, especially within commercial settings. Americans admire the ability to make decisions individually, and thus seek that same capacity in those with whom we trade. We dismiss decisions made collectively as vague. or too difficult to achieve, preferring the swiftness of either authoritarian decisiveness or majority rule. We also seek timeliness. Americans admire swift decisions, even in unstructured situations. In U.S. slang, we "wing it," "think on our feet," and "take off." Finally, we admire individual risk-takers. Instead of asking, "why" when faced with hard decisions, we often ask "why not," assuming that each misstep will be correctable.
In contrast, most Africans prefer decisions to emerge through timeless consultation, until participants can reach consensus. To be sure, an African executive can make snap judgements as swiftly as Americans can. Nonetheless, he is likely to remain aware of obligations to his extended family or clan. By acting alone, he flaunts that clan's collective wisdom. By consulting, he honors it.
An American businessman once phoned an African friend, seeking the translation of a single word from his native language into English. He was put on hold, then heard ten minutes of happy, shouted conversation with others in the background. With everyone in agreement, the African triumphantly gave the caller the translation. When asked why he didn't just translate instantly, he loftily informed the American that he needed to consult his comrades "to guarantee the best phrasing." That thought would never have entered the American's mind. The time the Africans took to reach consensus was irrelevant; they enjoyed the process. This incident illustrates all three aspects of African decision making. Most Africans find it psychologically more satisfying to reach decisions by ignoring Western time frames, consulting one another, and attaining consensus.
Nonetheless, African timelessness causes American anxiety. We don't mind moving slowly as long as we know there is a deadline. Africa's collective decision-making bothers us too. We never know exactly when it will end, because they don't know either. We also don't know how the whole process works, or even what goes on. One way to learn is to break it into stages, then examine each in detail. The model suggested here is both idealized and simplified. Nonetheless, it reflects all three of the principles that drive the decision-making process: timelessness, consultation, and consensus. Consider the Zulu method of decision-making. They call it ndaba (consulting).
Assume you are a U.S. project head, proposing a business venture to the spokesman of a Zulu (extended) family firm. To do this correctly, you should be introduced by someone already related to its members. Ideally, this would be an elder kinsman of the clan concerned, who is both socially and economically significant in the community. By introducing you, he sponsors you, providing not only contacts, but proper rituals and gifts required of you by tradition.
Americans expect to present their proposal upon completing introductions. That done, they expect a swift and decisive reply. In contrast, Africans expect to spend this second stage in consultation with the outsider himself, thereby evaluating both proposer and proposal. If the proposer seems flawed, the proposal will fail. This means your hosts may prefer you to spend the next few days (or even weeks) in conversation, visiting, eating, drinking, and perhaps hosting elder members of the firm. At this stage, their business goal is just to learn enough about you to evaluate your use to them.
Unfortunately, some Americans regard this use of time as noncommercial, thus nonprofitable. The prospect of spending days in conversation may actively dismay them, while taking weeks might horrify them. Angered at what seems to be indefinite procrastination, they may retreat to the security of Western luxury hotels, not knowing either that they themselves are under scrutiny, or that there may be solid business reasons for such indefinite delay. As Americans idealize haste, Africans idealize a deliberate tempo. In business, they equate haste with deception. A Zambian proverb refers to those who smile and then urge swift decisions as predators: "Hyena will smile as he harries you on, as you run to the jaws of its mate."
Thus African colleagues may overtly ignore and covertly resent our attempts to hurry their decision-making, delaying their response to a proposal for as long as required to completely discuss the proposer.
Americans might describe one aspect of this stage as "in-house consultation." In both cultures, the terms suggest a gathering of elders, each one a spokesman for a larger group, to decide what action to take on a specific issue. In this example, the Zulu CEO (clan head) would convene a meeting of those elders whom we might classify as co-directors. They would share both existing data and subjective opinions, with each director consulting the oldest senior section heads and workers.
The ndaba also goes on simultaneously outside the firm. We might call this "outside consultation." The Shona proverb "night is the best advisor" reflects the wisdom inherent in taking one's problems home, to debate at leisure with wives, mothers, and grandmothers, as well as male kinsmen and friends. Thus, directors might consult both in and outside their respective families. Each of those consulted might then consult with others of appropriate age. The inclusion of females seems surprising within a business context, since the more elderly women might prove unable to evaluate the business aspects of a projected venture. Informants argue, however, that they provide matchless wisdom on human aspects of a proposal which men cannot ignore.
African decision-making need not be slow. In this example, every stage of the ndaba may occur sequentially or simultaneously, and may also move swiftly. Or, the process can take as long as required to reach decisions that satisfy everyone. The implicit purpose in this measured pace is to avoid subsequent in-house conflict. Africans often ask what use majority rule serves, if a minority will oppose the policy once implemented. As a result, no participant knows when decision-making will end—despite the wishes of Americans. Unfortunately, our tendency to push for quick decisions draws their anger. Internally, they react with suspicion, equating our impatience with duplicity. Overtly, they become wary, deliberate, and defensive, ("We say yes, yes, yes to disarm you.") agreeing in principle to American wishes, while wondering why we deny them the right to consult.
Remember therefore, that timelessness, consultation, and consensus are African management tools. While working in Africa, Americans may often joke about "African time," defining it to mean indefinite delay and condemning those who use it. It seems wiser to use African time on African terms. When presenting a first proposal, for example:
Hiring kin is an African management principle. Equating the African firm with a fictional family applies to both staffing and firing. This clashes with our expectation of hiring on the basis of merit, but our firms are not often families. African staffing relationships are thus conditioned by prior family status, rather than Western-imported law. In hiring, the firm simply extends its existing family structure, either by incorporating additional members of its own group or those from allied families. In fact, these are fictional kin, in that they have no blood ties to the family and firm they join. Nonetheless, they behave throughout the remainder of their employment as though that kinship were real.
Under these circumstances, filling a post means doing a favor for kinsmen—real or fictional. In the U.S. if you asked a fellow colleague to hire a relative, they might do so, but only in the event of an actual vacancy and after confirming the individual's skills. An African could ask a distant kinsman to hire that same relative, and that know he would.
This system works. Consequently, few if any African firms fill vacancies in Western ways. They see no need for either written advertisements or standardized job interviews. Rather, most hiring is by the request of an elder; friends asking friends to hire younger kinsmen. In such cases, rather than reshaping the new worker to fit his position, it may be reshaped to fit him. If he is useful, it may expand; if useless, it will shrink. However, no errant worker will be fired. To do so would offend the person who requested they be hired, and thus damage either a relationship or an alliance. Americans may stigmatize this process as nepotism. Africans call it caring for kin.
There are valid commercial reasons for this staffing principle. Doing favors creates relationships and thus alliances between two groups. Two firms who hire one another's kin may then cooperate in other areas. New favors can be exchanged in moments of crisis. Credit lines open, supplies get piggybacked, costs are shared, etc.; in short, firms which hire their own kin extend their commercial reach—firms that hire the kin of allied firms can double it. A Zulu proverb expresses this succinctly: "To give is to store for yourself."
If in Africa, you may wish to adjust your ideas with regard to both staffing and nepotism. When staffing your own initial venture, hire kin. Once, in Kenya, an American businessman hired six people without the faintest idea that they were all distantly related. In consequence, their elders informally adopted the man and he became an admittedly fictional member of their clan. This meant his staff, in turn, felt an obligation to uphold clan honor by outstanding work. African colleagues may ask you to hire their kin. If the person who makes the request may be of value to you in the future, do it. Create work if none actually exists. In so doing, you may place him under future obligation to you. In areas where nepotism works for everyone it seems only prudent to make it work for you.
African firms use what Americans might call a "homeboy" principle, both to acquire new clientele and retain old ones. This is based on the premise that new clients (like new employees) represent additions to the extended family. Each client represents a new relationship. Each new relationship represents an extension of that firm's commercial reach, and thus its economic security. When Americans expand their business, they promote economic security by seeking new sources of long-term profit. When Africans do this, they seek new long-term relationships. In Africa, wealth is not only counted in currency, but in the number of people to whom one is so closely linked that they will aid one another on request. A Congolese proverb reflects this principle: "You must not die alone. Money cannot weep for you. Money cannot bury you. Only people can."
In consequence, many African companies market goods and services both to and through existing homeboys. Ideally, no firm wishes to market to anyone outside their net of kin and comrades, thus creating an economic Eden in which all transactions occur in a climate of trust. Since this ideal is unattainable, all firms move beyond their circle of kinsmen and in-laws, competing to recruit (actual or potential) homeboys as fictional kin. The goal is to extend their commercial reach, social influence, economic power, and potential clientele at the expense of other competing families.
Among African-Americans a homeboy is one who shares your neighborhood. In Africa, homeboy (or homegirl) is one with whom you share aspects of a common past. Homeboys across Africa base this relationship on having shared a childhood (in the Congo: "We have shared the same plate."); a transition to adulthood (in Kenya: "We have shared the same knife," referring to the moment of circumcision); or having shared schooling, military service, foreign university, etc. They may also base the relationship on common ethnic, geographic, or linguistic origins.
Homeboys may address each other with kinship names ("I see you, brother."), thus behaving publicly like kin. They exchange visits, gifts, and favors they expect to be granted. Thus, Senegalese, Congolese, Kenyans, and Zambians who need business favors, would each turn first to close kin, then in-laws, then distant kin, then homeboys. In all cases, the homeboys, although not blood-related, would behave as if they were. The homeboy principle works, in that it allows these requests to expand beyond the bounds of family.
This principle operates in traditional and modern business settings. It works through face to face involvement. African managers strive to become personally involved with every supplier, distributor, client, bureaucrat, policeman, smuggler, politician, and anyone else who might affect their firm. They feel unable to influence these people unless involved in relationships explicitly intended to "make them family." If potentially useful individuals have a common past, they play on it. If not, they create one through the use of ritual (for example, by sharing blood), or by developing a common present.
Consider the commercial benefits of the homeboy principle as it operates in the Republic of Congo. The mother of a Congolese informant unexpectedly became head of their family's trucking firm, due to the death of her father. She began with little capital, driving a truck (her only capital) through the countryside, collecting produce to resell in the city. Wherever she went, farmers dropped their prices by half. On one level, they did it to help her get started. On another they did it to repay favors done for them, over decades, by her father, who had helped them on request. Of course, these kindnesses placed her under obligation to them all. They also carried with them the expectation that she would respond in kind, as those suppliers moved into crisis of their own.
The "future favor" is the primary tool of African management. It is a strategy to acquire clients, suppliers, distributors, etc., by placing them under obligation. The system is more complex then either doing something nice for someone, or even an exchange of services. This system adds degrees of kinship and dimensions of time that have no American parallels. It is therefore worthy of examination.
One method is to exchange favors between equals. It begins when one person provides another with a favor on request, without asking for repayment. The recipient, though grateful, may not return a comparable favor until asked. Such an appeal may not come for weeks, months, years, or entire generations. When it does come, however, the recipient will feel a moral obligation to respond. That response does not cancel the interaction, however, as it might in the U.S. Rather, it re-obligates the original provider to reciprocate in turn, thus continuing an exchange of services explicitly intended to last indefinitely. Relationships emerge from the inner feelings generated by this constant giving and receiving, reflecting ties far stronger than would result if one individual had simply paid the other for a service. Over time, these same relationships generate far deeper trust than can be achieved by any written contract.
Assume, for instance, that you seek high level contacts within a Kenyan ministry. If you pay a Kenyan a pre-set fee to introduce you, neither you nor your firm incurs further obligation. Once the task is done, the payment ends your relationship. If the man refuses the fee, however, he has performed a favor. In consequence, your relationship has changed and you have incurred an obligation. You could return the favor, and thus eliminate both obligation and relationship. But what if the Kenyan, familiar with local business practice, provides a steady trickle of unrequested new favors, essentially guiding you through the mine fields of local commerce? Your sense of obligation to him will intensify.
As your own familiarity with local business expands, however, your methods of reciprocation should grow more refined as well. As that occurs, the Kenyan should feel obligated in his turn. Trust should intensify on both sides, as an alliance forms. American's might call this man "my friend." African's might use the phrase "my brother." Ideally, since both your firm and his extended family/firm benefit from the alliance, it should continue throughout your lives.
Favors can also be exchanged between superiors and subordinates. In Nigeria, for instance, the wealthy follow what we might call a "big man" strategy. They do this by striving to acquire social and commercial status through self-serving generosity, providing gifts and favors to a group of" little brothers," explicitly intended to place them permanently under obligation. It is this unending flow of generosity that separates "big men" from merely wealthy ones. Rich men live in isolation. "Big men" live in communal splendor, symbolically surrounded by an entourage of "little brothers." These take on the roles of fictional kinsmen who call their patrons "father" (or "uncle" or "elder brother"), and who respond to each request in exchange for his benevolence and guidance.
There is no shame, however, in the little brother role. It carries no taint of inferiority. Inequalities of wealth are part of life. One result is that subordinates play out their little brother roles with pride. Their very acts of reciprocity provide them social status. Unable to financially repay the big man's greater generosity, they respond with frequent smaller acts of deference, service, and support, simply to remind society they remain aware of larger obligations. They also periodically reaffirm their subordinate status by asking favors such as loans, advice, and protection, while remaining at their patrons' beck and call.
One final management principle is to make exceptions to existing rules, thus once more placing others under obligation. Americans, however, believe in rules. We prefer to do business according to rules. When entering new business situations, we ask what rules exist, then try to follow them. Where no rules exist, we tend to create them, believing they will add predictability and therefore pleasure to our lives. We also try to avoid exceptions to those rules. While we disagree with many of them, we believe in rules per se. We are all familiar with the American "proverb" that best reflects this: "If I make an exception for you, then I must make an exception for everyone."
In contrast, many Africans do business through a system of exceptions. They apply what rules exist, but make exceptions for kin and homeboys. By doing this, they both obligate recipients and strengthen their relationships. Consider this example: An African manager learned that his (homeboy) employee had stolen company funds. The (Western) law required punishment. In consequence, the (European) owners were not informed. Instead, as the stolen sum had been spent, the manager solicited funds from other (homeboy) employees so that repayment could be made.
Here, the relationships between manager, thief, and the other workers were more important than the rules. Thus, an exception was made. In consequence, the manager gained prestige. The thief could eventually repay the funds (in the form of future favors) to nonjudgmental peers. The workers were pleased to have a brother in their debt. Here, making an exception for one homeboy strengthened the relationships of every African within the firm.
The purpose in learning these principles is to actively use them in African commercial settings. The African need for personal involvement and the desire to draw "useful" individuals into an extended family net can also work for American businesspeople. By applying the local rules, you may create homeboy status for yourself. As an American, there are therefore four logical steps for you to take on starting an African business venture:
Put your project aside for the first six weeks in Africa. Since you will lack first hand knowledge of local markets, begin by making contacts, then developing the best of them as company allies. Do this by interviewing local notables in business hours, then socializing with them at night. Ask not only how local business is conducted but who conducts it, who can help you, who might harm you, and then ask to meet them all. Many Americans focus on product presentation from the moment they arrive. Their interest lies in closing deals. Africans, in contrast, focus on identifying both local rules and major players. Their interest is in forming ties that will allow them to fit in. Only then do they consider positioning their product.
In cultures where placing others under obligation has become a business tool, use generosity to generate allies. There are only two rules.
You may initially believe that you prefer the big man role. Notwithstanding, that of little brother may prove more useful. As a new arrival, use your on-site inexperience as a business tool. As you ask questions, ask favors. Take on obligations. By playing little brother, you transform local notables into big men. By doing that, you make allies.
Link your enterprise with one (or more) African family firms, on local terms. Why not develop the best of your business relationships into lifelong bonds, and become a homeboy and thus fictional kin to a thriving African mercantile clan? While it is true that homeboys share a common past, that need not shut you out. One individual, an ex-Peace Corps volunteer, is "homegirl" to 90 Gambians. Another American is "homeboy" to a Kenyan minister, Botswanan ambassador, and Congolese refugee, all by virtue of having attended the same universities. If you lack a common past, work to create a common present, by becoming "family" to members a local family firm. Visit, host, do favors, take favors, play big man, little brother, and dear friend. That, in turn, will mean you have succeeded in approaching African business from an African perspective.
[ Jeffrey Fadiman ]
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