Moving to Africa For Work: A Path to the Global Elite

Patrick Gaincko
Jul 15, 2017 · 10 min read
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Do you have international experience? Increasingly, what those making a decision on your job-, grant- or funding application mean with this question is whether you have created tangible value during substantial professional time abroad and connected with people whose backgrounds and opinions differ wildly from your own. Adaptability, agility, problem-solving, resilience, are highly demanded skills by companies willing to win in an uncertain, globalised, complex world. But it has become extremely difficult for professionals, entrepreneurs and leaders to acquire or sharpen these qualities in post industrial, highly sophisticated, well oiled environments.

Consequently, just like elite athletes go to Kenyan hills to train with and learn from the world’s best runners, a growing number of professionals and entrepreneurs look at Africa as a key passage to join what a Harvard Business Review article calls the “global elite”.

Indeed, business-, career-, and learning opportunities in Africa have never been greater. But to materialize them, global professionals first need to ask themselves some hard questions.

At a recent Africa business event on the US East Coast, I was asked to weigh in on various ‘Moving to Africa’ questions. One member of the audience talked about her project of launching an artisanal brewery in Mombasa Kenya, another had the idea of producing premium cocoa in Ghana, another was preparing for the second round of interviews for a senior role at a Marrakech Morocco based world top five hotel.

Long are gone, it seems, the days when the only ones heading to Africa for work were the ‘Africanists’- relief and aid professionals, war correspondents, missionaries, mercenaries, and scientists of rare disciplines (anthropology, zoology, botany).

Today in the West, a growing number of highly qualified professionals and entrepreneurs across sectors from manufacturing, consulting, transport to agriculture, telecoms, and energy, see Africa as a promising destination. In that crowd, some are culturally attached to the Continent and want to be an active part of the current socio-economic change. Others want to gain the international experience and connections that will help them access executive education programs in world-leading universities and top roles in multinational companies and organisations.

In fact, there is a varied range of reasons why Africa is poised to play a greater role in the Future of Work. Here is a selection.

The increased share of developing economies in the international business in recent years — in the last decade for example, it has gone from 33 percent to 42 percent in exports across the world according to the World Trade Organization 2016 Review. This has in turn generated a high demand for global professionals. The number of people working in foreign subsidiaries and remote outposts has upped from 25 million to more than 81 million.

The ‘Africa Needs Locals’ goal drummed up by a growing pack of companies. Heineken, a world top three beer maker, want 70 percent of its leadership to be Africa-based by 2020. “I believe in Africa by Africans” said Kevin Ashley in a recent discussion. As the founder of Java House, Africa’s largest chain of coffee shops, he made ‘100 percent African from top to bottom’ the cornerstone of the company’s success.

The ‘Talents for Africa: Wanted’ drive which sees aggressive efforts by a coalition made of specialized head-hunters such as Homecoming Revolution and JobnetAfrica, dedicated events such as the annual ‘Career Fair for Swiss Companies and African Talents’, online platforms such as Talent2Africa, and entrepreneurship initiatives like We Think Africa and Afropreneur.

Broadly speaking, the sluggish recovery on the job market in the West, the decline in job quality, the persistence of the diversity issue; lead many professionals to discover the virtues of global mobility and off-the-beaten-track entrepreneurship.

But to navigate America all you need is one language and one currency. Similarly, with one combined train ticket you can travel to and attend events in three different European capitals — Brussels, London and Paris — on the same day! That’s not Africa. The continent’s complexity and diversity are unmatched on earth. Therefore, before jumping into the ocean of the African opportunities and seize the chance to live a new and transformative experience; global professionals should make sure to answer basic questions.

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“It’s been three and half years that I’ve gone natural hair. Since then I want to help women better know and take care of their hair” says Dora Nzatsi Goma, an engineer trained in Paris France and destined to work in the oil and gas industry. The company she will launch in Pointe Noire, the second largest city in Congo Brazzaville, will apply advanced technologies to ethnic hair care.

How much does it cost?

If you’ve been recruited from afar or you’re planning to start a business in Africa, a sure avenue to a seamless relocation and/or company launch is to be on the ground in advance for anywhere between two weeks and two months in view of figuring out the living costs.

Mai Chen, a Chinese American hailing from California and now working as a translator in Nairobi Kenya says “the prices of food in Nairobi when you buy from Nakumatt or Naivas [major supermarket chains] are around the same as it would be in the US. Sometimes even more expensive, even for something as underwhelming as canned tomatoes.

Same thing for drinks and eating out, perhaps not as exorbitant as a big city in the US like New York or San Francisco, but the prices don’t make you feel that you are in a “developing” country.”

The cost of living in urban Africa also comes as a shock to Fadekemi Adetosoye as she’s adjusting to her new life in Nigeria. Born and raised in Washington DC, she received a B.A. in political science from the University of Pittsburgh in 2014, worked as a consultant in Virginia, then in March 2017, she booked a one-way flight ticket to Lagos, the Nigerian capital city, to take a new role in a local consulting firm. “I’ve never budgeted myself in the past. This is the first time I have to do it, to think about what I have to save every month. I don’t know how people make it here, especially the average Nigerian, I don’t know how they’re coping, I don’t get it…” she says.

Beyond the figures, Fadekemi finds herself experiencing a lifestyle radically different from her fast-paced, high-energy US lifestyle. “Here planning is so important. I can afford to be spontaneous back home. Here, if you don’t plan, you’re going to run into traffic, you’re going to find yourself stranded. There are so many factors you have to consider before every move.”

In fact, living in Africa brings up another cost, maybe as heavy than the financial one: the human cost.

How to prepare?

A few weeks ago, upon landing in an central African city, I found no taxi. After thirty minutes, a handful of taxis showed up…with a bad surprise: they demanded not only the triple of the usual fare, but also to be paid in hard currency (US$). All this because that day the country had woken up to a severe shortage of oil. How do you prepare for that?

As soon as you start working in certain environments, forget the job description; you are expected to be an extreme all-rounder, filling multiple roles, tackling both the mundane (restocking stationeries) and the essential (collecting debt), pressured to deliver the most with the least: how do you prepare for that?

In some places, you feel like a cash cow at every touch point along the day, from the landlord, the policeman, the taxman to the supplier, the cab driver, the plumber. You sense that prices are somehow inflated and most likely you will never know the real price of things: how do you prepare for that?

The truth is that there isn’t any way to mentally prepare for ‘Moving to Africa’” says Cuthbert Ayo Onikute. Raised in the US, Mr Onikute moved to Guinea shortly after earning a Master in Science at the University of Columbia to start Dechets a l’Or (“Golden Waste”), a tech-enabled solid waste collection and management venture.

“One of the first things I learned is to be comfortable with the unexpected” he says. “We would have electricity every day sometimes and then days without. Employees will disappear for days and weeks at the drop of a hat without any warning.”

He adds “One of the things we must contend with, are employees looking out for themselves instead of the best interest of the organization. We are learning how to do that every day, but it still takes some practice (…) The best prep you can do is to develop an understanding for cultural norms that are very unlike your own. In short, nothing but time in Africa will truly prepare you.”

That ‘time in Africa’ appears as a must to those who are serious about their ambitions. Out of Africa, they realize that their plans made from behind a screen become obsolete fast. They also realize that what comes first is learning the fundamentals of how to run a business.

Paris France, March 2016: Dora Nzatsi Goma receives her degree in engineering in industrial processes and starts job hunting. Reluctantly. “I wasn’t waking up in the morning and saying wow! Industrial processes…that’s what I want to do with my life” she says. In fact, inspired by the hair issues that peppered her student years, Mrs Nzatsi Goma wants to start a high-tech hair care centre in Pointe Noire, the second largest city in Congo Brazzaville.

During the following twelve months, she wholeheartedly converts to entrepreneurship, devouring books and tutorials, and taking various intensive entrepreneurship programs across Europe.

“I’ve refined my business plan thanks to the Africa Summer School in Belgium. There, I followed up with a separate program where I learnt about strategic communication, business model canvas, etc.… I’ve also participated in a start-up competition and I won a prize. On top, I had a course about African history. I’ll be solving problems related to natural hair, so it made sense to know the economics, the biology and other angles of African hair.”

Nevertheless, she confesses I did a market research but it was incomplete. There was no data available online. I bought a small equipment so that I can start the business at home, I couldn’t wait to go and try, see if that’s what people want.”

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The growing number of competitions, incubators, investment funds devoted to Africa-based startups is regarded by a sizeable number of entrepreneurs as a reason for moving to Africa. This is Alisée de Tonnac, CEO and co-founder of Seedstars World, an acceleration program for startups from emerging markets. In 2015, she moved from her native Switzerland to Nigeria “to live and participate in one of the biggest, upcoming tech hubs on the planet and learn from innovative and like-minded entrepreneurs.”

What’s the return?

What’s striking with global professionals is that their determination to go overseas remains unscathed in the face of the negative Africa press coverage. To them, no figure, no narrative can diminish the appeal of African opportunities.

“I came to Guinea because I see a business opportunity but also a community and an economic development opportunity. I’m not here to save Africa, perhaps help it with my little contribution. This has always been my personal goal” says Mr Onikute.

Some say the biggest benefit are commodities you’ll hardly find anywhere else: the full ownership of your career and the ability to move seamlessly between the lines of entrepreneur, game changer, and trendsetter.

“I’ll never work for somebody. It’s the goal of my life to build something on my own from scratch, to sustain myself, to create jobs, to impact lives” says Ange Belyse Irankunda.

Born and raised in Bujumbura Burundi, fresh out of the local university with a distinguished degree in finance, she was handpicked early 2016 by the Mandela Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders. After winning grants and internships in the US, she was offered a job at a local company. Yet, in September 2016 she chose to return to Burundi to launch her company Earth’s Swag.

Now with six employees, Earth’s Swag manufactures briquettes from natural biodegradable waste and sells them door-to-door as an environment-friendly, affordable alternative to wood charcoal.

“My biggest challenges today are both winning adopters and getting capital. So, we’re now running a campaign at the international level to get funding. Everything is new to me, engaging local consumers and engaging global investors. It’s hard work, but it’s so much worth it. I would have gotten that nowhere else!”

Wearing several hats is also what drives another breed of global professionals. They may be ‘supply chain manager’ or ‘sales director’, but they feel boxed in by these titles. They want to exploit the full range of their competences through multiple ventures. They want to create value for themselves.

Based in New York, Jim Ngokwey is a marketing manager at the media company Time Out with a range of responsibilities including data analysis, customer relationship management and e-commerce. On the side, he is involved in the sub Saharan Chamber of Commerce. He is also a business adviser for a New York based luxury watch maker.

In April 2017, he travelled to DR Congo, the second largest country and a top five economic potential in Africa. “All in all, flights, gifts, transport, etc. I’ve spent US$ 1800 for a twelve-day trip” he says.

“Everybody welcomed me fantastically. You sometimes hear about a tension between the diaspora and the locals, I’ve not seen it. People gave me advices, contacts, ideas. They were all happy to see me. Every person I met introduced me to another person”.

It wasn’t all rosy in Kinshasa. Chaotic, electric, and extravagant, the Congolese capital city can disconcert even its most passionate visitor. “One or two power cuts per day. That was a bit sad. I felt like the country had somehow gone backwards compared to when I visited years ago” laments Mr Ngokwey.

Yet, no nostalgia. He was hungry, relentless, and tactical throughout his Congolese mission. And clearly, the results exceed his expectations. “I had planned three business meetings from New York, I ended up having nine on the ground. In twelve days, I only had two low-activity days. I met with the president of the US chamber of commerce. I met with local businessmen in logistics and agriculture (…) I left each meeting with a specific roadmap. Everybody wants me to go back. I’m looking at visiting more often, bringing more ideas and more investors.”

Patrick Gaincko is a consultant who does research and writes about African consumers. He constantly travels across Africa and regularly speaks at global conferences. His website GainXperience is regarded as an essential resource by brands and companies willing to win in Africa.

Patrick Gaincko will be a mentor and a speaker at The Sprinters 2017: Women Tech and Entrepreneurship Workshops in Nigeria on July 31-August 6, 2017.

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