Aug 01
Hans Rosling

THE SPIRIT OF DOING BUSINESS IN AFRICA

Embracing contradictions

We live in a world of the quick fix and instant gratification. Yet our industry, by its very nature, requires long-term investment.

Forestry companies must plant large tracts of trees and nurture them over decades. Treatment plants must ensure a long-term supply of timber, work through tangles of red tape and build long-term relationships with buyers, including government parastatals.

In Africa especially, the challenges make even the bravest among us quail. Forest fires can destroy forests overnight, as happened recently in Knysna. Labour unrest can bring treatment operations to a sudden standstill. Some parastatals give their providers cash-flow headaches. The climate is changing, and cultural misunderstandings can scupper a business deal. The road to success is a rocky one.

How, then, can we endure and even thrive? We see a new spirit of business emerging in our industry in Africa – a spirit of survival that, in our experience, is unique. It is extremely patient, while responding to urgency and remaining in a state of alert to the short-term challenges. We can either develop these characteristics, using them to improve our businesses, or fall by the wayside.

We must also continually scout for opportunity and remain open to learning, to create value.

Corruption is endemic in many African countries, and entrepreneurs must often battle through this. Nevertheless, legions of inspiring African business leaders are emerging – men and women of great professionalism, vision and character. We are encouraged and inspired by their example.

Uncovering the truth about Africa

It is important to remain dedicated to uncovering the truth about spirit of positive change in Africa, rather than fall back on clichés and generalisations. The renowned Swedish statistician Hans Rosling observed that Africa was incrementally escaping out of real poverty, albeit more slowly than other continents. Hans was the author of ‘Factfulness’ and founder of the respected Gapminder Foundation.

Across Africa, governments have put great effort into basic education, Hans’s son and co-author Ola Rosling told Financial Times columnist David Pilling, indicating just one of many indicators of seldom-heard progress. From 1990 to 2012, primary school enrolment on the continent more than doubled to nearly 150 million, according to a 2015 UNESCO report.

 

“True naivety may be believing that things stay the same – or failing to notice the important changes that are already taking place.”

 

Pilling pointed out that teachers were often absent or illiterate, and in many schools very little in the way of meaningful teaching went on, but Ola said this was missing the point. The children were in school and not in the fields. The precedent of education had been set. Some children would learn to read, and teachers would get better.

The Roslings and their Gapminder Foundation have described many statistics and their implications, including that life expectancy in Africa has risen more than 10 years, to 61, since the year 2000, and all 50 countries in sub-Saharan Africa have brought down child mortality faster than his native Sweden ever did. “True naivety may be believing that things stay the same – or failing to notice the important changes that are already taking place,” Ola said.

Discovering our partners’ true intentions

At Dolphin Bay, we have realised the importance of another kind of truth-seeking that helps us navigate the business world in Africa: that of looking beneath the surface to discover the true intentions of our potential business partners. While our cultures and assumptions may be different, we are all human, with the same basic set of needs and motivations, and our intentions always emerge over time.

In reading intentions, we are looking for business values that mirror our own: respect, integrity, and accountability. When these core values are shared, we can embrace different perspectives and experiences. In the process, real learning about one another takes place.

I look forward to the day that we can all see one another as human beings, with the same understanding of this humanity – an approach that changes everything. It boils down to caring about why we are doing business, which should be to add value, not just extract it.

We are all just a heartbeat away from realising the impact of what we’ve done in the world.

Africa needs to be electrified so that people can read at night. Then development can take place in the incremental kind of change that Ola Rosling observed. Our industry has an important role to play in helping this development to happen.

The spirit of business that we see developing in Africa is an exciting one – nowhere more so than in our industry, and we are proud to be part of it.