Expanding Into Africa with Empathy

With malaria being one of the top three causes of death among children under five years old in Malawi, UNICEF set out to tackle the problem by donating mosquito nets to families living in the most vulnerable areas. But instead of using them to protect their children from malaria, they were used as fishing nets to catch food. What UNICEF failed to understand was that the priority for families wasn’t in fact malaria prevention, but their most urgent need was to feed themselves and their families. 

We’ve all heard about Africa’s fast growing population, industrialisation and improving infrastructure and technology. We can see the business potential that this combination of factors represents. To add to that, the World Bank stated that 6 of the 10 fastest-growing economies in the world were in Africa, and in their 2019 ‘Doing Business’ index, five of the 10 most improved countries are in Africa.

You may have a business proposition for Africa that, in theory, ticks all the boxes. It may have even been a great success in one or even a few countries already. Maybe you’ve even found an agent who is very excited about your product or service and keen to work with you in introducing it to the African market. But like the UNICEF example, our assumptions or solutions are only going to be effective if we’ve lived with the people; experiencing life from their perspective, and can empathise with what they have to face on a daily basis.

Identifying the right partners, developing strong working relationships and finding a reputable agency all have their place. But setting out with the sole purpose of making money from a country, leaves the people and their needs behind. The short-sighted result is that your business benefits without the country benefiting. How much better to set out to gain an in-depth understanding of the influential factors that have shaped the people of a particular country or region, and to discover ways that your business can bring real change and benefit the people as much as it does you?

Empathy is the key, but it isn’t something that can simply be taught. The following questions will help you to know whether the path you have chosen to take will cultivate empathy and help you to find relevant, meaningful solutions, or not…

  1. What is your motivation for entering the market and who will benefit?
  2. How are you going to take the historical, political and socio-economic context into consideration?
  3. What do you know about the likes, dislikes, daily challenges and behaviour of the different ethnics groups represented? Why do they do the things they do?
  4. Who are you going to work with to ensure that your entry into the country is not one sided?
  5. And lastly, how will you measure the success of your product or service?

By digging deep, being humble, listening to different opinions, drawing on past experiences, and discovering the way things are currently being done, we build empathy and come closer to finding the missing piece of the puzzle. Africa will always have plenty of problems that need solving, but effective solutions are in the hands of leaders who choose to cultivate empathy in the way they approach problems, and look for solutions that benefit the people on the ground, and the country in which they live. If this isn’t our goal, we need to question our motivation, and not be surprised when our plans end up cast to sea.