A group of blind people were invited to come close to a calm elephant in order to describe it. One of them approached the elephant from the back and touched the tail. Then he said: “the elephant is like a big paintbrush”. The other went to the other side and touched the trunk. Then he said: “the elephant is like a huge flexible tube”. Others touched the horn, the womb, the legs and their descriptions were different but similarly partial.
I want to draw three main messages from this tale:
- Africa is like an elephant. It is huge and diverse, so nobody can explain the continent in a way that reproduces its richness.
- We Europeans/Westerners are like blind people when we go to Africa. We cannot pretend that we know everything and that we can teach Africans “the truth about society”, “the truth about the economy” or “the truth about business”.
- However, it is worth for a manager to work in Africa because with an appropriate attitude, this manager can become a better professional, grow in wisdom and contribute to the development of the Continent.
Here are four African “short stories”, based on my experience in the continent, which can suggest clues to cultivate this appropriate attitude of foreign managers in Africa:
· In my time as a development worker for the JRS in the North West of the DRC (small village called Baringa), I learned that certain areas of the rural Africa are economically poor; but that poverty does not remove in the African people their capacity to welcome a foreigner and to make him feel at home. And that poverty is sometimes the source of group solidarity and of individual creativity. In this direction, the key question for those who fight poverty is how to remove hunger, sickness, ignorance… without removing the positive values (capacity of welcome, solidarity, creativity) embedded in the culture of populations like Baringa.
· In my research on the SR of mining companies in Katanga, I have learned that the contribution of a big firm to the development of an African society has a lot of potential: because all the relationships that the firm establishes with the different local stakeholders are explicit, alive, raw, controversial, under permanent negotiation. This is of course a big challenge for a manager, but it helps him or her to realize that through an open, wise (clever, astute) and permanent dialogue with the stakeholders, the firm can win its social license to operate and at the same time contribute in a multi-faceted way to the betterment of the host society.
· In my research on the promotion of SME in Kinshasa, I have learned that it is essential for a foreign manager to understand the informal character of many economic exchanges. Networks are key. They’re sometimes based on family ties, on ethnic groups, on shared ethical/religious values; they are always necessary to enforce the economic exchanges needed for a firm to operate. A foreign manager needs to establish appropriate networks to support the activity of its firm, and at the same time be aware that these networks cannot kind of “kidnap” the firm and compromise its freedom to operate with different clients, suppliers, investors, employees, etc. At the same time, the manager of a big firm can do a lot to promote SMEs from the informal sector to the formal economy by making them suppliers of the firm.
· In my collaboration with the International association of Jesuit Business Schools (IAJBS) in the project to create Jesuit Business Schools in Africa, I have learned that it is essential for the success of a firm or an organization to train or to hire local leaders: this is, people who are born in Africa and can translate the mission and vision of a foreign organization into the values and culture of the host society. The identification, the training and the promotion of local managers/leaders are therefore a requirement for the success of an organization in Africa.
Some years ago, I had a supper here in Barcelona with a Belgian development worker who had spent years in the DR Congo. That night I had just come from a visit to the Congo. We spent the whole evening speaking about that country. At the moment of the farewell, she said to me in Lingala: “Motema na yo ezali kuna” (Your heart is there). It was not true: unfortunately, my heart is in so many different places, not all of them worthy to welcome a human heart. But the sentence of this Belgian lady summarizes the basic attitude to go to Africa: let your heart be taken by the places and the people. And then you’ll become better managers, you’ll grow in wisdom and you’ll contribute to the development of the continent.
In order to let your heart be taken by Africa, allow me recommend you:
- A film: “The gods must be crazy” (1980 Jamie Uys)
- A TED Talk: Chimamanda Adichie “The danger of the single story”
- A historical political vision of Africa by a European journalist: Richard Kapuscinsky’s essay “Ebony”.
- A novel by a Nigerian writer to understand one traditional African world vision: Chinua Achebe’s novel “Things fall apart”.
Josep F. Mària, Jesuit. Professor of CSR and Social Analysis at ESADE Business School. Researcher at the Institute for Social Innovation, ESADE