Over the years we have looked in this column at some cultural dimensions that influence the way we interact with investors and potential business partners from other parts of the world. More especially we looked at how we relate differently to other people, time and the environment. With Ethiopia’s private sector increasingly connecting to foreign markets, Ethiopian and foreign business people need to interact more often and intensely. They need to understand each other well. The chance that things go wrong here is real and present. Different interpretations, different approaches, different expectations may cause business deals to go sour, spoil relationships and result in loosing the opportunities so desperately looked for. Knowing more about the culture of the people we deal with will help if we want to avoid that things go wrong. I want to summarize some important observations as follows:
Ethiopians in general are people who find relationships very important. They are well known for their hospitality and hosting guests. An expatriate myself, I have enjoyed numerous invitations for dinner, and family occasions like weddings and baptism of a baby. I have attended funerals as well and learned the importance of being together in times of grief. The social networks are an enormous asset to this country, as compared to the rather poor individualism of some cultures in the west. In dealing with foreigners, the focus in the first instance is thus on building that relationship, finding out who this potential business partner is and whether (s)he can be trusted: the heart of the matter so to speak. An investment well it’s worth while. The foreigner on the other hand will have more confidence in the relationship when the business deal is written in black and white. Contracts are widely used and accepted internationally. Building a good relationship is a strength that Ethiopians can capitalize on while negotiating a deal in which both parties feel comfortable.
We also realised that in Ethiopia we don’t consider time in the same way as foreigners do. After all these years, I still get nervous when I am running late for an appointment, while my Ethiopian friends are so much more relaxed about it, comfortable with the abasha ketero. Where Ethiopians are poly-chronic, visitors from abroad may be mono-chronic or sequential. This means that many Ethiopians are used to handle several things at the same time, while the visitor focuses on one issue at a time before moving on to the next. (S)he will not be happy if you allow yourself to be interrupted continuously, while having a meeting together, especially not if you came late to begin with. And please, do switch off your mobile telephone. That will allow you to focus your attention and to use the little time for this meeting much more effectively. Our visitor on the other hand may try to relax a bit more and allow you to attend to a few issues before your meeting. Planning a few more days for the business trip will help as well.
Be also prepared to find yourself dealing with younger delegates. Coming from a society where one may be appreciated for what you know and not who you know, a younger person may indeed have the delegated authority to negotiate an important business deal. (S)he will have earned that status by achievement as compared to the status of ascription, more common here. I have noticed that it becomes even more challenging when the other person is a woman. Very few Ethiopian men appreciate or accept that women are capable of running a successful business. They don’t give her that status by achievement. My advice: put your prejudices aside and get on with the business.
We also looked at how we relate to our environment and realised that while visitors from some western countries have learned to control their environment and thus their market. They take the initiative when meeting their potential business partners, Ethiopians are more likely to kick the tyres a bit first and adjust to changes that influence their lives. Again, our visitor is advised to slow down a bit and take some time to understand the context a bit better before having an opinion or a solution. Pushing your way too hard may turn your potential partner away. Ethiopians in their turn could come forward a bit more readily and speak out. Tell what you want out of the business deal and be clear about it.
Finally, most people, including myself, become defensive when getting feed back about their behaviour. This is no less so in Ethiopia and I am sure that some readers will question and deny my observations. My advice: accept feed back as it comes and reflect on what the other person is saying. There may be some truth in it. Learn from it and use it to your advantage.
This is the last article in this column on “Doing Business in Ethiopia”. Over the years we have tried to look at different contexts and ways of doing business in this fast growing and changing market. There are no blueprints and there certainly are no blueprints we can import from other parts of the world. What we can do is learn from other markets and adept strategies to our own context. In order to do that effectively, we need to make sure we are exposed and informed and we need to be aware of the differences. Adapting what seems to work elsewhere to our unique context will help in doing business in a better way. And remember, whatever business you are in, do it in a sustainable way, doing no harm to the environment and most importantly your customers.
Wishing all readers good business prospects!