I have lived and worked in different parts of Africa for many years now, including in Ethiopia. I have come to learn, appreciate and love much of what Ethiopia has to offer, like the hospitality of the people, the history, the food, music & dance, traditional dress, the nature and its wildlife. The one thing however, that I cannot seem to adjust to is the Abasha Katero. This phenomenon keeps catching me by surprise. I always turn up too early. The other person almost always comes too late. There are many excuses: the traffic, there was a meeting, somebody came to see me, etc. So, there is often something more pressing, more important, than making sure to arrive on time for an appointment. It has puzzled me for many years why this is so. Why is it, that I focus on one issue (that important appointment for instance), while the other person seems to be immersed in many activities at the same time, in seemingly chaos, and therefore not making it in time for any of them. I feel offended, the other person feels content to have made it amidst all other issues to attend to.
But where does this leave us when we want to do business with people who have “Time is money” written on the foreheads? Where does this leave us while in many other parts of the world people work around the clock to produce, to fill containers for export, to get information, to meet others, look for business and export opportunities? Behind, most probably.
So, let us try to understand our potential foreign business partner a bit better. We call him John. John comes from a country, where he has learnt to focus on the future. He has learnt to plan ahead and work to make things better tomorrow than they are now, his business for example. It is useful for John to look back, to learn from mistakes in the past, again to do it better this time around. John likes to get one thing done at the time and from there move on to the next. John comes from a culture, referred to as sequential. John has now come to Ethiopia to look for business opportunities and has an appointment with somebody we will call Abebe. They agreed to meet for coffee at 10 (is that 4 or is that 10?). Abebe even confirmed their appointment early in the morning by telephone. All is set, according to John. He will spend an hour or so with Abebe, during which they will go over the details of their business contract. At 11.30 John should be leaving for the airport to check in for his return flight.
Abebe arrives half an hour late, with a big smile on his face, extending his arm to greet John, while talking to somebody else on his mobile telephone. After he closes his handset, Abebe explains that he was about to leave his office, when a friend dropped by to talk to him. John feels very upset. Why couldn’t Abebe tell his friend to come back later and why does he keep his mobile telephone on standby? John has not yet understood that in Ethiopia, it is not done to show the door to an unexpected visitor. Remember that relationships are important here, more important than keeping time. Ethiopians are also used to handle several matters at the same time. This is what is referred to in literature as a synchronic or polychromic culture. Several issues can be attended to at the same time. We all experience this when going to the bank, buying an airline ticket, going to a government office or even to the clinic. We are never the only client to be attended to at the same time. Giving time to an unexpected visitor or caller is more important than keeping a schedule and Abebe will not offend him or her by saying that he doesn’t have time because he has an appointment somewhere else. Meanwhile John feels offended because he doesn’t receive the attention, he feels he deserves. John will do well to learn a bit more about the Ethiopian way and add a few days to his tight schedule, if he wants to do business here. He may or may not find the time though…
If Abebe is equally interested in doing business with John, my advice to Abebe is to realise that John will feel offended when he is not given full attention during the time agreed on earlier. Abebe will do well to focus on John, on the potential of the business deal, on the contract, on planning and strategising to make it happen. Keep your promises when agreeing on deadlines, deliver the goods in time. Don’t agree if you cannot make it. Not delivering on time may upset an entire supply chain, affecting international marketing. Meet Abebe in your office, so that you are already there. A cup of coffee and a copy of the work you prepared for the appointment will keep him happy if you still need to attend to somebody else. Make sure though, that John is not having his “soostenia buna” before you invite him in.