I love to travel through Ethiopia, for its dramatic sceneries and the many different peoples and rich cultures. I have often been to the low lands of South Omo, where it is warm and mostly dry. The people living there are pastoralists, making their living mainly by grazing their cattle, their life support system. As grass and drinking water are not permanent there, they move from time to time to greener pastures, allowing for recovery of the land and waterholes they used for the past weeks or months. They have adopted their lifestyle and economy to these harsh conditions and have lived like this for centuries.
While passing through, I often hear visitors making remarks like: “Why don’t they hold the water and use it for irrigation? Why don’t they put wind mills?” In other words: “Why don’t they try and control nature?” This mindset is in sharp contrast with the people, who have managed to live and keep their livestock here for so long, adapting themselves to nature instead. There are many technical, economical and even political factors that, when explored in depth, may help us in finding some answers to the questions posed by the visitor. But that is beside the point I want to make. There is a difference between people, who are used to control and manipulate their external environment and those who adjust and respond to external forces and use them to their advantage.
Compare this with water sports, which is one of my hobbies. My little motor boat allows me to steer my way over the water in the direction I want. I am in control. I also like sailing though. Sailors use the waves and the wind in finding their way out and back, a much more difficult thing to do. Now what has all this to do with doing business?
People, who come from a background where they have learnt to be in control, are used to try and manipulate their environment and the people they deal with. They will demonstrate this behaviour as well in the way they do business and market their products. They make strategic plans to win the market and to be ahead of the competition. A product is successful because it is designed for that. A few weeks ago, I read about the fashion forecast for the next winter. Designers worldwide have already decided on the colours and designs of the clothes that people will wear more than a year from now. They set the trend and they push their products onto the market.
On the other hand, customers have their own ideas and preferences and we may well benefit from that and adjust our products to what the market wants. In this case we allow ourselves to be influenced by the environment and produce items which are wanted. The market pulls. A perfectly fine approach. In using it we must develop a good sense of what clients want and how we can adopt their ideas into our products. We may even use concepts already developed elsewhere and adjust them to our market needs. We see this happening more and more in this era of globalization. Ethiopian entrepreneurs operate perhaps in a way similar to this approach.
So, what will happen when a western investor meets with an Ethiopian entrepreneur, in search of business opportunities? Exactly, (s)he will try and control the situation and impose the way (s)he wants things done, while the Ethiopian counterpart takes a more subtle approach, by no means accepting everything but considering how the proposal may be used to his or her own benefit. Ever wondered during meetings, workshops and seminars, why foreigners are always quick to speak while Ethiopians first test the waters?
How to come together? Mind you, it is not a matter of who is wrong and who is right, whose approach is better than the other. Knowing about and appreciating our differences may open the door to a successful relationship, in which partners are synergists and not antagonists. People who are used to be in control seem kind of aggressive and don’t shy away from arguing their way. People from western cultures often behave like that. They focus on themselves and on their own goals in trying to make a business deal. On the other hand, we have those, who are more flexible and willing to compromise, focusing more on the potential business partner and trying to see how to benefit from his or her presence.
My advice to the westerner will be to slow down a bit, take some time before having an opinion or a solution. Wait until you know and understand the context a bit better. The situation is often more complex than you expect at first sight. Your Ethiopian counterpart knows these complexities and has been working in this context so long. So be patient, work on building the relationships and learn from the Ethiopian experience. Mind you, pushing your way too hard may turn your potential partner away. Being humble in their presentation doesn’t mean they are less knowledgeable.
To the Ethiopians I would like to suggest: build on your experience in making use of opportunities that present themselves. Scan the environment well, check the other party out. But also: come forward a bit more readily and play your cards more open. Be a player who takes part in designing the future. There is a whole world out there that you can be part of. Tell what you want out of the business deal and be clear about it. And to both the foreign and Ethiopian business partners: go for a win-win situation, because winning yourself at the cost of the other will eventually turn into a loose situation for all.