Five lessons learnt from doing business research in Africa

Over the last couple of years I have been involved in a various research projects on the ground in different regions in Africa. A few issues kept coming up over the course of these assignments showing me what a vast geographical space Africa is, and that conducting business in the continent can often be challenging, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be fun. Here are the top five lessons I have learnt.

1. Africa is not one place, but 54 different countries

Looking at most of the business literature written about Africa, the continent is often referred to as a single and, presumably, homogenous entity. This assumption could not be further from the truth. While African countries do certainly share some common traits, they differ on many others. Economically, gaps between individual African countries can be vast: South Africa’s GDP is 66 times that of similarly sized Niger, for example. Those gaps are an important factor to keep in mind when studying Africa, and paying attention to the countless shades of difference between individual countries can mean the difference between a successful business strategy and one that is doomed to fail. Considering aggregate statistics could be a good starting point, but any sound business strategy should go deep into studying the particular African geography it targets.

2. Things are not well structured and that’s not a bad thing

Things will rarely, if ever, go according to plan. Project planning will serve as a good starting point but that’s as far as it will get you. While doing research projects in other parts of the world can mean following a well paved pathway, in Africa it can mean the opposite, especially in difficult geographies. A certain comfort with ambiguity is necessary to succeed in business or research projects in Africa, which always comes with the upside of learning creative problem solving skills.

3. Africa changes every day

A report about a fast growing African country is obsolete the year after its publication. Starting from a low base point, the continent is now catching up with the rest of the world at an impressive pace. Each year millions of Africans join the ranks of world consumers and new investments, often in billions of dollars, are injected into African economies to build new infrastructure projects, develop industrial platforms or strengthen the continent’s agricultural potential, which completely, and rapidly, changes the economic landscape of African countries.

4. Information is available, but not necessarily in the places you expect to find it

Finding readily available information is the dream of any business research professional, and that is exactly what it is for those doing business research in Africa: just a dream, as reality can be quite different. Valuable and accurate information is almost always obtainable only via primary interviews with the right people, and by that I don’t exclusively mean senior executives; some of the most interesting insights come from people down the corporate ladder, people who are in touch with the realities of their industry, day in and day out.

5. Sometimes it’s fun

Doing business research in Africa can often be challenging, but if one stops and enjoys what the continent can offer its business travellers, it can be fun. Africa offers business visitors rare opportunities to see unparalleled natural landscapes and engage in activities not easily accessible elsewhere, from volunteering with NGOs at the forefront of solving developmental problems to taking safaris in untouched areas. However, the real fun comes from the shared experiences one may have, meeting and collaborating with remarkable and friendly African people. That, above all, is my best learning to date.

Mohamed Zin El Abidine is a senior analyst at Infomineo.

Infomineo is a business research company, focusing on Africa and the Middle East. The company provides its clients, including the majority of the leading global management consulting firms and several Fortune Global 500 companies, with ad hoc data on countries, markets, companies and people gathered through primary and secondary research. For more information please contact [email protected] or visit