This article is an excerpt from The Africa List’s ‘Business Barometer 2020’.
As founder and CEO of the African Leadership Group, Fred Swaniker is a global authority on African private sector leadership and has been instrumental in sparking debate on the need for impactful leadership to unlock Africa’s potential. Talking to The Africa List, he reflects on the challenges that leaders on the continent face in these unprecedented times. He outlines why he believes they are also uniquely placed to capitalise on the opportunities presented by this period of adversity and uncertainty.
Reflecting on the current conditions for private sector leaders in Africa, Swaniker is upfront about the diverse challenges they face, even before discussing the pandemic: “We have infrastructure challenges, foreign exchange controls and macroeconomic instability. We have less purchasing power because our consumers are typically not wealthy, and we are operating on the poorest continent in the world.” These challenges mean leaders are working with fewer resources, both financial and human, and must find creative solutions to unlock potential and overcome setbacks.
Resilience and creativity
In many respects, however, some of these challenges are not new to business leaders on the continent. Many have experienced these from the start of their careers. To operate and grow in such challenging circumstances, Africa’s leaders have needed to demonstrate more resilience and creativity: “I think that we need to give credit to those leaders who dare to roll up their sleeves and say ‘I’m going to build a business in the toughest part of the world’. It takes an immense amount of courage, imagination, and resilience.” For Swaniker, this ability to operate in volatile environments is what sets leaders in Africa apart. Business leaders on the continent, he says, are required to be more resilient by their very nature, demonstrating they are ‘more capable’ and ‘tougher’ than those in other parts of the world.
Swaniker also credits the versatility of the entrepreneurs who have successfully navigated the unique demands of setting up a business in Africa: “For example, when you are opening up a bakery in most other countries you only have to worry about the bakery business. In Africa, you have to find alternative sources of power because you don’t have enough power supply to run your business effectively. You might have to find a way to create your water supply because the facilities are simply not there.” Founders working in Africa must be prepared to juggle obstacles outside of their immediate field of expertise, sometimes on multiple fronts, to achieve their ambitions – whether it’s at the market entry or the sustainable growth stage.
The importance of emotional intelligence
Looking back at 2020, he notes that business leaders all around the world have been put under the spotlight more than ever. Alongside the more obvious need to safeguard the financial future of their companies, leaders have also had to demonstrate ‘softer’ skills such as empathy, communication and understanding more than ever. Reflecting on the skills required of leaders in times of uncertainty where there is high anxiety, Swaniker says: “You have got to be able to really empathise with people, listen and be seen as a leader who actually cares about their people. Emotional intelligence is extremely critical at the moment.” Honing this wide range of ‘soft-skills’ means leaders need to be open to embracing change. Swaniker calls for people facing these challenges to “reinvent themselves as a business leader and learn new skills very quickly to adapt to this new world”.
The Covid-19 pandemic has also required leaders to act decisively to adapt and embrace digital solutions. According to Swaniker, “This moment of Covid is putting a particular premium on those that can move much faster.” Although there have been signs of a trajectory towards rapid digitisation, 2020 has only accelerated it. Those who do not evolve fast enough will get left behind.
Despite the challenges of the here and now, Swaniker also urges business leaders to look ahead, to take steps to future-proof their businesses and position themselves and take advantage of the opportunities that digitisation brings. Long term, he says, keeping pace with the speed of technological innovation will become more business-critical than the impact of Covid-19.
Swaniker predicts that the coming years will open up opportunities for Africa’s businesses to offer world-class services and goods to a global audience at a fraction of the cost. To capitalise, he says, business leaders on the continent must: “Be able to look beyond and imagine what the world will look like in one to two years from now and reposition their businesses strategically to be ready for what that world will look like post-Covid-19.”
Whilst conditions this year have added to the existing challenges of doing business in Africa, Swaniker sees now as a time of opportunity and innovation: “At the African Leadership Group we live by the mantra ‘constraint drives innovation’,” he says. “They often say ‘don’t waste a good crisis’. But it requires business leaders not to go back to the old way of doing things. Now is a time to use what’s going on with the pandemic to reinvent your business.” If Africa’s business leaders decide to embrace change – even if it appears to be the more difficult path to travel – they will be in a better place to capitalise on the opportunity to reposition their businesses and be ready for the new post-Covid-19 world. He says: “African leaders are experienced at solving complex problems in creative ways with limited resources. That is the story of Africa. And if you can succeed in Africa you truly are one of a kind.”
Ghanaian entrepreneur Fred Swaniker is the founder of the African Leadership Group, which consists of: the African Leadership Academy (ALA); the African Leadership University (ALU); the African Leadership Network and the ALU School of Business.