How to win in Africa: 5 lessons from successful companies

5. Out-invest in recruiting, developing and retaining local talent, especially mid- and top-level management.

It’s well known that Africa suffers from a critical shortage of skilled professionals, mainly due to the population’s low education level and a troubling brain drain – the steady exodus of the continent’s highly educated workers. Consider the fact that more than 70,000 students leave Africa each year, with only half returning. Leading companies understand that, amid such scarcity, creating a rich talent pipeline requires a substantial commitment over time.

To attract top local talent, leaders leverage and promote their corporate reputation, brand strength and presence. Some companies launch graduate recruiting and training programmes and provide clear career development paths to increase skills and retention. Among the lures: offering attractive transfers and sought-after job rotations. Successful companies also ensure that salaries are correctly benchmarked not just against direct competitors in the local marketplace, but also against companies in other fast-growing sectors, such as financial services or telecom, that could raid their talent. They also rely on expatriates to temporarily fill local talent shortages.

For one leading fast-moving consumer goods company, a well-devised talent plan was an integral part of its strategy. The company hired more than it actually needed – a safety cushion to limit future shortage. To develop its workforce, the company drew up training programmes and implemented a mentoring system with quarterly feedback and guidance. To retain talent, it improved remuneration, rewarding strong performers differentially. Another important measure was to put in place processes and metrics to monitor the talent evolution. For example, it implemented attrition incident reports. Finally, to address immediate capacity gaps, the company repatriated talent working in other markets and temporarily introduced additional layers in the organisation to make spans of control manageable. Though talent shortage remains a key challenge for the company, these actions allowed it to successfully fill a portion of the gap and make strides toward its growth goals.

These are pragmatic examples of how companies beat the specific challenges of doing business in Africa. But as these pioneering companies have also discovered, one critical capability to master in the African context is having an entrepreneurial mindset. That means easily adapting to unexpected roadblocks and opportunities, becoming comfortable taking the kinds of risks that aren’t required when doing business in most other parts of the world, and following gut-level instincts to make less-informed decisions. To win in Africa, you don’t need to throw out everything you’ve learned in sophisticated markets, but you do need to foster a culture of boldness, agility and resourcefulness.

Article written by Matthew Meacham, Andrew Tymms, Tiaan Moolman and Joëlle de Montgolfier. Matthew Meacham, a Bain & Company partner based in Madrid, leads the firm’s Consumer Products practice in Europe, the Middle East and Africa. Andrew Tymms and Tiaan Moolman are Bain partners in Johannesburg and leading members of Bain’s Global Consumer Products practice. Joëlle de Montgolfier, based in Paris, is senior director of Bain’s Consumer Products practice in Europe, the Middle East and Africa. This article was first published by Bain & Company.