Thoughts on tribalism and cultural prejudice in the African workplace

For multinationals looking to expand on the continent, hiring local expertise with an understanding of the specific African market dynamics, and its unique customers, can be a vital strategy.

During a seminar at last month’s International Food and Agribusiness Management Association (IFAMA) World Forum, four representatives from multinational companies spoke about the challenges of finding and retaining local talent on the continent. One of the topics that came up was the issue of tribalism and cultural prejudices in the workplace.

Bayella Thiam, executive manager for Africa at Novus International, said that when the company first expanded to Africa, it struggled to find someone in Morocco to head up its North African division. In addition to meeting industry requirements, the candidate had to be fluent in English, French and Arabic and the local talent pool was small.

When Novus did eventually find someone, he refused to visit Tunisia and Nigeria for business purposes. “He would not do business in Nigeria, he would not do business in Tunisia,” explained Thiam, adding that this was because of cultural differences and distrust between the nations. The company ended up having to recruit someone from the diaspora to fill the position.

“Africa is 54 countries, and each country is different,” Thiam noted.

The continent and its people cannot be painted with one brush. Africa is brimming with different cultures, ethnicities, languages and religions that are not necessarily defined within regional clusters or even the national borders that were drawn up by the colonial powers.

Thomas Herlehy of Land O’Lakes – a global agricultural organisation with a focus on diary – said the company struggled with employee tribalism in Kenya during the 2007/8 post-election crisis. During this time there was an eruption of tribal based violence, particularly between the Kikuyu and the Luo, in the country.

“The Kikuyu and the Luo decided to start killing each other, and we had a project that had Kikuyu and Luo working together, on the same project. It threatened to destabilise. And there is no joking about it; it is still a serious issue.”

Not just an African problem

However, Herlehy noted that this is not a problem unique to Africa and Land O’Lakes is struggling with similar issues in Sri Lanka in areas affected by the Tamil Tiger rebellion.

“As companies working in these areas, it’s extremely difficult and a lot of us don’t have the skills to negotiate those paths. So we have to bring in other people who are experienced and that just raises the cost of doing business there,” explained Herlehy.

Another panellist at the seminar was Raj Vardhan, who has held various leadership positions – both within and outside the continent – at global agribusiness and food conglomerate Olam International. He is currently the company’s regional controller for Russia, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and agrees that cultural prejudices is not just an African problem.

Vardhan argued that while it is important to be respectful and sympathetic towards local culture, Olam makes it clear that ethnic or cultural prejudice between employees will not be tolerated. The company’s corporate culture needs to be understood and respected by employees.

“So if you have two managers fighting because of ethnicity, both of you are out because as a multinational we won’t tolerate that. A good example of that is that I am based in Russia right now. I oversee both Ukraine and Russia and I have similar issues and I can’t have managers going at each other’s throat.”

Vardhan said that all of Olam’s managers have, at some point, attended global sessions with the aim of ensuring that “everyone thinks similarly, talks the same language” and understands the “Olam culture”.

EQ in management

Employing expats to fill positions in Africa could potentially upset local employee morale, highlighted Paul Lotter, Standard Bank’s HR business partner for corporate and investment banking in Africa. Lotter said that it is therefore important for companies to place an emphasis on developing the emotional intelligence of their management, such as the ability to listen.

“The ability to develop EQ as we call it, emotional intelligence, has become much [more important], for example, than just the IQ component.”