The enigma of doing business in Africa

Published: 26-OCT-04

Africa is a continent of many contradictions. Statements of support and wise words from governments and development agencies are not necessarily a reliable indication of what it’s like on the ground. That, in a sentence, sums up the thrust of this book by Steve Shelley, Doing Business in Africa, a Practical Guide for Investors, Entrepreneurs and Expatriate Managers.

So, what do we learn from this soft cover publication? I learnt nothing that I did not know. Perhaps because I am an indigenous African, therefore some of the assertions and generalisations made in the book are all too familiar to me or germane to my race.

Just as they say in Britain, not everyone who is British is English.

Shelley laments that good leadership is what Africa lacks, and desperately needs. In the words of a well-known television cleric, Dr Myles Munroe from the Bahamas, the third world is now the “flavour of the moment.

The First and Second World have nothing more to offer.

Africa should seize the moment.” Shelley points to the next 10 years as crucial for Africa's development. The missing element, he says, is that “catalytic effect” brought about by African and foreign investors coming together to move Africa forward. The continent has long since been trivialised and marginalised by global business. The average return on inward investment for Africa as a whole is four times that of the G-7 countries, and twice that of Asia, according to The United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA).

Shelley, describes doing business in Africa as “having fun, an immense feeling of satisfaction, whilst contributing to the upliftment of the societies and the people we work with.” Unfortunately, there are as many opportunities as there are glaring contradictions. The book identifies these contradictions and key opportunity sectors. For example, focus should shift from traditional business sectors like retail, taxis and repair work, to areas such as technology, tourism and outsourcing.

A chapter on The State of the Continent and regional trading blocks such as ECOWAS, COMESA, EAC and SADC only seem to highlight Africa’s acute disunity of purpose, a certain, separate regional-mindedness of trading with the West.

He laments, quite correctly, that Africa is the only continent that continues to grow poorer despite massive injections of donor funds and World Bank and IMF loans to reverse poverty. Including the newly-formed NEPAD, its members are beholden with lack of cooperation and suspicion of each other.

Africa’s regard for its own Diaspora needs to change. Sadly, western foreigners still enjoy better treatment in Africa than fellow Africans. “No other continent’s governments and people seem so unwilling to change.”

For a narrative book, I found the theories of strategic business management too academic and patronising to the African reader. Lessons on King Shaka’s military/ management skills would have been more complementary, in my humble opinion.

The country profiles and personal commentaries, although subjective, are an informative guide to persuade any jelly-heeled investor.

It is a great almanac of the African business landscape, from the sublime and unconventional, to the modern and global imperatives. By and large, what African countries need and what their governments want always differ. Shelley’s reality check concludes that although Africa’s business transparency is sometimes as clear as mud, Africa offers the last big investment opportunity.


By Steve Shelley

Published by Zebra Press.

Reviewed by Caleb Thondlana

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