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How To Do Business In Africa

Updated on January 14, 2013
Typical house In the county side of Sierra Leone Taken as i was passing by on the road to BO, A small diamond mining town.
Typical house In the county side of Sierra Leone Taken as i was passing by on the road to BO, A small diamond mining town. | Source

In my previous article on doing business in Africa, I wrote of some of the inherent problems facing the unwary American or Western businessman who is unfamiliar with African business practices and culture. You can click on the link at the bottom of this article to view the article. The problems facing foreign business people in Africa are many, most can be overcome, some not.

One of the expensive problems you can successfully deal with is having to shell out hundreds or even thousands of dollars to the African business people that believe all Americans are rich. Because of this belief, it is fair in their minds to make you pay for any, and all costs for meals, drinks, transportation, internet, telephone, gasoline, service on their cars, boat ferry, water, rental of their friend’s car, toll booth, snacks, taxis, parking, tips, baggage handling, bribe money, “gifts” for the people who are needed to make the transactions happen, their transportation to the meeting, payment to use someone’s office and the list just goes on and on and on.

I have worked in many African countries and have gone to Africa for years. In all my trips, in every country I have gone to for business, not once did an African offer to pick up a single check for a meal, a drink, or a coffee. It is not that they are cheap; it is because they know you are stupid enough to pay.

For those of us in the West, when you go out with a customer, the vendor nearly always picks up the check. There are times when the customer will pick up the costs, but most times the vendor sees the dinner costs as part of the price one pays to open and maintain customers. If you going on a selling trip, it is not unreasonable for you to pick up the tabs as part of the cost of doing business. However, I am talking about people who go to African countries to buy. Buyers in the West would not expect the vendor to have the buyer continuously pay for all fringe costs. This is not the attitude in Africa. They do not look at it the same way. Their view is that you have come to Africa to buy and you need them to succeed. They know, the only reason you will put up with all the inconveniences, hassles and costs of to Africa is because you can make a lot of money if you are successful.

Now, I hear some of you saying, what’s the big deal? Don’t be so cheap. You too will begin to think it is a big deal when you add it all up. It will be an even bigger deal, if your trip is not successful. Let me give you an example; you set up an introduction meeting with the people you are about to engage in business. Because you do not know your way around, or transportation is not easy, they offer to meet at your hotel lobby or restaurant. They never come alone. If they reach there before you, they will not have ordered anything to drink or eat. Once you sit down with them, they will then ask you if you want to get someone to drink or eat. Being polite, and understanding, that they actually want to get something, you say yes and order a drink. They will then orders drinks and snacks. At the end of the meeting, after your second meeting has been arranged, they will stand up; shake your hand, and thank you for coming. They will smile and leave.

The waiter will give you the check and you will realize you just spent $50-$100. I know this is not a big deal. Then comes the second meeting and rarely, do you conclude your business at this meeting. They will then ask you if you want to meet for dinner. Of course, you agree. You think they are inviting you for dinner and it is an opportunity to build the relationship.

You show up to dinner at a very expensive restaurant they have chosen. At the table is your host and, what a surprise, two to four other people who will be joining you tonight. The food is good, the service is all smiles, your host assures you that you are going to make a killing on your deal with him, and, when dinner is over and the check is brought… No one reaches for it. That’s right, no one. You are sitting there wondering; when is this guy going to pick up the check? Only he doesn’t. It is now becoming uncomfortable. Your host is all smiles, his friends are all smiles and you most likely will feel embarrassed and pick up the check. If you don’t offer to pick up the check, once again, they will stand up, smile, shake your hand, tell you how much they enjoyed the evening, tell you they will see you in the office in the morning and will walk away without picking up the check. You will be too embarrassed to say anything. You will look down at the check and it will be for $200- $300 and you will now need that drink you decided not to have earlier.

When you go to Africa, expect to get nailed on some things. There will be no way out of it. Make sure you calculate these so called unexpected costs into your budget. Lest you think I have no suggestions to help you, then you have not been reading between the lines of this article. Actually, I have already given you the solutions by outlining where they will try to hit you. What?

Let us look at it together if you are not already clear and smiling. First, tell them you want to be picked up at the airport right as you come out of customs. Ask them if they are going to charge you for picking you up and driving you to your hotel. No, I am not kidding. When you go to your first informal meeting at your hotel, bring a bottle of bottled water with you. When they ask you if you want anything else, decline and tell them you are fine with your water. If they order anything and when finished start to get up to leave, stand up and say politely and with a big smile on your face; “Oh, wait a minute please, let me call the waiter for your check.” Without hesitation, get the waiter immediately.

Do not be shy. You drank nothing, you ate nothing. If they protest, or simply leave without paying you know these people were only out to nickel and dime you to death and your odds of closing a deal with them was most likely less than the odds of winning the lottery.

If they graciously pick up the check, that is a big thing. It means they value your business and want to close a deal with you. It is also your first clue on how to negotiate terms and prices for whatever it is you have come to buy. I could spend an hour writing out the rest for you, but I am not. Go look at the top of the article and ask yourself how you can avoid the costs I have outlined for you. If you cannot figure out how to avoid these costs now that you know what they are and how they will occur, you are really not smart enough to do business in Africa. You should either stay home and forget about it, or view my previous article and learn what you need to know when working in Africa.

To View My Previous Article: Trying To Do Business In Africa?

For More Articles On Business In Africa: Dirt To Dollars


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      Antonio Moltó 5 years ago

      I was laughing while reading your article. What you say is 100% true, they think that we are all rich in one side and the other side they think that we are stupid.

      As many ppl have accepted these rules, it is hard to deal with locals in a let's say "normal way". Anyhow, there is long time that I don't pay even a soft drink if they are not friends.

      I will just add that when you go to a meeting and you find more than two persons in the seller side.... take care, probably will be scammers.

      Thanks for your article,