Doing business in Africa is one of the most inspiring. The competitive landscape is intense. Our concept of rational buyers does not always apply and like grassroots politics, it is important to have the grassroots understanding of the customer. But what differentiates good businesses to great businesses? The one attribute must be, ‘an open mind’. When the founder of Econet, one of the largest telecoms companies in Africa had to find a new CEO, he was faced with finding a seasoned telecoms executive who had an open mind. That person had to understand how airtime is really sold in Africa, on the street, the same way illegal drugs move through runners who work all day. Now, how many regions in the world understand this? Very few.
Just from this phenomenon, we begin to understand why very few telecoms companies from Western regions have managed to tap in the African market (and be rest assured they tried). Virgin Mobile tried its luck in South Africa and Richard Branson learned the lesson quickly and moved on. Customers in Africa are very loyal, even without realizing it. In the US, a company can create massive brand recognition in very short period of time, as we have seen with Uber, AirBnB, Dropbox and many others. Companies that did not exist 10 years from today can turn into game changers. How many small businesses in Africa do that, almost none accomplish this.
In Africa, an open-minded executive must create the impression that the brand has been in existence for a long-time and work out a way to build natural brand inertia without imposing on the end-user. In some cases companies have had to create the impression that they are global corporates in order gain customer trust. The life cycle of Edison Power has such a history of created impressions of a long history in electrical components which the founder used masterfully. An open mind has taken the under-dogs to new heights and awarded them with market leadership.