African war stories by Leyland Hazlewood
African war stories
So where is the War Room? It is a movable venue; in hotel lobbies, bars, nightclubs, airport lounges, at cocktail and other parties. It is wherever two or three expatriates are gathered together in the pursuit of international business opportunities and there is some time to kill. Nationality is of no consequence – American, Japanese, French, Dutch, German, we find a way to communicate. While French has been the reputed language of diplomacy, English is undoubtedly the “lingua franca” of business. We were in Africa offering solutions to governments and companies.
The war agenda usually was flexible. It depended on the success or failure, delays, obstacles that were encountered in closing deals. Sometimes, it was just about figuring out who or what agency to contact to get the information you needed to initiate or move your mission or deal forward. The War Room is the informal university of international business. You put to the test all of the learning and theories of doing international business that you may have learned in more formal settings. The vaunted talk about globalization and the interrelationship among nations are no longer an abstraction. You are living it.
On a recent occasion, the War Room was in the cabin of an airplane on the fifteen-hour flight between New York and Johannesburg. I got into a conversation with a woman sitting next to me. She was born and grew up in Zambia, lived in Miami and was on the way to visit her sister in Cape Town. She spoke with such love and admiration of her father and how he ran businesses in Zambia. This, stimulated thoughts of my upbringing and its relevance to doing business in Africa. This lady and I grew up in different continents and we were obviously a generation apart. But the lessons that could be drawn seemed to be similar, relevant and potentially instructive to pursuing international business opportunities.
My exposure to international business commenced at an early age. I grew up in British Guiana (now the independent Republic of Guyana). I experienced the transition from colonial status to independence around the same time as most people in African nations. I lived the political and economic turmoil, the emotions, expectations and aspirations inherent in the process. Similar circumstances nurtured much of the leadership and the present generation of individuals who are managing the African agenda and vision.
My father owned The General Sales Company, a manufacturer’s representative. My father’s company was an agent for companies in the United Kingdom (UK), Belgium, Germany, Holland, India, Pakistan, Japan and the United States. The General Sales Company, on behalf of its overseas principals, sold a variety of products in the local marketplace. In my father’s wisdom and to his sons’ dismay, he deliberately sought ways to involve us in the business. During our high school years, he politely insisted that during the school week we should squeeze in a few business errands after school. Also, on Saturday mornings before our engagement in extra curricular sports such as cricket, football (soccer,), track and field athletics he found chores for us to do. We took purchase agreements to local merchants for their signatures. We delivered international invoices and shipping bills of lading to merchants and banks. We even did customs clearance for samples and on small order purchases from the company’s principals abroad. These part-time supportive chores performed by his sons enabled my father to more effectively utilize his paid sales staff.
If it did not breach business protocol, my father allowed us to eavesdrop on conversations with local merchants and foreign visitors from companies that the General Sales Company, his firm, represented. Little did we, his sons realize that we were learning about how international business was conducted – the problems of local merchants to whom my father was also an advisor in purchasing from overseas, distribution locally (in the country), B2B issues where wholesalers were involved and C2B feedback from retailers, banking terms and relationships, and the market intelligence sought by visiting principals, primarily from European and Asian exporting companies.
When my brothers and I obtained automobile drivers licenses, we were more inclined to increase our enthusiasm for these part-time business chores that interrupted our teenage athletic and social life. This was the case because it earned us the implied, though unspoken, privilege to request the use of the family car for the Friday or Saturday night parties that were so important to our social status among our teenage peers.
Later, with maturity and formal university studies in economics and business in the United States, I could, retrospectively, put a number of disparate pieces of information and activities into perspective. The macroeconomic management of foreign exchange, rationing, licensing the imports of selected commodities and products began to be revealed. If the farmers did not grow and export enough sugar or rice, or the mines did not produce and ship enough bauxite ore, or enough logs and sawn timber were not exported at favorable prices, then foreign-exchange reserves for the importation of the shoes and clothes that we wore and all manner of consumer products would not be available.
The country did not produce most of the consumer and producer goods, tools and machinery that were required to sustain the livelihood of the population. These things had to be imported from countries that had textile mills and all manner of other manufacturing capabilities. The export prices and earnings generated by activities on the farms, plantations, remote forests and mines had a direct effect on the prices that families like mine, in the city, had to pay for all the products that had to be imported to sustain our level of living. Even as a youth, I knew that I was part of a wider world – a global citizen.
Fast-forward to today – ‘plus ca change, plus ca reste’! With all the changes that have taken place after the official demise of colonialism, similar
circumstances, as described above, still represent the everyday reality for people in most countries in Africa. This situation creates enormous
opportunities for exporters of a wide variety of merchandise to “the growing African middle class”. Until there are sufficient new investment in
manufacturing and services to substitute for or complement such imported products, the demand for imported goods will continue. The corollary here is that there is also a crying need for the development of local manufacturing capacity in African countries.
In a nutshell, this is largely the basis for opportunities in trade and investment on the African continent. With proper guidance and support, ventures
into Africa can contribute to the “bottom line” of many companies, large or small.
In The Ultimate Guide to Doing Business in Africa, I draw upon my 40 years in the war room to show companies how to engage this process to serve the needs of African countries, while at the same time earning profits.