It’s astounding to realize that I am nearly at the end of my three month ABF experience. I applied to the Fellowship because I wanted another experience working in a different African region – that is exactly what I got! My placement at Liquid Telecom in Nairobi, Kenya is my first experience outside West Africa. I was born in Togo, lived in Benin as a child, and worked a bit in Nigeria last year. While one can naively assume that once you know any part of Africa, you know it all, I can assure you that this is not the case at all! Africa is a collage of varied cultures, tied together by some shared cultural elements, yet too often misunderstood by the world. Even as a native born-African, I find myself trying to check myself from thinking or saying “Africans are, should, were…” One of the biggest reasons I will forever be an advocate for programs such as the Africa Business Fellowship is that they provide a structured way for individuals who feel they have something to contribute and seek to better understand the nuances of this dynamic, captivating, and complex Continent. More than anything, my experiences over the last few months in Nairobi have opened my eyes to all the things I have an opportunity to learn, especially if I want to commit to one day building a business somewhere in Africa. I had a lot of time to observe, listen, and reflect. Following are several lessons and questions I am taking away.
Of the many lessons, here are the most salient things I have learned or been reminded.
1. Listening, really listening is paramount, no matter what you are doing, who you are with, or where you are. Obvious lesson, hard to practice consistently, but so critical to adapting to a new culture so that you have any chance of been able to embrace it. My first month in Nairobi, I found myself always asking why something worked a certain way. Sometimes, it was not really a question, but a judgement. Luckily, I quickly realized that I needed to release some of what I was used to so that I could hear what people stood for, what we had in common, and what great things I was missing due to my preconceived notion. As someone who has travelled and moved a lot, I am constantly reminded of the value of closing my mouth so that I truly taken in everything new around me.
2. Humility in leaders is needed more than ever. Like many, I aspire to be a great leader today and an even better one each day. It is hard to define what a “great leader” is, but I would say humility of mind and heart is the single characteristic that I most value in leaders I try to emulate. As in prior professional experiences, I have been able to interact with or witness very humble and not so humble leaders during my time in Nairobi. At Liquid Telecom, one of the ways all of the management practice humility that I really love is that everyone is on a first name basis. It seems small, but it is huge in serving as symbol of the company’s culture. I grew up in a Togolese culture where formality and hierarchy ruled. Calling your elders, particularly your boss or upper management, by their first names is considered disrespectful and can earn you a jolting reprimand. Don’t get me wrong, I do appreciate and like to show respect by using Mister, Miss, President, Professor, etc. However, I think it is incredible and refreshing when a leader, says “No, just call me Strive.” Humility is demonstrated by a leader asking for criticism and truly being open to it and acting to resolve the issue if necessary. It is demonstrated by greeting your administrative and janitorial staff in the office. It can be demonstrated by admitting what you don’t know or can’t do and allowing your talented employees to shine by helping you. Without humility, you can’t be empathetic and you cannot serve people well.
3. Excellence cannot be achieved if you don’t have a learning mind set. I think about this in two regards: 1) personal development and 2) workforce skills growth. First, personal development. Having had 6+ years of corporate finance experience and a goal to shift towards strategy, I initially questioned if I had much to learn from my finance process improvement projects I was tasked with. Of course, I was wrong. Instead of jumping and resting on the conclusion that I was the “expert” and had nothing to learn, I moved forward with a focus on what I could do within my projects to hone the skills I had and would leverage and what new aspects of business I could explore. Because of this, I am certain that I have given myself the space to deeply engage with the Liquid Telecom team and that I will deliver much higher quality work than I would have otherwise. Now, to workforce skills growth. As I expand my professional experience over the years, I am becoming a stronger believer in the imperative for companies to ensure that they are giving time, money, and leadership support to training and development. A company that says they want to be the model of excellence in something, anything must help its employees be better at their job or another job tomorrow. In relation to Africa, the management talent gap that is often talked about is a cumulative cost of prior years of insufficient local skills development. The responsibility is shared by all – governments, local entrepreneurs, foreign investors, employees, etc., but we can all also be part of the change. If we want the soon to be largest youth population to be able to thrive economically and lead tomorrow’s enterprises, the learning mind set has to be encouraged and nurtured today.
Like any perspective shifting experience, my Fellowship is leaving me with deep questions I will likely be searching for the answers to for years to come. For the sake of brevity, I offer them with no context.
1. What role in the change I envision for Africa, am I uniquely capable of playing?
2. When I build a business in Africa one day, what should be the pillars of the company’s culture? What should we value? How should we achieve our mission? What should be an absolute no-go?
3. When it comes to solving problems in Africa, how do I know whether I am replicating as opposed to recommending/implementing a truly applicable solution inspired by what I know from life in the United States? How can I dualistically apply best practices from other continents in a Africa-contextualized manner?
4. Am I taking enough risks to live my purpose and have meaning, major impact? Am I willing to really walk the talk?
5. What does it mean to be “African”, “Togolese”, or “Kenyan”? How do I define who I am? In light of the answer, will I have enough cultural or identity credibility to be leader in those contexts? Is that even a question worth asking or that matters at all?
I could talk for hours about all I have been pondering on during the last few months. I am honoured to have been a member of the inaugural Africa Business Fellowship cohort – all of the learning above would not have been otherwise the same or possible. To close, I want to thank the ABF team, the other Fellows, Liquid Telecom, and the various Nairobians that invested in ensuring we had a worthwhile experience. Though it is bittersweet to close this chapter, I am comforted by the relationships I started to build which shall grow into the future.
Header image: group photo at the Quartz Africa Innovators Summit, hosted in Nairobi on July 20, 2016. From left: Ashley Company (Fellow), Jessica Davis (Fellow), Ciiru Waweru (Quartz Africa Innovator; Founder, FunKidz), Wanuri Kahiu (Quartz Africa Innovator; Filmmaker), Nadou S. Lawson (Fellow), and Ijeoma Emenike (Fellow).