How to do business in Africa

In my recent vlog for the UK Department of International Trade, I share my top four tips on how to do business in Africa. In this article, I put my advice into context, sharing Aspuna Group’s experiences of building processing capacity, trading, and enabling market access in Africa.

Aspuna Group’s story began in 2015 when myself and two fellow students on the Executive MBA programme at Cambridge Judge Business School realised that there was a gap in the market for a truly socially responsible Pan-African commodities company.

It wasn’t just our academic credentials that position us well to create such a commodities business. We have African connections and strong experience in the global commodities trading sector too, with big name firms. We know how global businesses trade with providers of various commodities in Africa and we know that, the model is non-sustainable.

A new way of doing business on the continent

Indeed, based on our experience and observations, we knew that a new way of doing business was establishing itself on the continent. Building on the experience of previous generations, today’s managers in government and the private sector, within the supply and consumer market side, are very historically and politically aware. As such, they tend to be increasingly selective in who they establish business relationships with.

They are also well educated, with considerable international experience. Meeting with European and American counterparts of the same generation, who are increasingly attaching non-monetary value and purpose to the products they consume, they can be uncompromising in their push to re-balance business relationships. This attitude is buttressed by the fact that they are seeing social activism across the globe challenging some of the structures that we have got used to, including in business. As such they are hyper-alert to the opportunities emerging from such global trends.

No matter where they are on the continent, today’s business leaders are united in their quest to connect with other African businesses to create a Pan-African market. In this way, entrepreneurs are re-connecting to the ideas first put forward by the founding fathers of post-colonial Africa, who strongly believed in the enormous potential within and between the sub-regions. These strategies are now also supported by the new African Continental Free Trade Area.

Aside from the continuous outward flow of African products to Europe, the USA and Asia , there is now a tight focus on the African doorstep. This generation of business managers is powered forward by the opportunities of this continent and has no time to entertain images and hierarchies of the past. This is creating a powerful new set up that I believe will change the world of global business profoundly.

Powering forward partnership and respect

So, our approach at Aspuna Group has been one of partnership and respect right from the get go. We’re a commodities specialist with a difference. That difference is that it is our mission to unlock the value of Africa’s natural resources and generate socio-economic returns for the communities we operate in. This should not be mistaken with CSR, which outsources social responsibility to a separate department, rather than embedding it into operational structures.

This is an approach that appeals to many of our partner companies and clients across generations. Our business model demonstrates how private enterprise can be a powerful vehicle for socio-economic development – creating a win/win situation. Our experience in the strength of the pan-African market brings to life those old ideas and business concepts, yet we are adding our own innovative systems+ value approach.

Building processing capacity

So, what is it at the heart of our approach that has such cross-generational appeal?

We provide commercial and engineering solutions, but it is not advisory or consulting. We actually roll up our sleeves and get involved building processing capacity so that African farmers, miners and other professions working with natural resources, keep the value add of processing their resources on their continent.

“We actually roll up our sleeves and get involved building processing capacity so that African farmers, miners and other professions working with natural resources, keep the value add of processing their resources on their continent.

Being a partner

Finding local solutions sometimes means professionalising already quite successful African teams by plugging technical, commercial and access gaps, and doing so as a partner and with respect. It can also mean bringing together our geographically varied technical and commercial expertise with local experience to develop successful projects that take African SMEs to the next level.

Whatever it means, it has always and will always involve a deep understanding of the communities we operate in, as well as a hyper-awareness of the stark differences that exist within African sub-regions, within countries and sometimes provinces. It has always and will always involve looking beyond the obvious, reaching out to people, being agile and creative in our approach, and, being prepared to adapt our strategy too.

In conclusion

In conclusion, our strategy + value system of private enterprise is proving to be a powerful engine for the growth of Aspuna and our partners, as well as a facilitator of development across Africa. It has the potential to become so much more effective than historically isolated governmental or international donor programmes have been. The record for both in Africa is underwhelming. Mixed sector collaboration is the way forward. With the above toolkit in place, opportunities to unlock Africa’s natural wealth are endless.

“Opportunities to unlock Africa’s natural wealth are endless.