Communicating with the world

Last week we discussed how Ethiopia’s private sector is increasingly connecting to foreign markets and what challenges companies face in doing so. We realised that the world is becoming smaller indeed and that business transactions are increasingly taking place over the internet, replacing the ways we used to do business and demanding supportive infrastructures in order to connect to the rest of the world.
We also saw that looking at the current population growth rate of 1.8%, we will be well over 100 million in the next 20 years. That is how many mouths that will need to be fed. Jobs need to be created; in other words, millions of jobs! Supporting local investment and attracting investors are therefore welcome strategies as work for many will be provided. Education and vocational training will play an important role in order for the multitude of youth to be able to join the working forces and take up employment. Other supportive sectors providing essential infrastructures include telecommunications (mobile telephone and fast internet) and transport, especially more roads and airports.      
Another challenge for those connecting to foreign markets and economies is the fact that Ethiopian and foreign business people need to interact more often and intensely. They need to understand each other well. Chances that things could go wrong here is real and present. Different interpretations, different approaches and different expectations may cause business deals to go sour, spoil relationships and result in the loss of opportunities so desperately looked for. Here follow a few observations.
Ethiopians in general are people who find relationships very important. They are well known for their hospitality and hosting guests. An expatriate myself, I have enjoyed numerous invitations for lunches or dinner and family occasions like weddings, for example. I have attended funerals as well and learned the importance of being together in times of grief. The social networks are an enormous asset to this country, as compared to the rather poor individualism of some cultures in the west. In dealing with foreigners, the focus in the first instance is thus on building that relationship, finding out who this potential business partner is and whether (s)he can be trusted: the heart of the matter, so to speak, and an investment well worth its while. I suspect that people from other African and some Asian countries embrace a similar approach.  A visitor from the west, on the other hand, will have more confidence in the relationship when the business deal is written in black and white. Contracts are widely used and accepted internationally and building a good relationship is a strength that Ethiopians can capitalize on while negotiating a deal in which both parties feel comfortable. Once a contract has been agreed upon, it will be wise not to take it lightly however, as many Ethiopians are in the habit of doing, lest you will face legal action taken by the foreign business partner.    
Another issue is the concept of time. In Ethiopia we don’t consider time in the same way as some foreigners do. After all these years, I still get nervous when I am running late for an appointment, while my Ethiopian friends are so much more relaxed about it, comfortable with the abasha ketero. And while Ethiopians are used to handling several things simultaneously, their visitor tends to focus on one issue at a time before moving on to the next. (S)he will not be happy if you allow yourself to be interrupted continuously and answer your mobile telephone every few minutes, while having a meeting together, especially not if you came late to be begin with. Focus your attention instead and use the little time for this meeting effectively. Your visitor, on the other hand, would do well to try and relax a bit more and allow you to attend to a few issues before your meeting. Planning a few more days for the business trip will help as well.
We will also deal with investors who have learned to try and control their environment and thus their market. They take the initiative when meeting their potential business partners, while Ethiopians are more likely to kick the tyres a bit first. Our visitor would do well to slow down and take some time to understand the context before having an opinion or a solution. Pushing your way too hard may turn the potential partner away. Ethiopians in turn could come forward a bit more readily and speak out. Tell what you want out of the business deal and be clear about it.
Finally, most people, including myself, become defensive when getting feedback about their behaviour. This is no less so in Ethiopia and I am sure that some readers will question and deny my observations.  My advice: accept feedback as it comes and reflect on what the other person is saying. There may be some truth in it. Learn from it and use it to your advantage. I will be glad to receive some feedback on this article as well and try not to feel offended.