HR Management in Africa requires adaptability but gains on the input of your European egalitarian principles and horizontal management style.
Lucrezia Biteete and Marius Koestler, both involved with Fontes for almost 10 years, have recently ventured into new waters, but have brought with them much of the experience gained through work with Fontes Foundation. For example, they are both advisors with the Norwegian-African Business Association (NABA), a private sector organisation in Norway that promotes business in Africa and provides advice. The Fontes experience has also been vital in their newest project, which is establishing the Norwegian IT consultancy firm Laboremus in East Africa through an office in Kampala. On the 1st of November 2013, they were asked to hold a presentation at the prestigious NABA summit in Oslo, about human resources management in Africa. This article summarises the presentation, which can also be found on www.norwegianafrican.no
Managing staff in Africa can easily cause high levels of frustrations and challenges Norwegians are not used to meet. However, the key is to better understand where the workers come from, what society they live in and what problems they deal with. A good start when trying to get to know somebody, and where they are coming from, is by asking “How are you?”
In Uganda, you will most likely be baffled by the fact that few people you know well will reply the expected “Good, I’m fine” and you will be surprised to see that many respond, “I’m getting by”, “I’m struggling” , “I’m trying, trying” or they will say; “fair, fair”. So why do they say this? You could of course just blow it off as some linguistic practice. It is not. They are indeed “Struggling, trying and trying to get by”. For example, if all school-age children in Uganda would go to school this would represent 40% of the population, against 12% in Norway. All these children have to be taken care of and school fees must be paid. One of our friends and collaborators, for example, has to come up with at least USD 4,575 three times a year to pay for his own 6 kids as well as 7 others that he is taking care of since he is one of the few in the family with a job. Family in Africa goes well beyond the nuclear family known in the west, and don’t be surprised if your employee tells you that he is expected to pay for his wife’s half brother’s funeral costs.
It is also important to understand that countries like Uganda still have a highly class divided society. As a manager, you need to understand these differences and make sure that people from all social layers work well together and respect each other. For example, when you invite people out for a drink you need to explicitly make sure everyone knows they are invited, not only the upper ranks. And you need to discretely arrange for your female staff’s cab ride home, otherwise she will not afford to come. Most Norwegians are naÃ¯ve and even in denial about this fact.
Another thing, Norwegians are naÃ¯ve and in denial about is the hierarchical management structure everyone is used to and which is instilled into them from primary school. Although we love our flat and democratic management style, it is important to step into the leader role and show authority, otherwise you will manage an office of headless chicken. Once that is established you can start breaking down the artificial barriers and encourage your employees to provide their input, first in an institutionalised way. At the same time, it is important to counter-act an arrogant culture of upper management by leading by example, and take sufficient time to explain to employees WHY certain issues are important, instead of lecturing (or even worse, yelling).
This will motivate your staff, but you should also be sensitive to their problems and concerns when you consider other motivational measures. For example, whereas Norwegians think a Christmas party paid for by the employer is the coolest thing, people in Uganda would equally appreciate a cash bonus or a shopping voucher (for the same value as the staff dinner) that could help them cover some of the additional expenses over the Christmas season. At the same time, all motivation does not have to come from cash, and there are a number of other ways your company can keep staff motivated which are not expensive but means the world to them. For example, make it possible for staff to take low interest salary loans from the company, write a recommendation letter for them to get a loan in a bank or lend them the company car for going to a funeral or wedding out of town.
If you look back at what we have claimed so far, you might be confused. In one way we ask you to respect and adhere to the way things are managed in Africa, and at the same time we ask you to stick to your principles and bring in your own values. But that’s exactly the point. You do not want to create a Norwegian enterprise in Africa, nor create yet another African one. Yet your African employees are struggling. As one of our Ugandan employees stated after being in Oslo: imagine the potential that can be unleashed if you reduce the struggle of the everyday life in Africa! As we have seen, many times this can be done at a limited financial cost. But in order to address these concerns you need to understand their realities, and this is what this presentation is all about.
As one of our senior programmers in Uganda told us: Africans literarily live by a proverb you probably have heard before: “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket”. This means that most people will always have more than one professional engagement in order to make ends meet, or cope with an unpredictable employment market.
Therefore, in most cases, a working place is just one of many baskets, and this makes it extremely difficult for us to manage staff, as they will act fundamentally different from what we expect. However, through directed and conscious efforts, and by providing some of the safety net that is lacking elsewhere in society, you might very well get your staff to put all their eggs in ONE basket – and that basket should be yours.