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Context is king for Africa’s business consultants

Africa doesn’t need another consultant… says the career consultant. But I think this statement is true for various reasons. The African consulting landscape comprises global and local consultants who position themselves as experts in subject matter, innovative thinkers, corporate entrepreneurs and so much more.

They sit in client offices/businesses, professing they have what it takes to turn your business around ad nauseum. Why don’t they leverage their expertise to set up their own enterprises? There are, of course, those who have been responsible for the development of viable businesses over the last couple of years, such as Deloitte’s Innovation Centre. I give them their dues.

My concern is that the rate of turnover of ideas into businesses from centres of innovative excellence is exceedingly slow. Africa’s problems are nowhere near being solved. We’ve made some great strides, but we’ve only scratched the surface. It’s for this reason that I’m beginning to believe a new type of consultant is needed and given an opportunity to bring a new type of support to emerging market businesses.

Context is king

Too many consultants express their knowledge of the continent gleaned from their travels. Many have hopped from country to country, but their context is limited to the urban centres of the respective countries that they’ve visited.

This suggests their contextual understanding of Africa and its people is limited to urban settings. Yet most of the continent’s population is rural based. Too much time is spent understanding a smaller portion of the population and how better to serve them while we should be studying the needs and aspirations of so-called ‘unbanked’ and ‘bottom-of-the-pyramid’ type customers a lot more.

This would open new and lucrative markets for home-grown businesses because we would supply them with products they need, and the scale would ensure most of our business models were volume instead of margin driven. I saw an FNB advert a few years ago in which a finance consultant spent time at a farm in an effort to understand what was important for small-sized farmers from a financing perspective. Based on this ‘lived experience’, FNB was then better able to serve this customer segment.

Africa’s consultants should stop bringing solutions to the table based on “shared experiences” but should rather live the rural African experience to come up with products, services and solutions that would make a difference and contribute to the GDP per capita doubling over the next five to ten years. There is no point in limiting your transport solutions to luxury sedans when most of your market wants to get from point A to point B on a moped. Great solutions are borne out of an informed understanding of context.

If Africa’s per capita GDP is US$1900 per annum, are current business models and offerings suitable for most of the continent’s populace? I think not. To create sustainable wealth, the business model should be inclusive and not alienate a population unable to afford what’s on offer.

This was evidenced by a recent visit to rural Namibia. A leading bank erected billboard where it hoped to attract potential customers. But it was not delivering the desired result. We asked local inhabitants why they weren’t opening accounts at our client’s bank. Their response was that they weren’t aware of our client’s bank. We then pointed them to the billboard. They replied that they didn’t identify with the image of people on the billboard. Their first look at it told them the bank wasn’t for them and because of this, they paid it no attention. I guess the local community should have been consulted about what they needed before the billboard was erected.

Show me, teach me then let me

Most consultants would say I’ve got this the wrong way around. It should be teach me, then show me and after that, let me. But that sequence won’t work here. Great African consultants build prototypes after spending time in places that inspire. In the outback of a small-scale farmer’s property. At the local bottle store that is the only shopping centre for a 200-kilometre stretch or a clinic where one doctor serves hundreds of patients a day. At a school where 60+ children are crammed into a classroom or sit under the shade of the tree.

That is where innovation should be born. Prototypes such as a hand-held but mechanically motored plough for the small farmer’s 15-acre farm. A solar powered refrigeration and milling system for the local bottle store. A fuel-efficient transport model for the bottle store that enables deliveries to be made for a marginal cost and sustain the business. A water and weatherproof tent to balance out the classroom population at the rural school. The supply of desks that use recycled material, making them affordable for the rural school.

This is the ‘show me’ part of the equation consultants should be presenting to African businesses. The ‘teach me’ portion is about knowledge sharing, as consulting at its heart is about learning and unlearning. While being tested within the market place, the consultant should first spell out the solution based on a lived experience. The potential customer will at first use the solution based on the knowledge shared and provide feedback. Part of this feedback should include how to improve the solution or perhaps adapt it for yet another pressing need.

The result for these teachings is empowering knowledge, allowing the business/consultant partnership to return to the lab to further develop their solution. The improved solution is then presented to the potential customers with all kinks ironed out. Now the product can be left to the customer with the expectation they will derive value from it and that they’ll stay loyal, come back for more and in time, advocate for others to also be a part of your empowering offering.

I end where I began. Africa doesn’t need the traditional type of consultant. Their time has passed. We need consultants that support inclusive and scalable solutions to our continent’s growing number of entrepreneurs. We need consultants who share risks and are willing to back an idea to its completion because of their lived, and not shared, experience. We need consultants that don’t just talk about how good they are at supporting client businesses to grow but have tangible examples of their own to prove what they’re talking about.

We need consultants who embrace context and think rural before they think urban because that’s where most of the continent’s customers currently reside. We need consultants who are always thinking about long-term instead of the short game.

We need consultants who, in the end, will play a significant part in turning around our fortunes, doubling our worth and having our countries trading more and more with each other.

That, in my opinion, is what a good consultant should contribute to Africa’s economic revolution.