#OB2022ThoughtLeadership: Adversity—fuel for creativity, innovation, and growth


On 11th March 2020, the world changed.

Screens mounted on conference-room walls to those on basic smartphones lit up with the news from the World Health Organization that the novel coronavirus was now regarded as a global pandemic. Originating from Wuhan in China in late 2019 and spreading through Europe, life as we knew it would never be the same.

There has been more permanent change in the last 20 months than most would dream to experience in a lifetime. At the height of the pandemic thousands died worldwide. Families were affected with breadwinners stricken. Streets famous for bustling with activity lay silent. The world had to find a way to regroup. Yet, even amidst tragedy amplified by the 24-hour new cycle, there were stories of hope and innovation. As they say, “necessity is the mother of invention”. And invent, we did.

We had to change, and brands had to adapt as well. With ways of working turned upside down, fledgling technologies becoming mainstream. Advancement happened at the speed of light. With fierce competition on new frontiers and consumers’ needs evolving, could brands position themselves to survive the times? The short answer was yes. Brands that were able to think on their feet and change direction emerged victorious. On a global level the entire tech industry saw varying levels of growth. This included brands like: Amazon, Facebook, now Meta, PayPal and Netflix. Pharmaceuticals like Roche and Moderna also saw positive returns, as did FMCG powerhouse Nestlé.

During what could go down in medical records as a curse, the world of business in Africa saw many silver linings that brought lasting change to commerce and the way consumers interacted with brands. As this piece reflects on how innovation and creativity drove growth during a pandemic across the continent, we are mindful that it’s not a one-size-fits-all.

The proverbial leveling of the playing field in action

For the first time in a very long time, the world was in the same place with all continents at the starting line of many firsts. A supply chain crisis loomed everywhere, causing demand to exceed supply across multiple industries. All healthcare systems where challenged, especially in advanced countries, which seemed hardest hit. From a technology standpoint, we were all learning from each other. In many ways, technology leveled the playing field. Though platforms like Zoom and Teams existed, they were forced to scale up to meet the massive demand, and they responded with speed and agility.

From religious groups like church women’s fellowships to financial giants in the corporate world through to social groups like Rotary clubs, everyone needed to stay connected. These groups discovered this nifty little app that allowed you to chat over the internet with a 40-minute cutoff. Zoom was a lifeline. Today, people can view webinars in Singapore or Boston from their homes in downtown Accra, Lagos, Cairo, and Nairobi.

In a sense, you could say COVID democratized technology, opening similar solutions across the world and we have tech giants like Microsoft, Zoom Inc, Netflix, Bolt, Glovo etc. to thank.

The testing out of growth mindsets against fixed mindsets

Businesses that were flexible in their thinking were found to thrive. A growth mindset is always willing to learn, disrupt and innovate, embrace change, and seeking to improve. This mindset enabled risk taking, but at the same time, a sense of vulnerability. Interestingly, it has been found that those who are willing to try – and fail – are more likely to succeed than those who stick to familiar methods. In the new post-COVID economy, it is this growth mindset – a willingness to develop through intentional steps to be better – as against a fixed mindset that will see leaders take their businesses to new heights.

Brands like Bolt Food had foresight, saw opportunities, and took them through deliberate strategies to achieve set goals. Financial institutions developed products in response to new needs. Absa, for example, launched their contactless cards to minimize the spread of the virus, beyond the bottom-line, they put the consumer need first.

The rebirth of entrepreneurial opportunities 

All over Africa, the informal sector has always held huge opportunities for growth. As the world changed, new businesses gained ground. COVID made convenience a necessity in the lives of many. One key area that was nurtured and has flourished has been the delivery industry. The rise of delivery business created an industry of parallels with all continents developing at similar paces.

With hindsight, Africa was probably ahead with the presence of the proverbial Okadas. Though unsupported by advanced technology, those ubiquitous motorcycles roaring along major African highways were the lifeblood of business and societal mobility. Today mobile delivery has taken on a new life with the integration of a technology overlay through apps like Uber, Bolt, Yango, Glovo & Shaq Express that were upgraded to meet new needs.

Entrepreneurship was on the rise, everyone wanted a side hustle, and many were forced to consider the possibilities. With young people losing jobs or suffering salary cuts – an obvious downside of the pandemic – countless social media accounts, home and car-boot businesses were born. The budding online business on Facebook and Instagram took on a new form with pages being points of sale for fashion and lifestyle items, fast food, groceries, etc. Courier services then became the lifeline for how small business got their wares across town to their customers.

In quiet moments, observe and you will be pleasantly surprised that probably every three out of five delivery bikes and cars in many cities are driven by freshly minted drivers and riders, indicating yet another opportunity to make an honest living brought on by COVID.

Collaboration for survival

It has often been said, maybe to the point of being cliché, that if you want to go fast, go alone, but if you want to go far, go together. Leaders who latched onto this during the wild months of COVID-19’s reign of terror have pleasant tales to tell. We saw many businesses work with each other as collaborators, rather than as competitors.

Standard Charted Bank across the region – Ghana, Uganda, Zambia, and Tanzania – launched no-cost financing programs in partnership with various companies. The funds financed businesses that produced critical supplies for the fight against COVID-19. Some beneficiaries of this funding included Kasapreko Industries, an alcoholic beverage manufacturing company in Ghana, it was financed to the tune of US$4.7 million in service of producing sanitizers using their existing production lines. MPharma, a pharmaceutical company, received a $3 million credit line to facilitate the purchase of PCR testing equipment. This initiative humanized the SCB brand and demonstrated how brands worked together for the greater good.

Some relevant global brand partnerships were spawned. In response to the coronavirus and the need for a vaccine to slow the spread of infection, pharmaceutical giants, Pfizer, partnered with BioNTech to develop a vaccine using innovative mRNA technology and to conduct clinical trials. The result was a vaccine within only 11 months.

Fewer. Bigger. Better.

2020 saw a narrowing of focus on the part of many businesses. Adversity forces you to see what is most important, helping you to maximize what is working most, and taking advantage of new opportunities where old ones have dried up.

With the bars closed, corporate brands like Coca-Cola and Diageo across the continent, were forced to change strategies. In-home drinking occasions were scaled up as consumers got used to the new normal. The focus shifted from in-bar advertising and activations to e-commence and getting products into the hands of consumers at home. This recalibration to invest in new areas was rather risky and bold because no one knew how long the pandemic would last. Well, here we are.

Telcos tailored many products to fit working from home, education, and entertainment. With voice calls dwindling in many markets and the strategic needle already pointing towards data services as a key growth driver for the future, the pandemic gave them a live opportunity to test their hypotheses. This made them ready to take advantage of what would have been a death knell to less-prepared businesses. From more cost-effective data bundles to an emphasis on enterprise products, they positioned themselves to remain relevant during and after the lockdown period in the affected cities across the continent. We cannot lose sight of the work that Vodafone, Safaricom, MTN, Orange, Airtel, Tigo etc. put in to ensure people could deliver on their work, stayed connected to those they love and were entertained.

What, then, does the future hold? From a dark cloud has emerged some colourful rays. New opportunities abound in plain sight. Though the world has changed – rather, been forced to change we adapted, we evolved, and we thrive. 11th March 2020 proved to be a springboard to a new world where technology and real life merged to show resilience of the human spirit and many brands were at the center of this bold new normal. Brands that put consumers changing needs first and sought to partner rather than be opportunistic were at the forefront of creativity, innovation, and growth. As we look into the future, may we focus on and learn from the stories of brands that turned a difficult situation around and created new opportunities.

>>>Akua, Regional Managing Director of Ogilvy Africa, is a creative thinker, her true self expression is apparent through her deep interests in gastronomy, creative writing, child development and empowering business professionals.

Since 2005, Akua has been a Marketer; developing campaigns to promote products, services and ideas. A strategic thinker; building businesses, brands and peeling back the layers of consumer behaviour and motivations. 2013 saw her become a business leader; responsible for nurturing cross functional teams, growing client businesses in different African markets and fuelling the creative and digital engines in the advertising agencies she has managed.

Akua moonlights as an educator; empowering teams with new skills around strategy, brand development, personal branding, selling, presentations skills and leadership in this new age.

Today, she is a strong change advocate, driving business transformation in partnership with key clients like, Kosmos Energy, Vodafone, European Union, Twitter, Coca-Cola, Diageo, Bolt, UNICEF, Visa etc. who are committed to people development, social change, business innovation and growth on the continent.

Currently her team at Ogilvy Ghana is made up of 51 talented people whose expertise cuts across Creative, Strategy, Digital, PR & Media functions. This team works with a client portfolio across West and Central Africa in categories covering: Beverage, Technology, Finance, FMCG, Telco, NGO, Oil & Gas, Banking etc. The diversity of the team, their experience, collaborative nature and professionalism makes them a force to reckon with, in the industry. As an empath, teacher, digital enthusiast and innovator, Akua looks towards the future with optimism. PEOPLE & THINGS EVOLVE DAILY, DON’T FIGHT IT.




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