Leadership-Made-In-Africa with Modupe TAYLOR-PEARCE: Secret to SME growth in Africa: internationalize recruitment


One of the most common complaints that I hear from the hundreds of business leaders that I interact with across Africa is the struggle to find competent and capable employees.

Either the employees that they hire are not competent at their jobs or they are lazy and simply want the salary but do not want to work; or they are competent and hard-working but dishonest and cannot be trusted to not defraud the company which limits their utility; or they are competent and hard-working and honest but they are easily distracted with personal issues and are often late or absent from work due to a myriad of weddings, funerals, birthdays, family meetings, and other personal agendas that appear to get in the way of their reliability at work; or they are competent, hard-working, honest, and reliable but engage in inappropriate (usually sexual) relationships with customers and/or staff that create problems for the company.

Or all of the above…whatever the issue, if you find yourself bemoaning the lack of good employees that you need to grow your company, you are not alone. There are many like you, especially (but not exclusively) in small and medium-sized enterprises or organizations in Africa.

This is a significant challenge because for SME’s in Africa to be able to grow, the founders or CEOs have to be able to recruit competent teams that will professionalize their operations, expand their customer base, allow the CEO to focus on growth, stakeholder management and sustainability.

There is a solution, and it is available to every SME leader in Africa, regardless of the size of the SME.

Let me illustrate the solution with a few examples.

In Ghana a few years ago I vacationed with my family and we stayed for a few days at a small bed and breakfast. It did not have more than twelve rooms, by my estimate. The food was reasonably good, and the location of the B&B was good for us. What made the stay memorable was the service that we received.

The waiters were courteous and the manager was excellent. I noted that she was quite young (she did not look a day over 25) and her accent was not Ghanaian. So my wife and I engaged her in a conversation and we discovered that she was from Zimbabwe, and had been recruited to take up this job. She was always available, attentive to details, and made sure that we paid for the service that we received. I asked her how she found the job, and she said that she went through an agency and was recruited to come here.

She came on a two-year contract, and after studying hotel management she was pleased to have an opportunity to practice her craft in a position that she might have struggled to get in her home country. I did not have the courage to ask her what her salary was, but later was able to do some research and found out that the salaries paid for managers of small Bed and Breakfasts were eminently affordable (I will not print that information here) for the businesses that were hiring them based on the revenue that these places can generate when they are not even at full occupancy.

A small beauty shop in Sierra Leone got a new customer because of its international hiring. The business owners hired an East African to work at the shop on a two-year contract. One day, a friend of mine needed a massage and went to the shop at 5 PM; the beauty shop’s opening hours were posted as “8:30 AM to 5:30 PM”. My friend was feeling stiff and sore and was unaware of the closing time of the shop, so when she went there and saw the closing time, her heart sank. Knowing most Sierra Leonean workers in Sierra Leone, she figured that the workers would be unwilling to provide service to her that may impinge on their “go home” time.

She was thus unsurprised when the Sierra Leonean receptionist expressed doubt about any availability and said in a lukewarm tone “I will check with the masseuse” when my friend asked her to check. Two minutes later the masseuse came out and greeted my friend and said that she would be happy to provide a massage.

The massage lasted an hour (past the closing time) and the business gained a new, satisfied customer. When my friend – ever curious – asked the masseuse why she was willing to provide service even though it was past the official closing time, the masseuse simply stated that she is in the country to work, and has nothing to go home to since she is in a country that she is unfamiliar with.

In Zambia, an educational institution struggling with finding competent and diligent teachers decided to recruit a teacher from Ghana. The Ghanaian teacher was happy to be paid three times what he would have earned if he had stayed in Ghana and took up the job on an initial one-year contract but later extended it for another year.

While in Zambia, he was diligent, hard-working and focused on preparing his teaching notes, delivering his classes, grading diligently, and his students benefitted tremendously. Some of the people who know him well were surprised at the level of dedication he demonstrated, given his work ethic while in Ghana was not at the same level as what he demonstrated in Zambia.

When Africa becomes borderless, Africa will thrive immensely. This is the reason why regional integration bodies (ECOWAS, SADC) and pan-African integration bodies (AU, AfDB, and AFCFTA Secretariat) exist to push cooperation and collaboration between African countries in order to reap the full benefits of the amazing resources that our continent is blessed with. However, borderlessness starts in the mind, with our thinking. So here is a thought:

When African SME leaders think in a borderless manner, African SME’s will thrive immensely. This thinking starts with recruitment. When I recruited an executive assistant from Kenya and another from Ghana while I was working from Sierra Leone, some members of my own family thought it was a stretch. Today, five years later, our company (BCA Leadership) has benefited immensely from the internationalization of our recruitment because some of those staff have fueled the expansion of the company into parts of Africa that we had not considered. They have also freed me from the drudgery of doing work that as a CEO I do not need to be doing, and they have pulled me into the 21st century, encouraging me to learn about and take advantage of productivity tools that I may not have heard about if I had the benefit of assistants sitting geographically next to my office.

From retail shops to hospitality services to small manufacturing enterprises to banks to educational institutions, African leaders are discovering the magic of international hiring as a tool to accelerate their businesses’ growth and professionalize their businesses. So why are more SME leaders not doing it? Here are three reasons why:

1.      Fear of the cost. Some leaders – especially SME leaders – are afraid that their businesses will not be able to carry the cost of an international hire. Many leaders are under the misconception that hiring internationally is so expensive that it will break their bank account. This is not true. While it is true that the average salary of a foreign hire may be two to four times what it is for a local hire, please factor in the total cost of the person that you are hiring and the return on your investment in the person. The average local hire is paid for a 40-hour work week and often works productively 25percent of the time. The rest of the work time is spent either absent (physically or mentally) or engaged in activities that are not relevant to business success. An international hire will typically work more than 40 hours a week and will deliver 60 – 80percent productivity because of a lack of distractions and a desire to prove themselves in an unfamiliar environment. This alone makes it worth the investment. If you add the fraud risk factor, it makes total sense. An international hire – even if they were a thief in their home country – will not engage in fraud because every fraudster needs a supply chain to complete the fraudulent activity. In a strange land, the employee will not know whom to trust and therefore is unlikely to engage in fraudulent activity, even if invited to do so by the local staff. 

2.      Lack of awareness. Some leaders are simply not aware that this is a possibility. They erroneously assume that international hires are the sole purviews of larger banks, mining companies and international NGOs. This is far from the truth. Look around at some of your local retail stores and see how many foreigners there are working in some of them and you will understand that some of your business colleagues have found the secret. Decades ago, many retail store founders had to place their wives, husbands, children, and wards in their shops to staff their shops in order to prevent fraud and get their businesses to survive; today, many of them have discovered the secret of international hiring and bring staff in from other countries (not just in Africa) to work for them. One of the keys to success in international hiring is to ensure that the staff do not stay longer than three years; after three years the international staff tend to become “local” and adopt the poor habits that the employer does not want or need.

3.      Fear of the unknown. Some leaders are simply afraid of all the complications (real and imagined) that come with international hiring. Where will I house the person? What if they get sick? How do I get work permits for the person? What if the person turns out to be bad for business? What if business revenue goes down and I cannot pay the person? This is particularly ironic because it is proof that no condition is permanent; the same risk appetite that fueled a founder to open a business in the midst of so many unanswered questions and unknowns about the future disappears when the founder’s business has attained a level of cash flow and the founder become more concerned about preserving the business than growing the business.  If you are one of those SME leaders unwilling to explore the unknown and pursue this trend, I encourage you to think about the fact that your competitors may already be doing it and will use their increased productivity to put you out of business soon. Hopefully the fear of becoming obsolete overrides your fear of hiring one or two international people.

Dear African leader, if you are unsure about how to proceed with internationalizing your hiring, do not fret. Advances in technology make it easy for you to connect with potential employees and recruitment agencies across Africa at very little cost to you. Leverage your networks.

You can also sign up for a BCA Needs and Leads session where you can express you need for an international employee and you will find that there are other leaders who can give you contacts for people that would fit the job description that you share with them. I can attest, from personal experience, that BCA Leadership now has over thirty coaches in twelve different countries and they were all recruited through networking. It works, and we are better off for it and so is Africa.

Internationalize your hiring and grow your SME into a larger and healthier business.

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