Africa open for business

VWV's recent appointment to stage the first-ever MTV Africa Music Awards (MAMAs), has Jameson Hlongwane giving voice to doing business on the continent.
Africa open for business - VWV GroupJameson Hlongwane, managing director of VWV's Experiential business, is London-born and bred but is unequivocally South African and after staging, what can only be classified as wildly successful events in three African countries, he says to do business in Africa one must discard everything one knows about the business ethos of South Africa and replace it with a new code of behaviour. “Almost nothing is the same in other African countries. It's as if you should expect to fail the first time round and if you do then fail in a learning posture. Also be smart enough not to repeat mistakes, and instead maximise the benefits of what was learned in the process,” says Hlongwane.

“We recently worked in Nigeria, the DRC and Kenya, staging huge events as part of a road-show leading up to the MAMAs event. It was here that we learned lessons which anyone attempting to enter this market would do well to be mindful of:
  • In these African countries the eventing industry tenders little competition and as a result it is very expensive to use the local suppliers, as well as the skilled workforce.

  • The labour is mostly unskilled and it is therefore a timeous exercise to extract necessary skills from within these countries.

  • The industries in most of these countries operate on a strictly cash only basis, and credit cards in Nigeria are typically not accepted due to the high incidence of fraud. There is also no such thing as a 30-day account, which we as South Africans are well accustomed to. This means you have to carry enormous amounts of money which in itself places you in a precarious position.

  • In Nigeria and the DRC there is not enough work to sustain the eventing industry on a permanent basis which means there is no existing directory of industry suppliers. So in a manner of speaking you're actually forced to develop the industry to be able to stage an event.

  • Planning for the MAMAs show in Abuja Nigeria proved to be extremely challenging. To hire the type of equipment necessary to stage an event of this magnitude one is forced to purchase it, all cash, of course!

  • In the eventing industry it's integral to arrive in the country sporting developed relationships. A reliable supplier and on-the-ground support is fundamental to the success of the gig.

  • Local support is also a vital financial conduit to attempt to get around the ‘cash only' constraints when dealing in these countries.
Perhaps even more important is that we also had to summon all our patience and tolerance and couple this with a good dose of humility; all this while cognitively shattering the old African clichés that come so easily to hand while working in Africa. I am particularly aware not to suffocate the flow of the authentic local flavour when it comes to putting on events in another country,” says Hlongwane.

Local Partners

“I understand that business in Africa never happens the way you expect it to; which from a business point of view is always a challenge.” To obviate the problems it is imperative to have a local business on-the-ground to act as a cultural diffuser. There is also the language barrier to be overcome. And again, it its here that your ground operator becomes a non-negotiable in the equation.”

Hlongwane says that when selecting an on-the-ground handler it is critical to ensure that they have a good reputation in the market place, and he adds that it goes without saying that you should investigate their trustworthiness.

Invariably the local ground handler and the local suppliers are critical to the success of the gig. It is often tempting when things get frustrating to fly in South African contractors whom you have worked with in the past, and whose work is reliable and trustworthy. “VWV does its utmost not to take the easy way out. Our company culture is big on empowerment, and this philosophy is extended to the locals of the country that we are working in,” states Hlongwane.

The thing about eventing is that it is all about delivery, delivery, delivery. I could be argued that for the most part the client is generally not perturbed if locals are used to execute the gig or not. “As long as the job is delivered according to expectation, it is all the same to them,” says Hlongwane. Your company's reputation could be at risk when using foreigners to do the job. Because the client is not concerned with the ‘why' of what went wrong; they're only concerned that it did go wrong so it's import to use a measure of perspicacity when making these calls. Hlongwane adds, “While we prefer to employ local talent we will not make uneducated and risky moves that could cost client and put our reputation on the line. There are times that to ensure fabulous delivery we fly in a South African workforce.”

That said, VWV has had some great successes using the local work force. “During our recent work in Abuja we definitely left a legacy. Local guys had never done what we were asking them to, so we taught them from scratch. Now they have a new skill,” says Hlongwane. Undoubtedly this approach takes more time, patience and micro-management, but this surely is a small investment in comparison to the long-term benefits - especially if you continue to work in these countries and utilise the skills that you were able to impart.

For the MAMAs there were 400 to 500 people flown in from Europe, America, and Africa. “It's like going to Umthata in a lot of ways,” says Hlongwane, “There is no transport system besides kamikaze taxi's which was not an option. We realised we needed a plan to move enormous amounts of people around with no logistical solutions on offer, so we roped in the locals and literally had to create a mini-transport system. At the end of the event they were the first to thank us for the opportunity we provided, as well as for teaching them new skills,” says Hlongwane.

Crucial To Success

Hlongwane adds, “Due to the success of our ventures in Africa VWV has just opened an office in Kenya. This was only possible because to the forged relationships with local suppliers. It's absolute arrogance to think that you can start a business in a foreign country without established relationships. And you definitely can not expect to do business the same way as we do it in South Africa.” Making references to the cultural nuances that exist across our boarders Hlongwane adds, “My African experience has taught me that when locals say ‘Yes' to a work proposal, what they mostly mean is that they can make a plan to find somebody who has the skills to do the work. As South Africans we tend not to do that. Instead we'll say ‘sorry that is not my field of expertise'. Now we're sure to ask qualifying questions to determine whether ‘yes means yes I can'; or ‘yes means I'll find someone else who can'.”

To companies venturing north of our borders, Hlongwane advises that they set aside double the amount of time and money initially budgeted for, and half the amount of preconceptions.

For more information visit or call Jameson Hlongwane or Simone Innes 011 799-2600.

19 Mar 2009 13:46