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My experience of developing teams and offices in Africa

A presentation by Carolyn Hutton, Metorex summarised by Carol Butcher

Setting up offices in Africa is about people performing against the odds. You only succeed in Africa because of the people that you have in your organisation.

There are two critical things when establishing a business in Africa from an HR perspective: firstly, the establishment of leadership teams, and secondly, the establishment of HR teams.

The establishment of these teams is critical because it is these individuals that face tremendous odds which include:
– Health challenges;
– Safety challenges and
– Operational challenges.

Health challenges include diseases such as cholera, malaria, typhoid, yellow fever. There are times during the wet seasons when there are 40-80 employees absent a month just because of malaria. The outbreaks of diseases like Ebola cause a huge amount of disruption in your business either directly or indirectly when operating in areas of proximity or just being present in the same country.

Safety is also a constant challenge as you travel to work every day. This does not include Occupational Health and Safety challenges but personal safety challenges. Government officials often interrogate you and constantly pester you for information and documentation and at times they do threaten or actually detain you to exert influence to meet their demands or succumb to their influence. In the more rural areas one encounters “Ninjas”, who are individuals who construct informal roadblocks and demand toll fees from all travelers and passersby. They confiscate your passports and at times you find yourself on the roadside for up to three hours waiting for them to be returned. Then just like Ebola in health challenges the there are also the extreme incidents in security which entail encounters and kidnappings of staff by Al Qaeda!

Operational challenges depend on the actual operating environment the teams find themselves and can include:

  • Greenfield Operations which are completely unexplored areas that are usually located in the middle of nowhere and usually with no cell phone signal in the beginning. These are typically my favourite environments because you are able to witness the ingenuity and creativity of people as you build the teams within the organisation. You require people who not only represent you as an organisation in a foreign country and a new location but individuals that can typically be described as people who are able to “build a bicycle and ride a bicycle at the same time”!
    You will be amazed at how human beings can pull things together.
    Typically teams established are comprised of expats and the determination of how these are made up is critical. The selection of individuals against norms, that are required over and above normal psychometric assessments, are applied so that the right people are selected to lead organisations and create the right culture from the beginning.
  • Brownfields Operations are previously operated mines which have been mothballed or decommissioned for a number of years and now need to be brought back to life. You have buildings and structures but no people operating the old and rusted infrastructure. The people you do have around you, and usually in large numbers, are the forgotten communities left behind after these operations were closed. The presence of old operations hangs over them daily and they live in constant hope that one day there will be activity again which will lead to employment and the creation of a thriving community.
    The leadership teams that start up these Brownfield facilities need to be seasoned operators. You need people who understand the technical complexities of the previous operations and who can work with communities. They do not operate from a clean slate but need to, in a cost effective way, bring these businesses back into operation in as short a period as possible and at the same time integrate with the communities around them influenced by the presence of the organisations.
  • Established operations are highly technical businesses that have many employees and communities surrounding them. I have been introduced to established organisations where there has been no HR presence before. These businesses were preciously managed by Metallurgists and Mining Engineers who managed both people issues and community challenges. They do have established leadership teams but the introduction of HR into the organisation introduces the reality and certainty of change. Something most are not comfortable with.

In most instances like this there is complete change introduced in terms of not only the members of leadership teams (as you apply the leadership models and assessments that you would want in your organisation) but also the operating models and organisational structures change.
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