The WAEMU countries offer excellent business opportunities, not to mention their share of risks and complications. A good cocktail of preparation, time, resources, patience, perseverance, perseverance, humility, adaptation, flexibility and commitment will be essential to approach these markets successfully. That’s nothing! Complicated and time-consuming, but certainly possible.
The following are the most important guidelines to take into account when opening a market in West Africa, not necessarily in order of importance.
◊ Going abroad requires preparation, i.e. time and resources to learn about the target market in order to learn and understand how it works, and thus be able to adapt to it.
◊ Understanding the local context is crucial to success, and in Africa, it is absolutely essential to be on the ground. Although these trips may be expensive a priori, the return on investment is systematic: only in this way will we be able to capture all the necessary information and learn about existing opportunities, including those that remain outside the official circuits and data due to the enormous weight of the informal sector in these markets.
◊ French is the working language in WAEMU countries, and speaking French instead of English makes relations and negotiations much easier (except in Guinea Bissau). Do not forget that formal French is spoken as “you”: do not make the mistake of addressing your interlocutor as “you” if he/she addresses you as “you”, as this may be misinterpreted as arrogance or arrogance on your part.
◊ The notion of time in Africa is different and it is important to be aware of and adapt to its rhythm. It is said that time is circular and not linear as in the West; it takes a long time to achieve almost anything, and not necessarily in the order that seems logical to us. It is essential to approach these markets with a long-term vision and to know how to be patient enough to wait for results.
◊ Patience, perseverance, tenacity and flexibility will be our best allies to face and successfully overcome the complications of all kinds that always arise in these markets (logistical, administrative, bureaucratic difficulties, etc.). Often things are done “on the fly” and in a very different way from what we are used to here. The opportunities may be enormous, but so are the challenges. And it takes time…
◊ Social relations are essential and it is fundamental to dedicate time to them: before moving on to negotiations, take an interest in your interlocutor, his country and his culture. Do not “attack” them by going straight to the point; this will show courtesy and respect, and will convey your commitment beyond the achievement of a possible contract. To the unaccustomed, these preliminaries may seem like a waste of time, but skipping them can waste much more time and money later. Realize that finding reliable partners and clients takes time, so as one of my staff in Côte d’Ivoire says: “Relax and enjoy dealing with us”. It is important to keep this in mind to understand that it will take several prospecting and/or study trips to reach a business agreement and that, once achieved, our constant presence and commitment to the project will be necessary.
◊ Collectivism: the concept of “extended family” carries enormous weight in WAEMU countries, as well as in many other African cultures. Made up of blood relatives, friends, neighbors, etc., it is very likely that even if your interlocutor is the owner of his own company, he will give priority to his extended family’s interests over his own. You should understand this concept well and take an interest in your family to create bonds and learn more about their motivations.
◊ Business organizations are highly hierarchical and the boss expects to be treated with deference. Don’t make the mistake of underestimating your interlocutor by the appearance of your facilities and don’t be fooled by appearances.
◊ Better in company: going hand in hand with a local partner, agent, distributor or “facilitator” will open doors, generate customer confidence and expand your network of contacts. In addition, it is important to have a local phone number, with local staff, that transmits seriousness and commitment to permanence in the market. Don’t skimp on training your partners and/or employees; the learning curve may be long, but the investment will be worth it (although you will have to know how to retain them because they will become highly sought after in the marketplace!)
◊ Quality supply with European standards. To say that in Africa everything has to be done and that they need almost everything does not mean that “anything goes”. Undoubtedly, the WAEMU countries are an interesting potential market for second-hand machinery, but not for scrap – Africa is not Europe’s clean-up point!
◊ Creativity: One of the main obstacles to doing business in WAEMU countries is the difficulty of accessing financing and the associated risk. Economies are still largely unbanked and company financial statements do not accurately reflect the reality, so insurance companies do not cover risks well in this region. Be creative and flexible in securing payment: there are other options besides documentary credits and keep in mind that Coface, the French insurance company, has the best coverage and information in West Africa.
◊ Lebanese community: very present in WAEMU countries, they are the majority in the distribution sector and are also very well positioned in other sectors. Obviously, different social groups have different negotiation styles, which in the case of the Lebanese will be more direct and professional.
◊ Ask for advice and information, in addition to the institutions and consultancies specialized in these markets, to those other Spanish or foreign companies that already do business or are already established there.
Finally, although there are still some guidelines to follow, the golden rule for opening a market in this region: “To do business in Africa, you have to BE in Africa“. First make sure that there really is a market for your product/service and that it can reach your target audience (logistics, distribution, legislation…). Don’t be obsessed with short-term results, give these markets the time and resources they deserve, and… lots of success!