How do you actually position yourself as a newcomer in an African market if you have no business connections in Africa? How do you get started successfully when no-one knows you? Before we get started, I think it is important we clarify first what it means to 'position yourself in a market'. This will enable you to get the most out of this blog post.
There are a range of definitions out there, but I want to refer to 'positioning yourself' as a pro-active strategy you use during the initial phases of your business to achieve successful penetration into Africa’s market place. The indicators of your successful positioning would be: Winning the interest of well-established local industry players, early sales increase and volume, and a fast growing impact you have in your niche market.
In short, the market would open up towards you and welcome you as a stakeholder, instead of you trying frustrated to get a foot into the door.
Or let me re-phrase (as I want to be sure you get this):
Sure, you could simply fly to Dar es Salaam, Lusaka, or Accra and start knocking doors trying to win partners, clients, and customers. You kind of talk about the great product you have to everyone who crosses your path. But working without a clear business strategy is often very time-consuming and simply not feasible for those of us who are currently not based in Africa. Progress will generally be slow if you do not understand the power of strategic positioning.
Besides, when you randomly knock doors or you have no clear plan how to enter a new market, you will always look like these sales people who just try to convince anyone to buy.
This is not what ‘positioning yourself in Africa’ is all about. Instead, positioning yourself successfully on the continent means to create a clear local context for your product or service, a distinct story, a business cause…and when you do it well, and you communicate it, it will drive the market towards you even if you are a newcomer.
What does local strategic positioning in a new African market involve?
1. Have complete clarity about how your product fits the market and how it meets a visible demand/need on the ground
2. Understand your ideal clients. I mean really understand who they are and how they think. So you can 'speak their language'.
3. Be fully aware about how your short and long-term business vision aligns with the local national development plan rolled out by government (this is so important for your success in Africa !!)
4. Be very clear about your unique position to deliver all of the above.
And then: COMMUNICATE IT ACTIVELY.
Yes, it's not enough to have it all nicely written up in your notebook.
Local positioning only really happens and can work its power if you actively communicate it. Again and again and again. To your local partners, your clients, customers, and industry & related government stakeholders.
Here are some examples for you how not to do it:
Now, let us look first at some of the approaches that many take, but which I would not recommend, because they simply do not represent a sound strategy. It's important to point out wrong approaches, so we can easier spot them.
Take social media, LinkedIn, for example which I highly value as a business platform. Ok, so you are looking for first contacts to start doing business in Africa, you join as a member of one of the vibrant Africa business groups there, and then you will soon read something like….this:
David, CEO: ‘Excellent opportunity in Nigeria starting in June! We are looking for serious partners!
Tunde O. replies: ‘Sounds great, I am interested, please inbox me more details.’
And David send the details.
David does not know Tunde, and Tunde has no idea about David and his company. This is potentially a great waste of time, it is risky, and an approach no-one who wants to build a serious business in Africa should take.
Or take this example:
“We are a market leader in holiday deals…financial solutions…women clothing.., we are looking for agents in Africa’
In Africa? Where? And which segment of Africa’s population are you planning to target?
Someone wants to move into the continent, but has obviously not done his market research. You can’t just open shop anywhere in a hugely diverse region selling to an undefined mass of people. Africa is not the homogeneous market place you will find in China, India, or Russia (and even there you will have diverse sub-markets), instead, Africa is a huge continent with distinct countries combined into one region. So you need to be specific.
Let use another example: A member of the African Diaspora visits Ghana to start a business and meets people locally. He introduces himself like this: "I want to build an e-commerce platform that connects local sellers with foreign buyers, looks like your product would be a great fit. Let's stay in touch."
Or: "I am planning to start a poultry business – How can I get land and the license? Can I get citizenship in Ghana?"
Not much will come out of this approach.
You have not built clarity. You are not specific. Your product has no powerful to-the-point local context or story in which you present it to others. You have not communicated your unique position nor have you demonstrated or offered compelling value before asking for anything. As a result of these shortfalls, you will find it difficult to make high-value contacts and to establish yourself fast.
Don't take short cuts, it won't lead you far.
Here is what you need to do instead:
STEP 1: Pinpoint your position – only then can you position yourself!
This is so important, but I witness repeatedly how people have broad concepts in hand and then they want to start doing business in Africa with that in hand. Don’t shoot into an open space, instead, know exactly what your are targeting for.
Or as I said above: Have complete clarity about how your product fits the market and how it meets a visible demand/need on the ground
To help you pinpoint and clarify your position ask yourself the following three questions
Q 1 -In which sector do I want to position myself?
This must be clear! Let’s say you want to sell clothes in Africa. Are you targeting the fashion industry, the export industry, the consumer goods industry, the textile industry, or the online retail industry? To which part in the clothing industry will you belong? That's where you need to start the positioning.
Clarity and niche identification are key for your success strategy, and of particular importance when moving into a new market. Remember, you can still expand into other related industries later (e.g.. from export of existing products to your own manufacturing). But first it is important that your start-up is well established and that you know exactly how to operate in the industry of your choice.
Q 2 -What is my geographical target area?
Firstly – it cannot simply be: Africa. Instead chose one or more growth markets for your precise sector. Let's stay with our clothing example.
Online retail? Choose Nigeria, Kenya, Uganda, or Tanzania. Textile Industry? Go for Ethiopia, Kenya, or Ghana. Target South Africa and Nigeria for high end fashion…These are just rough examples to demonstrate to you that your approach is flawed if you want to do business ‘selling clothing in Africa’. You can’t possibly position yourself successfully with such a broad goal during the entry phase nor will you find African partners that are right for your business.
Be precise about your plan and be flexible enough to choose the best market (country) for your precise industry of choice. And if you are not able to be very specific, then this OK, but it is a sign that you are still in the research phase and not ready yet to position yourself or to start the search for potential local partners.
Q 3: Whom am I selling to?
Yes, this is another important question you need to ask yourself. In my opinion, too many make the mistake targeting ‘anyone who wants to buy from me’. Be specific and narrow your ideal client down! Staying with the clothing example: Are you selling to local wholesalers, to small retailers in shopping malls, or to industrial companies who produce for export within your defined geographical area?
Don't sell to 'Nigerian consumers' either. Instead, sell to professional upper middle class women in Nigeria's large cities who are now buying online, because they have a busy career, a family, and little time. This is precise. Got it? Start with a small well defined segment in Africa's ocean of opportunities and then you reach out to other segments later.
This is the power of successful positioning and ultimately selling.
STEP 2: Position yourself in Africa strategically by adding a 'local context' to your product
Many have brought their ideas and great products to Africa and failed. Why?
Because they tried to make the shoe fit instead of taking a demand-driven locally inspired and informed approach.
You need to make sure that whatever you sell can be localized. And that process will look different in every African country.
But we are not just talking about locally accepted features that you attach to your product – what we are mainly talking about here is building a local context for your product or service.
One of the most powerful ways to do it is to study and know the local national development agenda outlined by government, in particular for your industry of choice.
What are the gaps and challenges the industry faces and that need to be solved? What are the lessons learnt, the key priorities for government, the policies that are being put in place?
It is much easier to find out that you may think. In fact, it is not complicated at all: You can usually find such information on government websites, you will find PDF documents from related state ministries and national vision documents all online.
Only by spending a few days researching this, will you really be able to understand how your product does (or does not) fit into the local development agenda.
Once you have found all the powerful aspects on how your product or service actually contributes to national development goals, you communicate that again and again. This is very powerful, and can – no, should – be adopted by anyone who wants to get started, no matter what the size of your business is. Even when you are a one-woman show starting a business, you will need this strategy. Serious business leaders in Africa have a very clear understanding of that aspect or creating local context, because it if a powerful driver.
STEP 3- Build trust
Trust-building is key, and it’s the first step towards positioning yourself successfully. Strong business relationships are based on mutual trust of all parties involved. You need to know that someone is professional and reliable and able to deliver what was promised. That is the case in Africa as much as anywhere else. So, if you are a representative of a renowned and well respected company in Washington or Dubai that has been successfully operating outside Africa for over ten years, then you may think you do not need to worry much about building trust, because you have a successful track record already. Your concern is how to approach Africa and find trustworthy partners there, right?
Well, not really. Africans still need to trust you and see you provide value to them locally. Yes, sure it helps to have connections if you are already leading a successful company somewhere else, but really, when starting in Africa you should consider to position yourself as a quasi start up.
If you are a start up business in the truest sense, an individual expert, or a company with no significant name or track record anywhere in the world, then you need to do even more leg work, because people will need to trust you altogether and find out if you can really deliver, as you have not much to show for.
OK, so we are getting there…to get started you need a great product, trust, and… visibility (not to be mistaken for marketing your product at this point!). I mean people need to know you exist, right? Visibility is created by gathering the interest of communities, clients, and industry players around you because you offer something of value to them….and that in return creates trust.
So visibility in the new market and trust-building go together. And they are important.
The more you can become visible in a way that provides value, the more trust and authority you will build locally as a newcomer.
I will share one example that I believe you can use for any product or service you want to sell in Africa :
Let’s say you are a US based company (start up or established) and want to start selling your agricultural technologies in Africa – you are convinced they are of great value to commercial farms in Kenya and Nigeria. So you have a good product. Now, here are four proven ways how to build trust, visibility, and how to enhance your positioning in your niche market on the continent.
1. SEEK STRATEGIC PARTNERSHIPS:
One way to position yourself in Africa and to gain trust in your industry is to win over strategic partners early on. These are government agencies and key players in your industry that can open the market up for you. They so often need you. Important is that you do not make the approach in order to sell, but that you wholeheartedly add value to their own undertakings such as the local development agenda we spoke about earlier. Remember, now you do not want to get a client, but to win a partner who opens the doors to an entire new market for you! Clarifying how you will add concrete and unique value to this particular partner is your key into the door.
So in which ever industry you work in, do the following:
– Make a list of all key stakeholders you can possibly think of as strategic partners (in this case for our example above: Investment promotion Center, Ministry of Agriculture, National Farmers Union, East Africa Farmers Federation, Export Promotion Council, Chamber of Commerce, University of Agriculture, US Embassy in Kenya /Nigeria – who assist US citizens to get their foot into the local market, local commercial farming companies, already established international commercial farming companies who may not offer your product etc)
– Study their websites, their goals, their challenges and gaps (!), partnerships they focus on, vision etc. Know what drives them and what the inhibiting factors of those potential partners are before you work out a proposition to them.
– Design a unique proposition to each potential partner you want to contact. Make a strong case. Don’t talk about selling your product.
Aiming for strategic local partnerships is a good approach to position yourself in Africa. And you do that not by asking for their help, but by meeting them from a position of strength offering that something that is of value. We learn this art in detail during my training boot camps and my Africa Business Academy. Join us if you need my hands-on support!
The only disadvantage here is that you may loose some of your flexibility to creatively carve out your own niche, as you are now somewhat bound to the objectives and working methods of your partners. But in return, a local strategic partnership can open new doors for you, allow for a greater local acceptance, security and direction – and seriously, much faster than you thought possible.
ORGANIZE SIGNATURE EVENTS:
Organizing signature events is a great and fast strategy to position yourself in your industry as a newcomer. Staying with our last example: Organize two signature events in Nairobi and Abuja endorsed by the Ministry of Agriculture (seriously, just visit them and explain the benefits, it’s so much easier to get them on board than in the West!) then you invite other important local stakeholders in your niche market. Give this event an edge and lead this gathering around commercial farming.
You will gain visibility, trust, partners, clients, local networks, all that simply by positioning yourself distinctively as a valuable market leader through running these regular events.
Instead of knocking doors people are now meeting under your roof.
Events can become a tool to your strategy. You are not on a new career path as a conference organizer, but you strategically use the events to meet your broader goal: to position yourself and get access to powerful players and opportunities in your industry. You could choose a conference, a seminar, a training, live luncheons, a cocktail evening with a couple of key speakers etc… or a combination of them. Promote them well to reach the people that are of value to you and get them on board.
Signature live events are one of the most powerful avenues to position yourself fast in Africa and if you want to continue to pursue the events a few years later they can help you to grow your business and networks at a much faster rate.
FORM A LOCAL INFLUENTIAL TEST GROUP:
This depends a little on the kind of product and service you are providing, and is easier with smaller and less expensive products. But staying with our agricultural example: Let’s say you provide a new solution that makes harvesting of a certain crop easier. Your technology cuts time and labor costs down. Why not get one cooperative of commercial horticulturists together and let them have your product for free to test its benefits?
You want to introduce a new housing technology, start planting strawberries in a farming cooperative, or spread your new mobile app across the country? Put up demonstration plots or run trials. People want to see, touch, and experience the benefits – it is a powerful strategy that will go a long way.
Invite other stakeholders during a show case training for the test group, get the local media or the publishers of an agricultural magazine on board and let them all witness the testing period. Don’t move in like a sales person suggesting that people can test your product before they have a chance to buy it. Again, this is all about positioning yourself in the market place by creating a strategic concept, project, or effort that adds real free value for your niche market and establishes you as a trustworthy expert people want to get back to. Word will spread.
STEP 4: Reap the fruits
Trust is created by offering exceptional and consistent expertise and value to your market without pushing for the actual sale as soon as you make contact or someone starts talking to you. Here is an important rule according to some of the most successful people in the world: First you need to give tenfold, before you start getting back. That’s the investment you need to make. And I have a feeling that is very true for Africa, because many communities were chronically exposed to wrong promises. So instead of knocking doors trying to sell and find partners, instead start figuring out and focusing on how you can position yourself first. Which of the above strategies can you use to add value to the people in your niche market? They are your potential customers, clients, advisers, referrers, and business partners of tomorrow !
And when you build that 'context of value' around yourself and your product, and you use that extended arena of purpose to do business, then something remarkable happens at one point: You don’t need to start knocking doors trying to sell or ask for favors in an unknown African market. Instead you have turned into a leader in your niche, and people will start knocking your door asking for input, guidance, products, services, or a new partnership. They now trust you, know you are there, and will approach you, because you offer something that will help them achieve their own goals.
And it can be done within weeks or a few months.
This is the time to then use your new position sensibly, start monetizing, and gradually grow your business in Africa on the sound foundation you have built.
We would love to hear your comments and experiences – let's continue the learning curve together!
Let's keep marching together for our wonderful continent of Africa!