The 3 FIRST Steps You Need To Take Before Doing Business In Africa (But Most Don’t)

The 3 FIRST Steps You Need To Take Before Doing Business In Africa (But Most Don’t)

Let me ask you a question:

Are you off to a smart business start or a rushed one?  Are you making truly informed decisions or are you starting simply with the notion that your idea should work?

Alright, let’s assume you have already decided you want to do business in Africa. Somehow the latest business success stories pouring out of Africa have drowned your worries regarding possible risks. Yes, you won’t be able to change Africa’s notorious leaders by remaining disengaged in Africa’s affairs and just complaining about them…

And neither will you change your current circumstances…stress, money worries, redundancy, repetitive daily routine, not being able to reach your full potential, unworthy relationships ….yes,you guessed it…by just complaining about them  (don’t worry, we are all guilty of those more often than not, read why you should be REALLY doing business in Africa right now).

African American businessman is thinking intensely

So you are ready to dive in and give it a go. You decided to do business in Africa. You love the idea of a new, bright, and exciting outlook for your life.

And what now?

That’s where I got stuck in the summer of 2012. I had ideas. An then what ? I needed answers. I had been working and living on the beautiful continent as an international development consultant for many years, but was clueless about this whole new economic and entrepreneurial wave happening across Africa. Well, I knew Ethiopia was doing pretty well…and many were leaving for South Sudan.

Fortunately, my drive for change in life and for answers was so strong that I did not mind searching, researching, reading, watching, filing….it was my new quest.

Today, I want to tell you about the 3 FIRST steps you absolutely need to take before doing business in Africa…I could surely talk about becoming passionate, confident, and determined, but these are habits or characteristics you will develop with time – and – I am convinced, once you know what exactly you are doing and where you are heading.

I observed many Africans discussing their business ambitions  – friends, colleagues, and folks communicating online: And I believe most people do not follow these important three steps. Be it due to lack of time, patience, or awareness (Are You Making These 6 Mistakes Setting your African Business Up For Failure?).

But the steps I am going to reveal are absolutely crucial in my view to increase both your confidence rate and your business success rate for the long-term – and why?

Because you are making informed and strategic decisions.

Bear with me…

Sorry for the suspense, but before I explain the 3 steps that are crucial to increase your success rate, I really would like to outline the approach most Africans take towards doing business on the continent. This is the way that often does not accelerate your success rate and poses greater risk of failure:

  • You choose the country of your origin most of the time, or because you have some sort of personal attachment to that country, but is that country a growth country and does it provide the best market for your concept?
  • You chose a familiar business area, which means your business model is based on your professional expertise or a family track record, which you hope to expand. Alternatively, you follow up an idea you have heard about, someone told you about it, and you think it would do well.
  • You do some market research for the specific idea at hand, you possibly write your business plan, you get started.

This is the sequence most follow. It is largely driven by emotional and ad hoc decisions not by informed or strategic ones with a clear target and a wider knowledge about the dynamics across the continent. If any of the above are your business planning patterns you need to change your approach and start applying my 3-steps.

Look, there is nothing wrong at all to aim for the country of your origin or to wanting to open a business in your field of expertise, we know the advantages it will bring. But do we know about the disadvantages of such an approach?

It limits you. Possibly enormously.

Not primarily in the choices you have, but in the decisions you make for your business. Being limited to a particular country or a certain industry means that you see the huge growth dynamics in Africa  only from a very limited angle. You are looking at a business idea through a key hole, unaware of the wider dynamics that may either offer you a much better opportunity or impact on your business in certain ways  – but you remain unaware of both.

As a result your entire outlook, your decisions and possibly your results will face limitation.

You will make practical short-term decisions instead of strategic ones, which should create the long-term context for your success. And in the end, it may cost you a lot, because as a result you may make poor business decisions both during start up and growth stage. And you may wonder, why your business is not growing fast enough.


Get the map !

One of my favorite online business coaches, Brendon Burchard, uses a saying that he got from his home town in Montana. It says: Get a map before you enter the woods.

And this is the point too many do not pay attention to. They either just enter the woods with minimal information or stay out of it altogether, because they have no map. So let’s get that map !

Now, here are the 3 absolutely vital steps you need to take to widen your horizon, and make informed strategic decisions before starting doing business in Africa:

Step 1: Know the African Market and its regional dynamics (not just one country or one sector)

Step 2: Choose a gap you want to fill (as an outcome of increased awareness after taking Step 1)

Step 3: Focus on the country or region in which best to address that gap (based on Step 2)

Let’s have a look at each of them.

Step 1: Know the African Market and its regional dynamics


Yes, this is vital, yet I completely understand that an in-depth research costs time, discipline, patience, and commitment at an early stage, and this is when most people try to take short cuts or they give up. It’s not worth it, knowing your market and making the right decisions based on that knowledge is a foundation to your future success. It enables you to make smart decisions right from the start with a long-term outlook, instead of taking hasty steps or finding out later that you could have added value to your Africa business model if you had only known x,y,z earlier. You will regret it when you find out.

To know the African market means to understand which countries grow at a fast rate, which industries are top sectors and where? What do African demographic dynamics look like (your direct or indirect customers), what is highly in demand and will continue to be? How do intra-African trade dynamics work and what do they mean for your business, where are regional advantages? What exactly are the various opportunities out there, what the challenges? What are the risks and how can you mitigate those? Which regulations and new policies would hinder or benefit your operations? What major  infrastructure projects take place and how would they impact on your business in a particular country or region? Who are the businesses and entrepreneurs leading the way in your industry and what lessons can you learn from them? Where is the service industry strong? Where is Internet connectivity fast? In which countries are you able to drive your business forward with innovation or modern technology  – and what is happening in this regard already in Africa?

I may look daunting, but there are ways to save you time and energy with this, so let me suggest a few avenues, so you are able to understand those issues above and increase your chances for success. Here is what you can start right now:

a) FREE: You choose a few sources online that I can recommend, so you remain focused. I suggest you read the Africa Attractiveness Report (Ernst & Young, 2013), and I also suggest you use my favorite Africa websites that help you identify market opportunities. Regular visit my blog to learn about business opportunities and strategies, and get step-by-step guidance and directions. Sign up to my FREE Africa Intelligence Report for the latest insights and what they mean for your business (click on the banner at the right). Continuity when informing yourself is key.

b) $24: ‘How to JumpStart your African Business’ is my e-book that I have created just for one purpose: To save you time. I have neatly packaged all the information you need to know to enable you to make informed decisions faster and more confidently. The book is basically a summary of the research I have done over a period of over a year when I got started. I decided to put it all down for others to use. Months of my own research from a wide range of sources all packed conveniently into 103 pages – everything you need to know to find the right directions for your Africa business summarized in one Africa business guide for you. Download. Done.

Of course I want you to get the book, because honestly I think it will move you forward quickly. This is why I put so much effort into creating it. If you have a good understanding of the current business and trade dynamics in Africa, my guide is not for you. It is for you if you may know the market of your country, but little about the wider business dynamics in the rest of Africa. And that means having only a friction of valuable knowledge for your decision-making process at hand.

Look, if you have no clear idea about the wider business and trade dynamic in Africa right now, and you want visible progress in a few hours or couple of days – buy the book, read it, done. Seriously, you will have reached a milestone, and you can do something about it right now. So why wait…Things in Africa are changing fast. As I mentioned in my previous blog: your sense of urgency is important to be able to seize the window of opportunity in Africa…because now everyone seems to move fast. You will be able to catch up, and it’s an easy read with very practical information, tips, and resources for small and medium businesses targeting Africa, regardless of where in the world you are based or how much capital you have at hand for your Africa business. Check it out.

c) $100-2,000: If you have more money to invest visit Africa Business and Investment Conferences to get informed. Many of them take place in London (UK), in the US, and across the African continent.

They are usually a bit costly though and your expenses will increase if you need to travel. Using this avenue may be of greater help when you have made some progress with your business already and you can make the most of the great networking opportunities at such events. But in general, Africa conferences are a wonderful source to get the latest from the stakeholders and experts in certain industries. And if you have not started your business yet, they will inspire you. Have a look what’s out there at the moment and visit my events site here on Africa JumpStart, I will add great events regularly.

In general, a little investment at this early stage is necessary and goes a long way. You have to take action to proceed.

Step 2: Choose a gap you want to fill (as a direct outcome of Step 1)


Don’t mind the challenges, don’t mind the gap – embrace them! This is the whole context of becoming successful in an emerging market !

Africa at this moment is almost in need of everything. It needs a wide range of products, services, solutions, and project initiatives. This is what makes Africa such an exciting market and why you are able to grow your business considerably in a much shorter period of time as compared to a saturated market.

But you still need to make informed decisions to be successful and what works in one country may not work in another. Africa is very diverse.

If you are starting small it is important that you find a niche. Own it. Become the best in that niche and then upscale, upscale, upscale. This is in my eyes a very important factor I will stress continuously in my blogs: Scalability plays a huge aspect in your business success in Africa. Don’t choose a gap or niche that is saturated quickly (e.g. selling hospital beds to private hospitals)…instead: make the most of the space that there currently still is in Africa. Basic ideas still work in Africa.

Scale nationally, replicate regionally, …grow.

Step 3: Focus on the country or region in which you want to start to address the gap

africa map

Yes, indeed. The best strategy is to know first what it is you want to do, which gap you want to fill, and then choose the best market in Africa for that.

Having said that, I realize that some may simply want to start something in their home country, and of course that is very legitimate. If that is the case you need to be flexible at the other end, and this is the sector or kind of venture you want to engage in. It may not be the best strategy to simply match your skills with your country. You must be pretty lucky when both simply just fit. Go for it when you absolutely love your country and your expertise, but if you want to accelerate your success rate, attempt to be more strategic and flexible.

Be informed. Then decide.

So ideally, if you are restricted in your decision regarding the location or market, make sure your business concept is driven by the demands or gaps in this particular market.

Think nationally, and if you need to scale up further, think regionally or even Pan-African when assessing the growth potential for your business.

The 3-step guide may look like the obvious, but too many make the mistake of entering the woods without a map. I realize that again and again, communicating with Diaspora Africans in particular.

Here it is once more:

1.Know the wider African market dynamics in order to make informed and strategic decisions

2. Choose a clear gap you want to fill. Make sure your model is easily scalable.

3. And then choose the best location (market) to launch your product or service. Remain as flexible as you can.

I hope this was of value to you. Please feel free to share with me any areas you may need guidance with. I am happy to write something in that regard on my blog. Africa Business JumpStart is all about filling a gap: I want to shape it into your online Africa Business Advice Bureau where you can simply walk in and ask.

And please make sure you follow me on Facebook, as I will use that medium to share useful Africa business tips, advice, and affirmations throughout the week and as they come up.

Be part of Africa’s renaissance.

Build a grand lifestyle for yourself.

And positively impact on the lives of others.


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Dr. Harnet
Dr. Harnet Bokrezion is the Founder of and co-author of the book '101 Ways to Make Money in Africa'. She coaches individuals and consults existing companies assisting them to make smart and strategic business decisions in Africa’s new emerging markets faster and more confidently. Dr. Harnet also regularly writes for the renowned DHL powered publication Get in touch to inquire how she can be of assistance to your own Africa business endeavors:

User Comments ( 2 )

  • Thank you for this informative piece. It is amazing that we are willing to fly across the Atlantic to either settle down, get a job, raise a family or start a business. And yet the thought of going to another African country does not cross the mind of most. I will use the examples of Nigerians. They have done very well in Ghana, South Africa and Liberia. A few of them are settling in Francophone countries and learning to speak French. The opportunities aren’t always in your back door, but they are closer than most of the places we look to.

  • Dr. Harnet

    Very true, Christopher. I think the way Africans are doing business is slowly but surely changing – although we are not quite there yet – yet we can already witness a somewhat Pan-African spirit: Africans celebrating the business successes of other Africans and the advancements of other countries on the continent. It’s a very healthy spirit that will serve us during the development of intra-African trade, during cross-border cooperation, and peace building.