How HR professionals can pioneer the rest of Africa 

HR professionals must moderate their expectations when going into the rest of the continent. 

More South African companies are expanding their operations into the rest of Africa. Companies are looking the African continent as their next growth vector given the rapidly growing middle class, roaring economic growth and diverse sectors that are ripe for disruption. Expansion across the African continent requires a sense of adventure and a long-term commitment to investments. It also requires HR, a critical function in organisations, to perform optimally. The HR function of a company could either make the expansion into Africa a rewarding or a horrible experience.

The big question at the HR Indaba on 4 October 2018 was how HR professionals can navigate the rest of Africa when companies they part of decide to expand into the continent. Laurette Makhubele, the HR director for South, East and Central Africa at Japan Tobacco, said the biggest mistake that professionals make is thinking that strategies that work in South Africa can automatically work across the continent.

Laurette, who has worked extensively on the continent since 2009, said: 

“When South Africans go to other countries, we are looked at with such apprehension because they think we are arrogant. HR professionals must have the humility to think that they are not at home. You must know the nuances and cultures of any country you work in.”

She was joined in a panel discussion by HR professionals that are highly experienced and have built an extensive track record of working in Africa including Marge Mantjie, the head of HR at Alexander Forbes, and Cebile Xulu, the HR director for South and Central East Africa at Mondel?z International.

South African HR professionals can look down at the other African countries because South Africa is viewed as the most advanced and industrialised country compared with other 53 African countries. “We have a know-it-all attitude. We need to realise that the continent is diverse and that South Africa is not the be all and end all of Africa. There are people outside of South Africa that are more educated and well-traveled than us,” said Cebile, who started working outside of South Africa in 2007.
Cebile said HR professionals must moderate their expectations when going into the rest of the continent as some things don’t work well as in South Africa. These include the speed of internet and technology, language barriers, cultural differences and shoddy road infrastructure. 
“Technology was the biggest challenge for me. The infrastructure is not advanced in the rest of Africa as it is in South Africa. It can hinder having meetings over the phone or video call. It teaches you a lot about patience.”

“Language is the second biggest challenge. We take for granted knowing other languages. If you cannot speak French in a francophone environment, it can be difficult.”

She said HR professionals must experience countries without preconceived ideas. They must see individual countries for what they are and “don’t bring your South Africanness to other cultures”.

Marge, who began working throughout Sub-Saharan Africa in 2006, supported Cebile’s views. “You must immerse yourself in the culture and what is happening locally for you to achieve success in the rest of Africa as an HR professional. Try to understand the environment you are operating in. That’s the only way you can get buy-in and support from locals,” said Marge. She added: “Try to have an open mind in working with new HR systems and processes so you can adapt to different status quos. There can be a lot of quick wins with that kind of thinking.”