Unique Solutions to Complex Problems
By: Ryan M.
Living in West Africa is an experience unto itself. It is exciting, hectic, peaceful, and in many instances surreal. All of your senses are engaged at once, and there is this way in which you feel alive and calm at the same time.
One of the things that I love most is that for me, an American by birth, living in this part of the world serves as a portal into a whole different world than what I grew up in. Several years ago my life was changed the moment I first landed in Ghana, and then completely transformed during the two years that I lived in Sierra Leone. Now I am back living in Accra and have found that there a few universal lessons that I have learned along the way.
For me, one of the greatest lessons that I have learned from living in West Africa is the importance of taking the time to learn and understand a culture and the social fabric of a society. Part of learning a culture is understanding why things happen, and how they happen (and of course the when and where as well). Culture plays such a pivotal role in many aspects of life, and from a business perspective, it often provides the foundational structure of a market or economy.
One question that I have often found myself thinking about is what is the best way for two very different markets to interact? For example, when taking a Western product or business model into an emerging market such as those that exist in West Africa, you most often find yourself confronted with what I call the “culture spectrum”. On one end is the standard Western ethnocentrism in which you take what you have found to be the best way to operate in established markets, and assert that it is applicable and transferable to all other parts of the world as well. And on the other extreme is the principle of cultural relativism in which a given product should be marketed and sold in a unique way in each market given the culture of the intended customer/user, with no overarching global plans or strategies.
Tangential to this dilemma is another obstacle that I constantly find myself coming across, which I will pose in the form of a question. Is it better to take someone relatively new to business and industry, and teach some very specific skills and best practices? Or is it more effective to provide them with the requisite capital, see how that individual intuitively approaches the situation, and then go from there?
These ideas are some of the evasive problems that we are enthusiastically working on. I thought by now that I would have a more concrete answer - or at least have a preferred method to lean towards. But I can’t honestly say that I do. Perhaps like most business situations (or in life for that matter) the answer is “it depends”. Perhaps it depends on the individual. Perhaps it is best to work on identifying which types of people work best in which scenario, so that when the due diligence and background is done we at least know the right direction to position ourselves on the spectrum.
We don’t have all the answers. We don’t expect to have them anytime soon. But we do think that by working towards a greater good and empowering others, we are slowly getting closer and at the same time allowing others to find the answers for themselves - which in the long run might be best approach anyways.