A group of aid workers from Europe entered a community in Zambia, with the intention of empowering the people in the area. Upon arrival, they noticed that there were no crops being planted on a piece of fertile ground near a river. Immediately assuming that the locals simply didn’t have the foresight to use the land, the aid workers commenced planting tomatoes without consulting anyone who lived in the surroundings. Some time passed and the tomatoes we ready to be picked. However, before this could happen, overnight hippos came out from the river and ate all of the tomatoes.

Through our experience working in Africa, we found it important to approach situations without any preconceived ideas of how we think things should work. As words such as “standard” or “generic” seldom seem to fit with the often ad-hoc nature of business in Africa. The story of the aid workers and the hippo’s resonated with us as we reflected upon our experiences abroad. The following are key approaches taken by the BizWize team as we work in uncharted territories:

– There is a need to approach new problems with a clean slate and with a willingness to adjust, in alignment with the nuances of the environment. This thinking lends itself to making a solution or solutions fit the process, instead of trying to force the process to fit the solutions.

– Building relationships is key, especially if you want traction and things to happen quickly. Relate with people on a personal level and always show the value you are providing. It is important to build a team relationship instead of an “us” and “them” environment. A perfect example of this is the TED talk given by Jimmy Nelson where building relationships in difficult environments was the only way he was able to accomplish his goals.

– Never assume that the people on the ground understand the reasons why certain decisions are being made by “higher ups”. As consultants, we do not have control of the way the organizations we work for, communicate their intentions. What we do have control over, is how we communicate the reason for our presence with everyone we encounter.

– Don’t always assume the resistance you encounter is related to laziness, inefficiency or lack of skill. The people you are helping may be genuinely worried about losing their jobs. This is where relationship building will help you the most.

– If you are going to make a difference do not start by immediately trying to change the status quo. Assist in quickly improving the current process and then over time together with the locals, aid in ushering in new, more efficient norms.

Take these as little pieces of advice, but do not forget the first-hand experience is always the best learning. There are always new approaches to be discovered!
Ayrton dos Santos