ITL #234 Investing in local talent: importing skills, not people, in African communications

2 years, 7 months ago

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Hiring and developing local talent rather than over-reliance on expats is the smart way for communications consultancies to build business in Africa. By Mitchell Prather.



The development of a local skilled workforce, one that can work hand in hand with foreign talent, is crucial in the pursuit of economic stability and sustainability in the world’s developing economies. Some emerging markets – the GCC for example – build their economies by attracting foreign talent from the developed world.

The African continent, home to the world’s fastest growing and youngest population, however, is much more complex. Parachuting foreign executives from say London or New York to implement local campaigns simply does not work and results in the wastage of considerable resources while delivering sub-par results.

The developmental and historic context in Africa is important. Those of us who are building sustainable businesses in Africa should be cognisant of its history, culture and people. Some parts of Africa were left with very little in the way of jobs and industry when colonization ended – and it is therefore incumbent upon us as foreigners to ensure that we do not repeat those mistakes. This is the moral and socially responsible case for investing in local African talent.

There is an equally compelling reason for us to hire senior local people: they understand their cultures and business practices much more than expats ever can. Right across the world in emerging markets, hiring locals with know-how is a smart business move because they know how things work – business etiquette, networks and cultural nuances. These capabilities are particularly important for companies that are outward facing and who engage with the public and other external stakeholders.

Bridging the skills gap

For communications consultancies, the local, national and regional understanding that local employees bring to the table is essential for success. In public relations, African employees are better-placed to build lasting relationships with journalists and other key stakeholders.

They speak the right languages and are often able to write well in those languages too. The reality is however, that there is still a significant skills gap in many of the fast-growing African countries, which makes it particularly challenging to identify and hire individuals from the local workforce who can hit the ground running.

The highly competitive communications industry demands that consultancies quickly deploy new teams for new clients. Agencies are commercial organizations that need to offer great value, world-class skills and a comprehensive suite of capabilities that are of global standards.

In some parts of Africa this is difficult. Communications companies that seek to build a network must therefore import skills and build training and development in to the business development model.

It is simply a reality that any company in almost every industry needs to pay towards the development of a skilled workforce. Of course, these may be unwelcome costs: paying a salary to an individual who is not fully skilled-up, and then paying training fees. But, companies must not lose sight of the fact that these costs directly lead to better business performance and therefore must be considered as a required investment.

Having a team of local employees who have been trained to global-standards in high-value communications capabilities like crisis management or stakeholder engagement is worth the investment. And of course, the money invested is an important and morally right contribution to the communities where we work.

Creating the team

The structures that communications consultancies build in the African marketplace need not differ from traditional models that have worked well in mature markets. However, one of the challenges for a network that stretches out across multiple African countries, is how to create a seamless pan-African team of experts who may be many hundreds of miles away from each other.

Many organizations – inside and outside of Africa – look for a regional solution. Our job is to help clients understand that a one-size-fits-all, off-the-shelf solution in Africa is not always a good idea. Regional campaigns should have a nuanced, culturally sensitive approach.

To bring our teams together at Djembe Communications, we invest heavily in off and on-site team building, planning and training. Our teams from the Middle East, Europe, the UK, Africa and north America regularly meet at company-wide events where they work together and directly contribute to the agency’s strategic planning.

Client campaigns call upon our social and digital experts in Morocco, international media professionals in the UAE, senior editorial teams in the UK and Europe and senior strategists in New York. This approach has helped us to build a genuinely passionate and exciting international team – and it provides ongoing exposure to our rich and diverse team of experts for our ever-growing team of African colleagues. It is a collegiate approach that also stimulates the sharing of skills and experience.

With ongoing training and investment in skills development, African communications agencies can become increasingly self-sufficient over the medium-term. This developmental curve adds incredible value to clients and, most importantly, means that we can ensure the communities where we work obtain significantly richer skills.

Over time, the individuals that we have invested in may go on to take a more senior role or even launch their own agencies.  They can go on to build world-class careers, either on the continent or outside of the region. They also have the capacity to act as role models for the next generation of budding communications professionals in Africa and in doing so, play a leading part in Africa’s flourishing ecosystem of highly-skilled workers.

This is a legacy that we should all work towards and be proud of!


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The Author

Mitchell Prather

Mitchell Prather, Managing Director, Djembe Communications.

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