Leadership development: why West Africa needs the skills to fulfil its potential

Make no mistake, companies in West Africa are increasingly going to need access to proven and reliable leadership development tools, and for a variety of reasons. The main, overarching one is to ensure that all those bright, young, hungry firms that are currently emerging in the region will be sustainable in the long run – capable not only of lasting well into the future as individual entities, but of working together to safeguard a prosperous future for West Africa’s economy as a whole.

To illustrate exactly what kind of firms I’m talking about, let’s begin with a success story: three entrepreneurs spot a gap in the online market when they realise that those ‘contact form’ pages on company websites are pretty much a waste of space. The problems they’ve picked up are twofold. Either customers aren’t using the forms at all, because they consider them faceless and don’t think anyone is on the receiving end; or they are using the forms, but the standard email format means that feedback arrives in a completely uncategorised state – just lumps of text that are difficult to prise apart for nuggets of useful data, or lessons for how the recipients could make changes to their firms.

So, these entrepreneurs invent a cloud platform that businesses can plug into as a one-stop shop for customer feedback. On the customer’s side, the interface enables people to enter data in a categorised way – even inviting them to describe their emotional states when they’re getting in touch. On the firm’s side, the first thing an executive sees when firing up the interface is a series of metrics showing how their products or services are going down with the market – along with an indicator of customers’ emotional sentiments towards the brand, based on the data supplied. The whole idea is simplicity itself: by setting up on this platform, firms are giving their customers a guarantee that there is someone on the other end, and that they are listening. Customers, meanwhile, feel they have a lot more freedom to provide open and honest information in a number of different ways.

Product development takes just 54 hours, and testing goes great guns. The entrepreneurs formally set up their business. Just one year later, they scoop the World’s Best IT Startup Award in prestigious US business incubator the Kauffman Foundation’s Global Startup Open. Blazing with passion and hunger, they head off to Rio to track down Dave McClure, founder of major, global accelerator 500 Startups, at the organisation’s local HQ. Initially taken aback, and somewhat sceptical of the business model, McClure is quickly won around by the entrepreneurs’ enthusiasm for, and commitment to, their vision. He agrees to back the firm so it can expand to key target markets.

It may sound like this is the tale of a startup from London’s Silicon Roundabout – but it isn’t. It’s actually about a firm from Ghana.

Imaginative solutions
That company is Dropifi. Founded in 2011 by David Osei, Kamil Nabong and Philips Effah, the firm is part of an entrepreneurial wave sweeping through West Africa that is redefining the region’s image in the eyes of the world. In March, prominent business support group The African Network of Entrepreneurs (TANOE) included Dropifi in its latest 100 Globally Competitive Startups in Ghana list – setting the firm among dozens of companies in that single, West African nation that it thinks have the ability to perform on the world stage.

Those 100 businesses span every sector, from fashion and media to retail and agriculture – but by far the biggest growth area is technology. Companies are using their keen understanding of what the private sector needs to drive their coding skills, and like Dropifi, they’re coming up with witty and imaginative solutions to problems that haven’t even become hot topics yet (problems with online contact forms may not have captivated the business world – but when you think about it, it’s such an obvious area for change).

Now, let’s widen out from Ghana to West Africa in general. In the media, the African economies considered best placed to lead the continent over the next few years have earned their own acronym: the KINGS nations. That’s Kenya, the Ivory Coast, Nigeria, Ghana and South Africa. The three countries in the middle are all West African and, according to reports, have some hugely encouraging business climates. Each has access to dedicated innovation hubs, such as Orange Fab in the Ivory Coast, set up by the telecom giant; seed-capital fund LeadPath in Nigeria, and Ghana’s Meltwater Entrepreneurial School of Technology (MEST), where Dropifi’s founders learned their chops.

If all goes well, then, hundreds more new companies could launch in West Africa between now and 2020, many of which may hit upon other commercially savvy – and universally appealing – solutions to nagging business problems. That presents West Africa with an enormous opportunity. But it also poses a significant challenge. That challenge is leadership.

Deepening the story
In more developed parts of the world, tales of “accidental managers” are legend. Business journals are constantly warning us of the systemic dangers that can stem from people who have been fast-tracked into leadership roles, often by circumstances such as rapid company growth, for which they have not been prepared. If it is to fulfil the promise presented by its current wave of startups, West Africa must avoid those scenarios at all costs. It is one thing to be an entrepreneur getting a firm on its feet – but quite another to be a leader five to 10 years down the line after that firm has staffed up, gone global and become increasingly more complex. The tools that someone has to write a company’s opening chapters are not the same as those required to deepen its story and carve out a few sequels.

Another reason why leadership development based on proven models must spread through the region is because these firms are bound to encounter numerous dynamic changes as they become more established. Coping with fast-moving events is a major aspect of leadership, and there are signs that one of the biggest segments of West Africa’s technology scene – fintech – already has a rollercoaster ride ahead of it over the next few years.

PwC Nigeria’s latest Financial Journal notes that within just that one West African nation, technology is having “a disproportionate effect” on the financial industry. “By 2020,” it predicts, “consumers will need banking services, but they may not turn to a bank to get them. Or, at least, maybe not in the form we know it today. This is where things are headed, and players in Nigeria must begin to prepare and shape their business models accordingly.” With that in mind, market entrants in Nigeria who want to capture business from traditional banks in the run up to 2020 will need to enhance their strategic focus, so they can make the most of all the opportunities that come their way.

Collaboration nations
Strong leaders must also be able to forge convincing global partnerships, and keep those plates spinning all around the world no matter what time zone they personally happen to be in. Again, this has become a particularly urgent requirement for firms in Nigeria following the recent news that the country has won a contract to host the first-ever, African regional branch of the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO). The significance of this news cannot be underestimated. A specialist agency of the United Nations, WIPO was set up in 1967 to provide businesses in its member countries with a single platform for securing IP rights in multiple territories.

The presence of a WIPO hub for Africa within Nigeria will considerably open up the business climate to further internationalisation, providing yet more opportunities for young and ambitious West African firms to boost their global outlook and seek out collaborations with foreign partners. This will require a set of dextrous interpersonal skills that some of the region’s luckier entrepreneurs may already have – but many, many others will need to learn. That is where leadership development tools will come in.

As well as helping to address that big-picture issue, leadership development will also enable West Africa’s upcoming superstars to create better internal processes for their firms. It has been proven that companies with the best leadership outclass their rivals on issues such as employee engagement and succession planning: both absolutely crucial for guiding the next generation of talents through fulfilling careers, and finding the leaders of tomorrow.

If West Africa is to lead the world, it must first lead itself.

Find out about the workplace areas where Inemmo Leadership Development Solutions can deliver change