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4 Lessons from the Warm Heart of Africa

Humphrey was an executive director at an investment bank in London and is currently doing a charity bike ride through France and Spain. Below he talks about what he learned during a three-month assignment as a business consultant in Malawi. This post is aimed at anyone thinking about, or about to start, working in a developing country, especially where the role involves business consultancy, training or skills transfer.

The place: Blantyre, Malawi

Having recently left the city treadmill for a career break, rethink and – most importantly – some fun, first on the list of things I really wanted to do was to go to Africa.

My home for 3 months would be Blantyre, Malawi’s beautifully-located second city. The city is surrounded by an array of hillocks, acclivities, hummocks, knolls, and fells that would leave even the dourest geographer stroking his corduroys in glee. On arrival, I solemnly vowed to summit them all.

Malawi is a beautiful country, but most people who haven’t been there don’t know that because it’s also a very poor country without the infrastructure or marketing budget to compete for tourism with its better-off neighbours. Malawi is something like the 8th poorest country in the world.

The job

A 3-month placement as a business consultant, assessing strategic options for a European NGO operating in Malawi.

The NGO wanted to spin off one of its teams into a standalone, self-sustaining business that would generate its own revenue and therefore no longer need to rely on donor funding. This is something that NGOs sometimes try, with mixed results.

So, on the surface, the aim was to carry out some strategic analysis and write a report recommending a strategy for the NGO’s management to follow.

Between the lines, however, the real requirement was to help develop this team, build up their skills and confidence, and prepare them for a life in business, far beyond the NGO safety blanket. I’d found the role, via Escape the City, with a great Edinburgh-based organisation called Challenges Worldwide.

The NGO has operations all over Africa and aims to help reduce extreme poverty and its effects.

Within this NGO there is a small team (all Malawians) whose job it is to train and advise small businesses all over the country, helping them to grow, perform better, improve their management practices, increase their chances of getting access to finance, and generally support the development of the SME sector (the largest part of the economy and therefore a vital way of helping Malawi as a whole get away from the bottom of the poor countries’ league table). So basically a business consultancy for SMEs, plus a bit.

Achievements

Apart from delivering the strategy recommendation to what appeared to be a satisfied client, the main sense of achievement came from the team I’d been working so closely with.

Without their input, I would not have got a full understanding of their abilities and the potential they had as a standalone business, and so it follows my work would have been much poorer without it. In the midst of dire fuel shortages, we managed to get the team – based in different cities hours apart – together for a series of workshops aimed at defining their future direction.

My aim – apart from helping them bond as a team and have some fun – was to give them as much responsibility for their future success as they could take, rather than just be the white guy coming in for a few months telling them what to do. They told me at the end that I had helped them develop, become more confident, and reach their potential.

It was rewarding to hear that, and to have remained in touch with the team after leaving Malawi. So it turned out that the most important benefit of my being there wasn’t even mentioned when I was discussing the aims of the role all those weeks before.

Other stuff

I loved the experience of being in Africa, and especially in such a warm and welcoming country as Malawi. I met some truly great people… volunteer doctors, nurses, human rights lawyers, agronomists, bar owners, socially-minded captains of industry, people coping admirably with HIV / AIDS, United Nations staff, charity workers, teachers, engineers… many of whom became good friends.

I made sure to get out and see as much of the country as I could in my short time there – the magical Lake Malawi, Mount Mulanje (a fine inselberg, apparently, rising spectacularly from the vast level plains), and Liwonde National Park to name but a few of the classic Malawi experiences. Oh, and I just about made it up all the hills around Blantyre.

One of my climbing buddies, a local called Godfrey (huge moment in the life of a Humphrey to meet his first Godfrey) turned out to be an inspiration, starring in a soon-to-be-released documentary, and having put his entrepreneurial skills into an ambitious business plan, all by the tender age of 23.

One thing I’d definitely have done differently

Learn the language: yes, English is spoken all over the world, especially in former British colonies like Malawi, and 3 months isn’t a long time, but there’s no substitute for communicating in the local tongue.

I half-thought about getting Chichewa lessons, but by the time I’d realised I wasn’t learning just from asking my colleagues for the odd phrase here and there, it was too late.

Had I been able to hold a basic conversation in Chichewa, it would have helped enormously – asking for directions, negotiating over the price of black market fuel, bantering over a beer…

Lessons for the would-be Escapee

1. JFDI! If you are thinking about taking the plunge and leaving the security (and drudgery) of a city job that doesn’t inspire you, just do it.

2. If you’re worried about over-committing, find a short-term role. Challenges Worldwide (http://www.challengesworldwide.org/) are always on the lookout for great people interested in three-month placements, and they frequently advertise on EsC.

3. Get the ground rules sorted and be clear on what you want to get out of your role, specifically what success looks like – the time will go by quickly and there will always be unexpected challenges, so it’s important to agree how your performance will be viewed by your various ‘stakeholders’, who you report to, what input you need from others, and so on. Read between the lines, as you would before accepting any other job. It may be exotic, but it’s still work.

4. Have fun. Think of all the people back home who will be proud or envious of you, or both, and the stories you’ll be telling them when you return. And, crucially, your enthusiasm will have such a positive impact on the locals you work with and befriend.