Over the last 10 years, the “Africa rising” narrative has led to multinational companies scrambling for a foothold in countries with surging economic growth rates and a burgeoning middle class. A shortage of local talent has led to an influx of expats eager for an emerging market experience despite perceived risk and a relative lack of lifestyle choices. To what extent has the increase in extremist violence in certain regions placed a damper on the African growth story? Has it impacted securing the top talent multinationals need to execute their plans in these regions?
We believe it has to some degree, especially in Nigeria and Kenya – the main drivers of economic growth in West and East Africa respectively. The apparent increase in violence is a disturbing trend that is having a negative impact on the image of these countries and is resulting in potential top international talent seeking employment opportunities in what they perceive to be more stable and secure parts of the world.
The main protagonists of the escalating conflict over the past three or four years are Islamist extremist groups Boko Haram in Nigeria and al-Shabaab in Kenya. What many onlookers fail to recognise is that the violence is limited to certain regions within these countries. In Nigeria, the conflict is taking place mainly across the north, north-west and north-east of the country. Lagos and much of the south – where most of Nigeria’s oil activity is situated offshore – have not been affected. In Kenya, violent incidents are fairly isolated, and the country’s security forces are united in opposing any threats to the safety of citizens by Somalian militant group al-Shabaab.
The problem is that there is still a perception in much of the world of “Africa as one country”. While the violence is limited only to certain areas, it does tend to strengthen what I like to call the traditional “WWF” view of Africa – as a continent of Wildlife, War and Famine. The bad news we read every day about the activities of Boko Haram and al-Shabaab merely serves to enhance the West’s perception of Africa as a whole “being in a mess”, despite the fact that militant activities may be thousands of kilometres away from the operations of the multinationals invested on the continent.
Expats considering taking up executive positions in emerging markets in Africa would do well to bear in mind that countries such as Nigeria and Kenya have significant populations. Violent incidents usually take place in densely populated and poverty-stricken areas with little or no security. There are exceptions of course, such as the attack on the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi by al-Shabaab in 2013. Generally however, the security arrangements of most multinationals for their expat executives have markedly lowered the odds of being impacted directly and personally by regional conflicts.
Before discarding the idea of an executive position with a multinational in an African country due to fears of political violence, we advise potential candidates to:
- Develop a full understanding of the political issues of the country in question, as well as the surrounding region. This often leads to the realisation that violent incidents are relatively isolated and confined to specific areas. Speak to other expats who have spent some time in the country, as well as diplomats, who often have deep insights into national issues and challenges.
- Before making a final decision on either to invest in a country or to take up a position with a multinational, pay a lengthy visit to the particular country. Get to know the people. A place may turn out to be completely different to preconceived ideas about it.
- Understand what security measures are being put in place by the multinational, such as home security and evacuation plans if necessary. On the other hand, it is not necessary to get carried away – armed guards are in all likelihood not required to drive the kids to school every day. Be realistic as opposed to fear-driven.
Africa is still a continent of tremendous opportunity, and despite the isolated conflicts, a place that is a lot more predictable and stable than it was in earlier times. Armed with information rather than just perception, international executives can gain invaluable emerging market experience on what is still a rising continent – in our view, the African growth story has only just begun.
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By Paul Butterworth MNI, Global Head of the Maritime & Shipping Practice at Odgers Berndtson