Wanted: Managing Director in West Africa

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We are constantly looking for leaders for various roles in Togo and Burkina Faso. Our high standards and the situation on the ground make this search quite challenging.

In September 2020, the long-standing managing director of gebana Togo left the company. The reasons for this were complex. Ever since then, we have been looking for a new managing director, and we are once again confronted with the fact that this is a difficult task in West Africa.

Among other things, one of the main challenges is that many of the candidates who meet our requirements, view themselves as owners of the company, and not directors. Being managing director of a gebana subsidiary doesn't seem to be enough for some of the candidates. But this is just part of the story.

Not enough young people in higher education

A glimpse at the education system in Togo reveals further facets: according to a United Nations Education Inequalities Report from 2014, only around 68% of 15- to 24-year-olds had finished primary school, and less than a quarter of those had earned a secondary school diploma.

In the same year in Togo, only 7% of 18- to 22-year-olds entered higher education. The completion rate for higher education and training courses was only around 9% in 2014. There were further disparities in the figures depending on background, ethnicity and social status.

As if this wasn't challenging enough: according to a 2019 study of Togo by Afrobarometer, 47% of young adults aged 18 to 25, and 51% of well-educated people are considering leaving the country. Half of each of these groups is seriously considering leaving, with around 5% already actively preparing to emigrate.

High wage demands present us with a dilemma

Even when we manage to find people with a fitting profile despite the aforementionedchallenges, a new obstacle presents itself:. applicants ask for very high salaries - and so they should. They know the local market, they are well educated, they have good networks, and they have the potential to establish a business of their own. These people are important for business in West Africa. The other international companies in the region are also well aware of this.

This means we do not have much room to manoeuvre, and we have to pay higher salaries. Without the high salaries, there is no motivation for these people to take these jobs. This presents us with a dilemma. The highest salaries are around 100 times higher than the lowest wages in production. To give a comparable example, directors at Swiss companies earn a maximum of three times more than the lowest earners in a company – excluding intern salaries.

We have come up with a solution for those candidates who want to run their own companies. We offer management an equity stake in the local business. In this way, it will be in everyone's interest that the company is successful. This could, however, lead to conflicts of interest in terms of our values, employees and farmers.

People in West Africa have a different mentality to Europeans

One of the biggest hurdles to working in West Africa is the different mentality. These issues can begin with the simple matter of what is private and what belongs to the company. This distinction is often difficult to make, even in Europe. At the end of the day, everyone has probably used their company laptop for personal reasons or printed something for themselves out at work.

In West Africa, however, the borders between the two areas can be even more fluid. "It is very easy to fall into the temptation of accepting an external 'offer' and thus benefit personally," claims Michael Stamm from the gebana Development Team. The French-speaking Swiss is the interim head of gebana Togo. In the absence of management control, extreme poverty can lead to people with power in the organisation taking advantage of their position to gain benefits for themselves or their family, he says. "As long as the company is obviously doing well and everything keeps going, no one takes it as fraud."

It is also common for managers in West Africa to employ as many relatives as possible. People in positions of power are expected to take care of their family and to ensure that everyone is provided for. It wouldn't be any different for a family business in Europe. Yet, gebana Togo and gebana Burkina Faso are not family businesses.

Your relationship with the boss means more than the work

Even if half of the boss' family are not working for the company, the relationship between employees and their managers is often more important than anything else. People see their security as being dependent on a good relationship with their boss and not on their work.

Well-defined processes and structures can help ameliorate the situation and make employees more independent and professional. They would become less dependent on their superiors, ensuring the company's values and goals come first.

But the reality is different, says Michael Stamm. "Whenever I try to establish a process or create a structure, people get suspicious. They think I don't trust them and that I want to monitor them."

One must also consider that Togo and Burkina Faso are multi-ethnic states. There are numerous ethnic groups and sometimes there is little trust between them. Tensions can arise if a managing director belongs to a different ethnic group than the employees.

Local management is important

So would it be better to install someone from Europe at the top? Maybe the whole management team? Not really. Ultimately, we want to build up local companies, and this means using skilled workers and management personnel from the region. We will have to endure the tensions that this can bring with it.

It does not, however, do any harm to complement the local management with experts from the West. This can help build trust in both directions and show that we are really working together. "The best solution would be to place Europeans in middle management and appoint a local CEO," says Michael. "That would be a great way to signal that we don't care who the boss is."

Michael Stamm will remain in his temporary post as managing director until the end of 2021. He hopes to hand the position over to a local at the beginning of 2022.


In search of opportunity: Young and educated Africans most likely to consider moving abroad
https://afrobarometer.org/sites/default/files/publications/Dispatches/ab_r7_dispatchno288_looking_for_opportunity_africans_views_on_emigration1.pdf (accessed on 21.07.2021)

UNESCO Institute of Statistics TOGO
http://uis.unesco.org/en/country/tg?theme=education-and-literacy (accessed on 21.07.2021)

United Nations Education Inequalities Report
https://www.education-inequalities.org/countries/togo#?dimension=all&group=all&year=latest (accessed on 21.07.2021)

gebana Annual Report 2020 (German)

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