Strategic Design: Africa 101

Emerging markets have been hailed as the future of a global economy. This is in part an effort to extend US economic growth to wherever it may lie.  In the case of my most recent discussions, Africa is that enormous emerging market as depicted by the infographic. [fig.1]  It is one equally rich in potential as it is in risk.   Making good on an invitation, I attended a Thomson Reuters Panel held on a rainy Sept 19th evening in New York , titled Investing in Africa.  An impressive, intimate and diverse professional audience was presented with a notable list of speakers included Melissa Cook, CFA of African Sunrise Partners, Muhammad Uteem, Founder of Uteem  Chambers of Mauritius, Christopher A Coons, US Senator, Yemi Lalude, Founder, Adievo Capital Manager, Bismark Rewane CEO Financial Derivatives Company and was moderated by the always colorful Sir Harold Evans, Editor-at-Large Reuters News.

Map by Kai Krause

As a strategist and designer I was curious to hear if terms such as product and service innovation, market creation and user-centered etc. would creep into the fray.  Just by its very nature, the term emerging market seems to ally with these terms – well at least in my mind.  This thought resurfaced several times throughout the the evening, dovetailing with comments and observations of strategic moral and social methods of investment and economic distribution.  You see, what was obvious to me and perhaps to others with a design background, was that the soft undefined matter which is an emerging market was not being treated as such.  What I mean is that new approaches to innovation processes, capabilities and offerings were not yet being discussed as a requisite strategy of long term strategic success.  In fact, the new African market appeared to be a target for current portfolios of goods and services in need of more clients and consumers. Front-loading research and experimentation would seem ideal for new market ventures but has yet to find its place in the panel discussion.  Take for example Africa’s technology reliant and savvy SME’s (small, medium enterprises) whom rely almost solely on mobile technology to engage in multiple facets of trade and commerce.  This sector is a hotbed of in the field activity where innovation will present some companies with enormous gains.  A prime example of region or problem specific innovation is Movirtu Limited’s cloud phone.  The company’s Cloud Phone product enables subscribers, who cannot afford to buy a handset, to own a virtual phone account with their own telephone number, which they can access from other people’s mobile phones.

The data concerning the best performing African economies: Mauritius, South Africa, Rwanda in particular is quite impressive. They represent 6 of 10 of the worlds fastest growing economies, 5% and higher growth and rapidly growing middle classes.  What this all indicates is that processes of entry into these markets, sustainability and ensuring prosperous futures translates into deep understanding of the particular factors and nuances and responding by providing tangible innovations indicative of that new market.  What was indeed suspect amongst some of the panel was the concern of US companies missing the mark by marketing goods and services not created for the emerging market but a wholly different market and economy, recycled.  It was here where my strategist antenna encountered the least interference. Clearly, some recognize that entering Africa or any emerging market and mitigating subsequent risk suggests new organizational design reflective of the operational dynamic of the local market.  This is something that the legal community of Mauritius has become expert at and built into a profitable business sector, redesigning existing organizations to operate effectively in the designated African markets.

Without accepting a tail wagging the dog concept, I concur with much of the panel that strong and clear organizations precede products and services.  However ultimate success hinges on identifying those opportunity gaps for new products and services that ensures the organization thrives and if necessary can evolve. In fact a promising sub text of the conference was a call to arms to reverse the lethargic response of US companies to indeed forge into this unfamiliar market. A call emphasized by Melissa Cook and Senator Coons for companies to exhibit a willingness to engage,  take the inherent risks, fail, learn and then profit, in other words design and strategize for success.  Currently this position is occupied by China, Brazil and Korea which dominate the nascent market.  Perhaps this is lesson 1 learned and we can now look  forward to work on exporting of one of this country’s greatest economic assets, creativity and innovation.

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