What I learnt about business in Africa from rowing across an ocean, by James Adair, Executive Search Consultant

What I learnt about business in Africa from rowing across an ocean, by James Adair, Executive Search Consultant

In April 2011 I set off from Geraldton, Western Australia, with my Kenyan friend, Ben Stenning, and rowed the 3,500 miles west to the island of Mauritius, off the east coast of Madagascar.  It took us 116 days and during that time we experienced all of the highs and lows you could expect from operating in some of the frontier markets in Africa. For that reason I thought it would be interesting to draw some comparisons between ocean rowing and setting up a new enterprise in Africa.

You either get it or you don’t

When you tell people you are going to row an ocean most cannot understand why you might do it, although there are always a few who say: ‘I would love to do something like that.’  My own motivations for doing it stemmed not only from wanting an adventure but also from proving that I could do it, notwithstanding the physical challenges resulting from a childhood illness.  Still people would ask: ‘But why this?’ And to answer that is difficult, since it’s either something you get, or you don’t.

Same applies for working in Africa. The great Continent either appeals to people or it doesn’t.  Much of Africa’s top talent choose to remain on home soil rather than pursue more lucrative opportunities abroad.  Many inward investors decide to invest in Africa simply because they have an interest in, or passion for, the continent.  Top Executives base themselves in Africa because they have chosen to.

So if you meet someone on a boat in the middle of the ocean or working in Africa, they are normally, in one way or another, a fellow spirit.

There will always be people lining up to tell you why it can’t be done

As with taking on any challenge there will always be plenty of naysayers; after all if it was easy to set up or grow a business in Africa then everyone would do it.  Whilst a lot of people have rowed the Atlantic, only two pairs boats had previously crossed the Indian by the time we set off.  What added to people’s scepticism was the fact that neither myself nor my rowing partner had ever rowed before!

The same is true of setting up a new venture in Africa where almost every business is a pioneer in one way or another.  Sometimes the only way of gaining experience is by doing it.  As with ocean rowing – if it was easy lots of companies would have done it already and it takes a certain type of person to just get on with it and solve the problems as you go along..

There will be power cuts

Everything which you imagine could go wrong on our little 23ft rowing boat did. The water maker (which converted salt water to fresh water) broke after a few weeks.  The solar panels didn’t generate enough power, tools rusted up, the GPS packed in, we ran out of chocolate on Day 82, we lost equipment in a storm and our satellite phone stopped working.  But there was a solution of sorts for every one of these problems, and given our remote location we discovered that necessity really is the mother of invention.

Running a business in many parts of Africa requires this resourcefulness in its leaders to continually innovate and find solutions to the unique and ever changing challenges presented by such Frontier Markets.  The plan has to be to remain ready to change the plan at any point.

James Adair 2

There will be beauty

One of the best things about our row was the nature we saw and the effect it had on us.  As Joseph Conrad wrote: ‘The true peace of God begins at any point one thousand miles from the nearest land.‘ The sea and sky were always changing around us; rough storms gave way to glassy calms, when the moon disappeared we could see the Milky Way above us and underneath us the phosphorescence lighting up in the water.

The wildlife was also incredible. We encountered sharks, whales, Dorado, pilot fish, tuna, storm petrels, shearwaters, squid, dolphins, flying fish, pelagic crabs and a whole host of other visitors.

Africa, along with the ocean, is one of the last places on earth where you can see large animals in their own natural habitat and whilst urbanisation is on the march across much of the Continent it is still much easier to get close to nature than in most environments.

With Perseverance you will always get there in the end

It took us 116 days but we got there in the end. The last day presented some difficulties when we capsized in rough weather and had to swim the last few miles to the relatively safety of a coral reef off Mauritius, from where we were rescued. But we made it.

Whether setting up a new business, or coming in to take an existing one on to the next stage, there will always be significant challenges but these can be overcome with a good team, a clear but flexible plan and the right attitude. It seems to me that wherever the threats and difficulties are the greatest the opportunities for success are the biggest.

If you want to know more about my rowing trip then you can read about it in my book and if you are willing to share stories about the challenges you have faced in running businesses in the ever-changing markets of Africa, then please get in touch.  I would love to hear about them.

Rowing after the white whale: a crossing of the Indian Ocean by hand.’  By James Adair is published by Polygon (£12.99)


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