by Staff writer
US-born technology entrepreneur Richard Tanksley moved to Africa in 2009, seeking adventure.
Tanksley has lived and worked in Cameroon, Ghana and Nigeria.
Speaking to Nairobi-based business journalist, Dinfin Mulupi, Tanksley relates his experience of the African business environment.
1. How did you end up in Africa?
I came seeking adventure. Frankly I was bored in the US and the economy was in the dumps. So I quit my job and moved to Cameroon. I had no job and didn’t know anyone, but within a week I had two offers. I ended up helping launch the Cameroon division of a mobile phone application called Mobile-XL. This is how my experience in tech start-ups in Africa started.
2. Describe living and working in Ghana as an expat.
It’s an easy place to live. We call it “Africa for beginners”. It’s safe, quiet and calm. It has the same infrastructure problems as many other countries of sub-Saharan Africa, but you rarely have to worry about your personal safety. The people are friendly and nice, almost to a fault. It’s actually hard starting a business because everyone wants to know you and help you. So they will never say “no”, even when they know they can’t deliver what they promise.
3. You now work and live in Lagos. How does Nigeria differ from Ghana?
After hearing nightmare stories about Nigeria from Ghanaians, I was actually terrified to make the move. But when I got here I realised most of the stories were exaggerations. There is a mostly friendly rivalry between Nigerians and Ghanaians and both have embellished stories about each other over the years.
Moving to Nigeria proved an easy transition.
I find many people here are more like Americans. They work really hard to buy things they don’t need, drive ridiculously huge cars, they go out, they have fun, they drink, they swear and they smoke. They are normal people with the same flaws as anyone, and are not afraid to admit it.
I think the best thing about Nigeria, specifically Lagos, is the energy of the work culture. Everyone works hard in Lagos. You can’t help it. Work starts early and usually does not finish until late night. There is no separation between work and pleasure. No matter what you are doing, you are working. Even if out with friends, or at dinner, or a club, you’re working because everyone you meet you may do business with.
Just like New York City, an exciting place to be.
|Mr Tanksley chilling out in Lagos|
3. How has working and living in Africa changed you perception of the continent? A lot of Americans still see Africa as home to Ebola, dictators and corruption.
I tell my family and friends stories about Africa all the time, but in the end, if you want to know and understand Africa as much as is possible as an expatriate, you have to be here yourself. The news does a disservice to Africa, which is an amazing place with more potential crammed into one continent than anywhere in the world. Almost every country went through problems of disease, dictators, and corruption. It is a natural part of the growth process of a nation.
I think you actually have to go through it so that you learn. You can’t start a country and say: “We are not going to be corrupt.”
You have to live with corruption for years until finally everyone sees that it’s destroying the country and people’s livelihoods.
The populace finally gets fed up and makes a change.
4. Do you have any advice for expats coming to work in Africa?
Read a lot before you get here.
Listen to radio stations online from the city you are going to. Local knowledge about politics and culture will go a long way towards ingratiating you to your hosts, and opening doors. Study a local language when you get there.
Try to have more local than expat friends. Returnees are the bridge between western and local culture, you need them both as friends and employees.
Remember, you are a visitor. You are here at the pleasure of the indigenous population. Respect them, or you’ll be sent home or wish you were home.
Richard Tanksley was a senior faculty member at the Ghana-based Meltwater Entrepreneurial School of Technology (MEST).
He now heads the African division of Seedstars, a Swiss-based venture builder investing in emerging markets. One recent investment is Nigeria-based e-payment platform SimplePay.
Credit: How We Made It In Africa