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“What do African employers really want – local or international expertise?” Although phrased in many ways, this was the most recurring question received, following my last article – and the best African employer to work for in 2014 is…. Thanks to everyone who contacted me via LinkedIn, Google +, Twitter and the Contact Page of this website.

An analysis of all the questions received, show that a good number of locally and internationally based professionals are not quite sure of what companies look for when they recruit roles across their businesses. Interestingly, while some locally based professionals feel overlooked in recruitment processes by African companies even when they believe they have relevant expertise, some internationally based professionals on the other hand, feel they are given less preference because of their distance from the “action-spot”.

Each group feels somewhat marginalised. But is this the real situation on-the-ground? What are employers actually thinking? Do they really have a favourite group? If so, which? Unfortunately, there is no straight forward answer to any of these questions. However, there is an interesting trend I would like us to explore…

Despite the abundance of human resources in Africa, we have in the past struggled and are still struggling with the issue of skills shortage in specific countries, industries and functions. Previously, companies were happy to resolve this problem by hiring expatriates. After a while, it became clear that in many cases, this did not work. In fact, in some situations, bigger problems came about. Many expatriates struggled to do business locally, causing significant corporate losses. Some also failed to integrate into the local environment and with local employees, resulting in corporate tension.

Of course there were many successful cases of expatriate hires, but it became increasingly evident that a more sustainable approach was needed to deal with this issue. Many companies refocused their plans, aligning them to ensuring the transfer of skills from expatriates to local employees. But skills transfer takes time and something else needed to be done in the interim.

The focus shifted particularly in the last decade to hiring very experienced internationally-based Africans looking to return to their countries and regions of origin. This was seen as a particularly good corporate move as it meant companies had less to worry about high expatriate remuneration packages, visa issues, long term location commitment as well as government local content and localisation policies. But this on its own did not resolve all of the problems, as a significant number of Africans living in foreign countries had lost touch with their roots and the realities of the African environment by the time they were hired.

Like some expatriates, some “returnees” struggled integrating with local employees and understanding how to effectively do business. Unlike many expatriates, some were able to knock at business doors, but unfortunately not walk through them.

On the flip side, there were many “returnees” that brought with them, wealth of experience. They were able to work with local employees in efficient and productive ways, succeeding in their roles and transforming their businesses. These professionals where the lucky ones, who either knew what it took to adapt their skills to a different environment or had local colleagues ready for the “right” type of change. With these successes not withstanding, executives of companies knew that more needed to be done.

In the last couple of years, some forward-thinking companies have once again adjusted their recruitment approach. They have carefully analysed the different issues faced over time and found that:

  • They need local expertise more than they initially thought they did. Local employees are born in their environments, grow up in their environments and generally know what works and what doesn’t.  They understand the cultures and appropriate ways to do businesses, how to open doors, how to walk through them, how to negotiate the best deals, how to …. it is endless.  It is a well known fact that the more local a company is, the more it is embraced by the people. This explains why some multinationals keep local company names after a takeover or merger.
  • There is stiff competition in many African core industries, especially with the recent economic growth and investment in the continent.  Professionals in the commercial and other functional areas of businesses are increasingly aware that they need to connect more with their local customers or lose out to competitors. It is no surprise that many adverts and sponsorships are more “African” today than they were ten years ago. Customers feel more attached to what they know, so it makes sense for companies to employ people who have this understanding.
  • They need international expertise as well. While local employees may have lots of knowledge that their international counterparts do not have, some businesses need specific skills to take them to the next level of their corporate growth. Unfortunately in some African countries, especially when an industry is in its infancy, there may be challenges finding some of the relevant skills locally.
  • To address it, more than ever, companies are sponsoring promising employees to other countries for further education or transferring them to international operations with the aim of fast tracking their expertise. This is particularly so for highly technical industries such as the Oil and Gas sector.
  • Most importantly they need the perfect blend of “local and international”. Companies are now acknowledging the need for both local and international expertise and as a result,  adopting a careful blend of both in their hiring activities. This explains the recent interest by many companies in hiring only professionals with local and international understanding.

As a Recruiter in the last two years particularly, a lot of my clients have indicated clearly during anew role briefing that they would only consider candidates who can demonstrate both local and international experience. This is a topic I will elaborate on in another article.

The world has become a global village with interactions from every corner only imagined a couple of years ago. For any corporate entity to survive and effectively compete, regardless of how remote it is, it needs an equal measure of local appreciation and international exposure.

So what do African employers really want now?

In simple terms, employers are not only seeking early, mid and senior level professionals with relevant technical expertise. They are also increasingly keen to hire people who understand how their local environments and the dynamics of the international environment interact and affect their operations and vice versa. To them, this is the new basis for many strategic decisions.

My thoughts:

Employers should continue paying great attention to skills transfer, but not just the usual foreign to local transfer, but also local to foreign transfer. This way, both locally based employees and “returnees” or expatriates are better equipped to face their corporate challenges and that of their immediate and international environments.

  6 Responses to “What do African Employers Really Want – Local or International Expertise?”

  1. This is a very insightful write-up I must say; very well articulated. Its also good to hear these analyses come from a recruiter. I think the key words/sentence that stand out for me is ‘they need the perfect blend of “local and international”’.

    My take, I’ll say, from a simple business standpoint, multinationals would be smart to harness both local as well as international talent in establishing themselves within the developing economies in Africa. For several reasons, but more as a corporate strategy; as already aptly mentioned above, we operate in a global economy and therefore it only makes sense to be able to harness talent from everywhere to enable knowledge sharing/management and best practices. I also think it is important to note that while a lot of emphasis has been placed on learning from the international community, there is a lot to also learn from the local community.

    For indigenious African companies, this strategy, I think would make sense as well as, especially depending on the industry and target markets in which they operate. For multinationals operating within that environment, they want to be seen as being “local friendly” ergo would also need to discover and include local talents in their hiring mix. Many companies are fast realizing sustainability comes in various forms, there is a big push not only to be seen as inherently environment friendly (be it directly going ‘green’ or reducing pollution etc) but also, perhaps, simply humane.

  2. I’m gone to tell my little brother, that he should also pay a quick visit this website on regular basis to take updated from hottest reports.

  3. Great write-up.
    Having worked in diversly staffed organisations:
    1. with only home grown and indeginous; and,
    2. with multinational, multi-ethnic, and multi-cultural; colleagues, the scenarios you successfully presented here is very much appreciated. Multinational work environment is, and will always remain, a rather complex and delicate situation that requires a lot of tact and courage to handle properly and profitably.
    The greatest challenge of most organisations does not lie so much in the colouration of their staff mix, as it does in the ability and willingness of the said organisations to create a harmonous work environment devoid of the “master” and “serf” mentality. That impression, real or imagined, will ultimately undermine corporate goals. Ensuring that employees believe not only in the corporate goals of their organisations, but also in the existence of a fair and equally rewarding system relative to inputs irrespective of your nationality and academic degrees will always carry the day, no matter the colouration of the staff mix.


    • Hello Dave,

      I agree with your view. The focus should be on skills and the ability to apply them. However, we should also remember that “the mix” you described has a strong impact on employee productivity which cannot be ignored. In addition, companies – big or small are expected to respect the laws of the places they have operations. One of the challenges some companies face is finding the right local talent. This is why I am a huge fan of any company that genuinely invests in local training and development.

      Thanks a lot for your comment.

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