A thousand meetings: learning to do business in Ethiopia

I feel like I could write book on doing business in Ethiopia, although, really I am still a rookie. The book would be called “A Thousand Meetings.”

All of us Vulnerable Children Society directors, we all have picked up so much about how Ethiopia professional relationships and processes work this trip. It’s so different in many ways from Canada. Luckily, we’ve had Bisrat from Canadian Humanitarian and our VCS contractor, Birhan, as our guides.

The one similarity is that relationships make the world go around. However, how those relationships are developed, how discussions take place, and how processes work, these are all different. So it’s important to understand the culture and customs of the country that you are working in… These take precedence over how you are used to doing things in your own country.
Firstly, the underlying premise of organizational and business relations are different. In Canada, negotiations and cooperation are all about meeting your mutual goals.

So when you start a discussion, you all state your goals and then talk about how you can meet those mutual and individual goals with a plan. Not so in Ethiopia. In Ethiopia, it’s all about the process. To start, you tell about your organization and your work. Or, you listen to them tell about their organization or their work. Whoever is initiating the discussions does the explaining. Then the other side peppers the presenters with questions. You learn more about each other, your approaches, your missions. Then, after all that, you may state your goals for the meeting. More questions. Then, and only then, do you start an action plan. Finally, you reiterate the benefits of your mutual relationship, your respect for each other, and what you have agreed to do. Generally, it seems like this process is the norm, although there might be contexts where direct meetings are appropriate too.

This may seem not too long of a process, but you have to realize that this may not all happen in one meeting. Anything that is important, controversial or complicated will require many meetings with research (into each other, and into options) and thought between each. It’s the pace of business that I am still adjusting to… And the main reason why we are still doing Vulnerable Children work here in Ethiopia into our third week !!

In Ethiopia, you may notice that people do a lot of business and work with their relatives. This isn’t as common in Canada; in fact, we consider nepotism a bad thing. But in Ethiopia, who better to work with than your family that you trust? It’s rude just to cold call someone, I learned from an experienced Canadian. Instead, you must have a contact introduce you to someone. There must be some previous connection before you can start working together.

This is another reason why your Rolodex, nowadays your saved phone numbers on your mobile phone, is of utmost importance. There is no such thing as 411 or a phone book. So knowing many people who can ask around act something is really very valuable. Tawnya and I are amazed at how much time we have spent on the mobile phone here. Of course, the disappearing cell phone network that comes and goes as it wishes presents an added challenge. All these factors create a very different set of phone etiquette than in Canada. We were very impressed in one meeting when the two ladies discussing shut their cell phones off for an hour. Obviously it was a very important meeting for both of them. but it’s the only time we have seen that happen. Usually, people answer their phones whenever and wherever they ring. The funniest so far was a waitress, halfway through taking our order, who just walked away to answer her phone, and then showed up two minutes later to take the rest of the order!

Another difference is the level of bureaucracy. Heck, I just submitted a research grant this past week via the Internet for a Canadian project. There is a formal proposal and budget. But to get it approved, I simply emailed back and forth to my boss and her boss the Vice President, and met with a partner to draw up the proposal. And off it went, three days of work later.

In Ethiopia, there is no way that would have happened so quickly. There would have been countless meetings, formal agreements written, relationships built, etc. a thousand meetings later… It’s a very different approach that a direct person like me has a hard time getting used to.
The other interesting side note is that hierarchy is more important in Ethiopia than in Canada. We tend to have relatively flat organizations, with some acknowledgement of whose decision is whose. I’m still learning and haven’t figured it all out yet, but I have noticed that hierarchy plays more of a role in discussions in Ethiopia, with more deference to superiors. This is an aspect I think I need to pay attention to, since it doesn’t come naturally to me, and I’m sure I’m still making some flubs.

Which brings me to my last comment on the business cultural differences between countries.
By the way, these aren’t goods or bads, just what you are used to and what you a not used to. A perfect example of this culture shock is the employment approaches. When Canadians come to Ethiopia, they are often shocked at the sheer number of people employed to do what one or two pele would do in Canada. For example, at a cafe there might be servers, people who dish out the goodies, people who make the drinks, supervisors, a guy at the door to shoo beggars away, and a couple of cleaning people. The Canadian approach is to hire as few people as possible (maybe two people instead of the eight or nine?) and to pay them reasonably well so they will stay a long time. In Ethiopia, the policy of hiring as many people to work as possible makes sense, because of course, there is a huge unemployment rate and less money goes a lot further. In Canada, the challenge is getting competent people, since we have a higher employment rate and a highly educated workforce.

So these differences are culturally grounded and sensible. STILL, I find it very amusing that three people are needed at one grocery till to sell me two pots of yogurt.

Hopefully some of these insights are helpful for those of you doing business in Ethiopia, or like us, running NGOs. Just remember, “when in Addis…” My point is, we are the foreigners and have to be the ones to adapt.

Any other insights specific to Ethiopia business culture? I’d love for you to post them below!! After all, we are still rookies and have a lot to learn!

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