Being on top of your game is key to being successful in business. But when trading internationally, there is an additional factor that is at play: cultural differences. Understanding these cultural differences can have a serious impact on business and may be the deciding factor for signing or losing a deal.
Bunga Kiala knows well about such pitfalls. As an Angolan working for a German company doing business in Africa, he is at the coalface of juggling two fundamentally different business cultures. Kiala, who grew up in Angola but has lived in Germany since the age of 16, had to quickly learn that, for better or worse, many stereotypes about the two nations contain an element of truth. And that knowing how to handle them can open many doors.
“The business environments in Germany and African countries are completely different,” explains Kiala.
They are often the reason why potential business opportunities fall through. There are two common deal-breakers, says Kiala: being late for a meeting, which Germans interpret as being unreliable. And focusing on camaraderie instead of research, academic credentials and skill.
“To Germans, only the quality of the product counts. Liking somebody is not essential,” he explains.
Those were tough lessons to learn for Kiala, who came to Germany as a teenager in the early 1990s, to escape Angola’s three-decade-long civil war. After growing up in a children’s home and attending high school in the city of Karlsruhe, he trained as an electrician and started to work for the city’s public utility company. But Kiala wanted more from life.
“The dilemma was that I didn’t have the money to study. So I continued working and went to a technical college in the evenings, for six years, to become an electrical engineer.”
His efforts paid off. After his graduation, Kiala was soon promoted, first to the position of project manager, leading a team of 40 people. His ambition and drive were also noticed by the competition. In 2007, SebaKMT, a Bamberg-based developer and manufacturer of measuring equipment that locates faults and leaks in power, water and communication networks, headhunted him.
“Like many other German companies, SebaKMT didn’t have an Africa division. For a long time, European countries believed that only South Africa and the Maghreb had economic potential, while the rest of the continent wasn’t deemed worth the investment. But in early 2000, the thinking somewhat changed,” says Kiala.
Showing impressive economic growth figures of up to 10%, African countries gained interest in the eyes of foreign investors. According to International Monetary Fund (IMF) forecasts, the future continues to look rosy for the continent. Seven of the world’s ten fastest-growing economies will be in sub-Saharan Africa by 2015, the IMF predicts, thereby soon outweighing Asia’s economic growth. It was this trend that gave a boost to Kiala’s career.
“SebaKMT decided to explore the African market,” he says.
As SebaKMT’s new sales director for Africa, Kiala, then in his early 30s, set up a new export division from scratch. It was a challenging task, he says, but it helped to have a product that met growing demand.
“Few African countries manage their water and electricity networks efficiently,” says Kiala.
In most nations, 40% to 60% of treated water gets lost on the way to the customer. Finding leaks quickly can therefore save millions of dollars. The same goes for faulty electricity and communications networks.
In less than five years, he brought SebaKMT’s equipment to 25 African countries, practically half of the continent. It is during those trips, he says, that he has to draw on one of his most valuable skills: understanding two very different business cultures. It all begins with the first encounter, when Germans’ famous virtue, punctuality, collides with the African thinking that good things take time and making someone wait is a sign of authority.
“It’s common to have an appointment at 2PM but your business partner won’t appear for another hour or so. It has even happened to me that my meetings were postponed for two or three days,” he says.
In a German business context, that’s an unthinkable scenario. And so, more often than not, Kiala finds himself in the difficult situation of having to straddle the divide: showing patience for “African time”, while trying to placate his fervent German bosses.
“It’s a different mentality. You have to understand it and treat people accordingly.”
It doesn’t end here. Who doesn’t understand Germans’ need for surety might perceive their let’s-get-down-to-business attitude as offensive.
“Small talk is kept to a minimum. Nobody asks how your family is doing,” Kiala explains.
And those who hope to seal a deal with a handshake will get a rude wake-up call, too.
“Germans are incredibly accurate. Their business culture is about careful planning and sticking by the rules. They want 100% assurance.”
That comes with detailed written communication, which is passed back and forth repeatedly before a contract is signed.
After 20 years of living in Germany, Kiala can offer sound advice on how to deal with Europe’s powerhouse. He explains it in true, three-point German style: “First, it’s all about competence. You need to have the best product, be able to offer maintenance plans and assistance.”
Second comes preparedness.
“Be professional. Have an excellent presentation ready. Know your product inside out.”
And third—it can’t be stated often enough—be on time.
It might seem to be hard work, but it’s worth the effort, says Kiala, who over the years has come to prefer Germans’ conservative approach to doing business.
“In return, you get longer-term investments, stable economic activity and a business environment that is separate from political power and friendships. Germans don’t take a lot of risk. Everything is double secured. As a result, you don’t see big losses, even in difficult economic times.”
Kiala didn’t always think this way. When he first arrived in Karlsruhe, it took him time to appreciate the German mentality. He struggled with people’s reserved attitude, which was so different from the outgoing nature of the people in his home country, Angola.
“Germans take time to open up. But once you get warm, it’s really a good friendship. It has substance,” he says.
He stresses that this also translates to the business environment. The initial approach is cautious, but once a business relationship is built, it is sturdy.
His appreciation for German culture has led to some snide remarks from his countrymen.
“In Angola, people call me ‘the German’ because I have adopted a different way of life,” Kiala jokes.
He believes it’s less about losing his roots, it’s about making the best of both worlds.
“I try to pick the good things out of each culture,” he explains.
In his professional life, this has certainly stood him in good stead. And it’s something he plans to hold on to for a while: “I might go back to Africa one day. But for now, Germany is the place for me”.