With 70% of our hires being African Nationals, is the historic reliance on expats for leadership roles coming to an end?

The historic reliance on ex-pats for leadership roles in Africa is dwindling due to the rise of both indigenous and international companies committed to developing local talent.  By nurturing career development in high potential African talent which in turn breeds corporate loyalty, the best African nationals are generally well looked after and are therefore not actively seeking new positions.  They often remain ‘under the radar’, unable to be accessed through advertising or from local recruitment firms working purely on a contingent basis and the result is a common misconception that ‘there’s no good talent in Africa’.

Therefore in order to find this talent, companies need to take a more aggressive and proactive approach in order to attract the best African nationals for new projects and expansion.  As a business, Executives in Africa are passionate about finding the highest calibre African talent for our clients, and with 70% of our successful hires being African nationals, the figures prove that it is possible.

Emerging and rapidly developing industries and sectors, such as Technology, Modern Retail, Real Estate and Renewables are where we are seeing most demand for talent across the continent.  More specifically the types of clients seeking to recruit across Africa currently generally fall under the categories of innovator and disruptor businesses, such as FinTech companies, the most obvious of which is the mobile money sector.

Many of these start-up businesses are backed by huge investors looking for returns, but also driven by a passion to make an impact on the continent.  With the impact angle, often comes a strong desire to hire local African nationals in key leadership positions.

For example we recently placed a female Zimbabwean CEO, headhunted from a business in Rwanda, for a mobile money business in Ethiopia.  We are also currently completing a search for a COO for Africa for a high growth technology company looking to scale tenfold in the next five years.  These types of role are hugely attractive to international calibre candidates looking to return to the continent and make an impact but also take on a challenging career position which is going to stretch them professionally as well.

For the COO Africa position, we presented a world class short list of candidates, all of whom held dual nationalities, having worked for significant periods in the UK or USA as well as at least 5 years’ experience on the continent.  The short list included two Nigerians, an Egyptian, Ghanaian, Zimbabwean and a South African, currently based both on the continent and as far afield as the Caribbean and Canada

The Hard Discounter retail model which has been so successful in Europe with the likes of Aldi and Lidl, is another niche sector where we are seeing demand on the continent.  Businesses like Shoprite and Game have had success across SSA in recent years but are aimed at a more middle class consumer, whereas the new hard discounter models are targeting the mass market shoppers and this specific model is considered as offering a real opportunity to attract consumers away from the traditional ‘market’ shopping into a modern retail environment.

These new emerging sectors require leaders with very specific expertise in their niche area in order to successfully launch on the continent.  Since there is a very limited pool of candidates in the Diaspora working within these sectors, the initial leadership team is often likely to be an expatriate who can demonstrate their capability to adjust to working within the challenging operating environment found in the African markets.  However, when this happens, the reality is that these leaders now also need to be committed to developing local talent as the business grows.

Another prime example is within Alternative Power sectors where companies in Africa are now planning high profile and sizeable projects which need to be driven by leaders with a proven experience of delivering similar scale projects, often involving new technologies.  To find projects of a similar scale to those planned, it is often necessary to leave the African continent and look internationally in global locations to find candidates with the required skills and these are often also expatriates.

But clients don’t always fall back on the expatriate option in these instances, finding alternative ways to solve the leadership challenge whilst retaining their commitment to localisation.  We recently conducted another mandate where a downstream oil & gas company was adamant that they wished to appoint an African national in a very senior pan-African technical role.  Owing to the previous reliance on ex-pats for senior technical positions in this sector across Africa, when we mapped the market, the reality was that the most senior position in this sector was still held, almost without exception, by an expatriate.

Our consultative approach was critical to educate our clients of the talent landscape, and to help the client decide the right course of action.  In this instance the client decided to stick by their localisation strategy and split the position into two roles which enabled them to appoint an African national who had demonstrated the potential to grow into the more senior position with the right professional support.

Regionally, it’s the smaller economies which have emerged into the spotlight since the commodity crisis has drawn the focus away from countries like Nigeria and Angola with opportunities arising from the likes of Uganda, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Senegal, Ivory Coast and Morocco.  Kenya, despite the political disruptions, has also benefitted positively from the commodity crisis, with significant investment in commercial real estate evident simply by comparing Nairobi’s skyline to the view five years ago.  Whilst some of these countries possess more of a challenge to find local nationals, it remains possible with the right search approach, and also with flexibility to consider other African nationalities.

If you would like to find out more about how Executives in Africa can assist you with your Search for key leadership roles in Africa, please contact Sarah Fitzgerald, Managing Director at sf@executivesinafrica.com.

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