Peak Translations

Striking the right chord doing business with Africa

Global business ventures are always spreading their wings and travelling the world looking for opportunities to invest and grow. Africa is one such destination, a vast continent (not a country, a common misnomer), made up of many countries (54), nations, landscapes, languages, politics, religions, economies, cultures and so forth. And why is it worth investing in this continent? According to the Financial Times, “Africa is the world’s fastest-growing region for foreign direct investment …” particularly pertaining to oil and gas.

As with any international investment it is always advisable to ‘start at the very beginning’. Blindly launching into a global enterprise without the proper instruments will more than likely lead your campaign into taking a nose-dive, which is why it is essential to become versed in the customs of your chosen country. You wouldn’t after all try to play the piano without a piano; the same applies to conducting business abroad. Learn about its culture and business etiquette. Here is an introduction to a few essential cultural notes about some key African players to help you on your way to becoming a virtuoso!

South Africa

Like a colourful rainbow, this multicultural country (often named ‘the rainbow nation’) comprises an array of ethnic groups, which makes generalising business and cultural etiquette a little challenging, but the following will give you some idea of what to look out for as part of your global business venture.

  1. Building trust and a stable relationship is the key to successful negotiations in South Africa.
  2. Time is of the essence in South African business culture. Arriving 5-10 minutes prior to the agreed time of the meeting is advisable.
  3. The act of gift giving in a business context is not usually the norm. Nevertheless if you were invited to the home of your South African host for a meal, it would be impolite to turn up empty handed. A bottle of South African wine would be the jewel in the crown of gifts since this country is extremely proud of its wine production. Flowers and good quality chocolates would also impress, as well as the gift’s presentation. Be sure you are completely happy with your offering, as it will be opened in the presence of the giver.

Specie Giraffa camelopardalis family of Giraffidae


“Life is like a piano. What you get out of it depends on how you play it.” Play your notes right and your business negotiations in this oil-rich country will go a long way. To make a grand entrance in Nigeria, keynotes in your repertoire for a successful business performance should include adaptability, flexibility and a suite of cultural accompaniments.

  1. Learn to get personal. Establishing a personal relationship with superiors and colleagues is important, which will involve lengthy discussions about family and health. Although, make sure to use the correct form of address, Mr/Mrs/Ms and surname. Personal also means up-close-and-personal, as Nigerians’ concept of personal space means standing close in conversation.
  2. Identify the ‘tempo’ measure of greetings. Being ‘allegro’ with a quick hello in passing is not polite in Nigeria. Be more ‘lento’ in your approach and take time to perform your pleasantries asking about your counterpart’s wellbeing.
  3. Body language varies across the board so to ensure the right harmony is played, avoid such Western gestures as ‘the thumbs up’ sign. What means ‘ok’ in many cultures, is offensive in Nigerian culture.

Macro detail of globe Nigeria, narrow depth of field


With its relatively diversified economy, large domestic market and advantageous geostrategic position, Egypt plays a strong role among the first violins of the African ensemble, attracting a huge amount of foreign investment. However, pitching the right note in a country where political stability is still tenuous demands understanding its cultural essence.

  1. In order to glide down the New Suez canal with ease, conducting business through an Egyptian agent is highly recommended as a local intermediary will provide expert guidance and help speed up the business process.
  2. Harmony in business is key. If your potential Egyptian counterparts find you off key, then negotiations are likely to reach a finale before the overture has even commenced.
  3. Owing to the country’s predominantly Muslim faith, business is not conducted on Fridays given that it is a holy day. Be aware that Thursdays also tend to be non-work days in Egypt and that working hours are restricted during Ramadan.

A beautiful profile of the Great Sphinx including the pyramids of Menkaure and Khafre in the background in Giza, Cairo, Egypt

 There are so many more cultural notes to Africa’s symphony; however, these brief chords are just the overture. If you want to make sure your business debut is a success, become accomplished in your understanding of business and cultural diversity in Africa and you will then be well on your way to striking the right chord in this vast orchestra of African business.

 By Madeline Prusmann, Project Manager, January 2017





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