The coronavirus pandemic has created unprecedented disruptions to workforce systems in Africa. With most employees across the world forced to work from home since March, employers have had to scale up the adoption of technology to enable remote work while ensuring they keep employees safe, engaged and productive.
Ventures Africa talks to Yasmin Kumi, founder and chief executive of Accra-based Africa Foresight Group – the first and largest network of freelance management consultants in Africa – on the future of work in Africa in the post-COVID era as well as the main issues facing and opportunities in the consultancy sector amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Ventures Africa: You founded Africa Foresight Group in 2016 and at the age of 27 after leaving behind your 5-year long career at McKinsey & Company. What informed your decision at the time?
Yasmin Kumi: Funnily, I never wanted to be an entrepreneur, especially not in 2016 where I came straight out of B-School with empty pockets. Yet, I always felt deeply connected to the purpose of elevating African people, which partially links back to the way I grew up. For me, it was sad to see that many Africans in Germany are not necessarily proud of where they come from. Meanwhile, Germans are very proud of their big corporate brands and their “Mittelstand”. As a half-German that spent her entire childhood in Berlin, I got to experience that throughout my upbringing. I never understood why Africans do not have this same source of pride; why there are no companies that can compete on a global level coming from the continent. And so I spent 8 years examining this question from different angles, through my research in Oxford and Seoul for instance. Even though starting AFG 3.5 years ago was very spontaneous, the pathway to this was written many years prior. I believe that I was lucky to recognize that this was the case to take the bold decision of starting up.
VA: What is the most significant change in the future of work you have seen since the beginning of this crisis?
YK: COVID-19 is redefining the meaning of trust in business relationships. Before the pandemic, it was often difficult to close deals or simply “do business” without significant in-person interaction. After an initial pause, I am now seeing many people pick up conversations and move ahead with deals despite the inability to travel and meet. We are learning to assess people and business partners in new ways that will likely stick beyond the crisis. The result is a decreased cost of doing business that is particularly interesting for debottlenecking growth in emerging markets, where trust-building is always a barrier.
VA: In the post-COVID era, are firms going to have to consider the outright replacement of workers with technology?
YK: I do not think so at all. Covid-19 does not accelerate this trend. On the contrary, it seems that people are currently realizing how much human capital matters in a time where it is harder to make use of. What I do believe is that Covid-19 forces businesses to consider the replacement of full-time work with new models of work that are less dependent on location, more output-based than time-focused, and more cost-effective. And of course, technology will play a big role in this – but more so as a facilitator than a replacement.
This is a huge opportunity for the African continent. I am seeing a world where our fast-growing workforce might become the new pool of offshoring talent offering remote services to global corporates from across the world. Places with good infrastructures, such as South Arica, sit on a big opportunity here to build a truly new economy that is stronger than what we had prior to Covid-19.
VA: Having worked with several firms across the continent, how would you rate the capacity of African companies to meet the need for rapid digital transformation and how are they adjusting to the current reality?
YK: Unfortunately, I am a bit of a devil’s advocate on this one. I do not think that all African companies need a rapid digital transformation. This is a big point with regard to what we do at AFG. We work with businesses from very traditional business sectors for which the business case of digitization is weak because of the oversupply of the workforce in many African countries. These businesses need digital enhancement, but not necessarily a full transformation. I am talking about agribusinesses here, port companies, FCMG companies.
In the same vein, the new reality for them to adjust to right now is not necessarily how to embark on an accelerated digital transformation. Their workers are mostly back at the factory/ports. What they are trying to adjust to is falling FX rates, lowering global demand. Now more so than ever is the time to focus on local sourcing and on capturing national consumption growth. What will be interesting here is to see how the adoption of new workforce models can help in this, in order to increase worker productivity and keep margins healthy despite more localized market focus. Surely, there is a technology element in that, but the major part of this is the shift of culture.
VA: Remote work seems to be the most standout feature of the new normal in workplaces. This means most employees are all separated from their teams. How can they maintain a sense of belonging while isolated at home?
YK: At AFG we are lucky to have worked remotely since we started our business. Prior to Covid-19, about 50 percent of our teams worked remotely, now it is 100 percent. We have started getting creative around team-building the current situation. People have a tendency towards falling into a very transactional communication mode in this period. And so the goal is to compensate that with creating as much fun as possible. A few ideas that have been helpful to bring back social and fun elements for us:
- Online poetry nights with voluntary participation
- Collective training focusing on anxiety and stress management via video call
- Quizzes on Friday afternoons
- Monday morning calls to start the week together on a high note, with motivational quotes
- Rotating moderators from within the team for recurring meetings
- A plant that goes from team member to team member with the humble goal for it to “survive”
VA: Also, how do leadership or management teams address such pitfalls and beat the collaboration, productivity, and emotional disadvantages that can arise with a remote working environment?
YK: Our management team has been meeting very regularly at each other’s homes to stay connected and strategize. Using the current period for reassessing strategy is an absolute must. Our all-female management team – sometimes referred to as the “Amazons” 😊 – has also become a strong emotional support system for each other. In a way, we have had more time to glue and grow during this period given that travel restrictions have bound us all to the same city.
VA: Africa Foresight Group is the first and largest female-led network of freelance management consultants in Africa, connecting consultants with high-impact client engagements across the continent. Now that Covid-19 has turned the private sector “upside-down” and companies need more support than ever, how have you adjusted to the current times and how is AFG providing support to vulnerable businesses?
YK: What we are seeing is businesses trying to close funding rounds they started negotiating prior to the pandemic. It is important to get these over the finishing line despite the change in environment and, in a number of cases, it is still possible to do so. Moreover, certain businesses are trying to restrategize how to capture new pockets of revenue opportunity to compensate for demand losses in their industry. “Asset repurposing” is the keyword here.
Interestingly, we do have a number of clients who think very long-term and choose to take a “this too shall pass” mentality. They continue to work with us on 10-year strategic plans that go well beyond the current crisis; this long-term focus will likely allow them to come out as winners, in the end, having used the slowdown today to be better and more competitive companies tomorrow.
VA: Let’s talk about a bit more about the consultancy sector and Covid-19. What do you consider the main challenges facing the industry right now, particularly in Africa?
YK: The consulting sector in Africa has challenges when it comes to product-market fit and is dominated by Western firms that largely support governments and foreign multinationals. As a young leader from Ghana, I am very keen on building an alternative model that can serve the homegrown private sector across the continent.
But these are not Covid19-related factors. They have always been there. Covid-19 will lead to a slowdown of demand for top firms from multinationals since they will rather focus on fixing their businesses at home, and likely shift their focus towards government work, e.g. to support with economic recovery programs. The competition will be tight for this type of opportunity and might drive players with less foothold out of the African market for a while.
VA: The global consulting industry has grown strongly since the last financial crisis but with the pandemic having pushed many economies to the brink of a recession, revenue is taking a big hit. Do you see consulting survive and how quickly do you expect the industry to recover?
YK: What people forget is that consultants are particularly important to support companies who are in crisis. Germany’s consulting industry, for instance, grew massively after the oil price shock in the 1980s through restructuring work. It gave rise to Germany’s position as a top 5 consulting market worldwide. There will be a maximum 12-month gap until we start seeing this trend in Africa. But in our market, here, the question is who will be able to capture that type of demand. Many clients on this continent are very price-sensitive and not able to invest multi-million dollar budgets for restructuring and turnaround efforts.
VA: We can see how the digital way of interaction is becoming the new normal across many sectors – financial services, healthcare, education. How is the integration of technology playing out in the consultancy space?
YK: I believe that there is a trend towards more platform-type business models that bring curated talent to clients instead of being a traditional consulting firm with big overhead costs. That is why we started AFG. Meanwhile, large consulting firms are starting to become big in the field of software development to complement their existing service portfolio so that the big clients they serve can benefit from more comprehensive support.
VA: In an article of yours titled Why Africa needs talent networks instead of more consulting companies on Daily Maverick, you mentioned a “need to democratize access to top human capital.” Can you speak a bit more about this?
YK: Human capital lies at the core of economic development and we desperately need to shift our focus towards understanding that. A big portion of the human capital question is linked to education and I am proud to know several entrepreneurs in Africa who are moving the needle on a big scale in that regard. But if we educate good people and then miss to build structured opportunities for the top tier of them to support our local economy, then what have we really achieved? Why are the top employers in many African markets that absorb such top talent only multinationals plus a few local telcos and banks? It has to be possible for a mid-sized firm to get access to that top graduate. That is exactly what we are doing at AFG. The members of our network are all highly intelligent problem solvers who have a great track record – they could work at any top company. But they choose AFG because they are thrilled by the impact angle we bring. In turn, our clients love the energetic professional spirit and analytical muscle our teams infect their organizations with.