UAE workers and companies build bridges to Africa

Gary Robinson is flushed with success. In his recent business trip to Nairobi, he oversaw his company’s first foray into bridging the markets of China and Africa, using the UAE as its base.

As the international events director of MIE Events in Dubai, Mr Robinson was part of the team behind China Trade Week last month. At the promotion, hundreds of Chinese manufacturers exhibited in Kenya’s capital as they searched for local partners to help them gain access to an increasingly fruitful African market.

The event’s success in attracting visitors surprised Mr Robinson, who says he has booked twice the amount of exhibition space for next year’s event.

“There is a growing middle class throughout Africa who want all the accoutrements of their new financial status,” he says. “Most Africans are very similar to their Middle East counterparts inasmuch as there is a burgeoning small- and medium-enterprise (SME) market, so anyone wanting to target SMEs should do well.”

Working in Africa, as with any new market, will bring its own challenges, says Mr Robinson. He emphasises the need for research and plenty of time on the ground to find the right opportunities and partners. Poor infrastructure, he says, are among the challenges.

“Patience and adaptability are essential in order to do well,” he says. Mr Robinson hopes MIE Events can continue to take advantage of the UAE’s location as a gateway into African markets for Chinese clients. It is an opportunity that other organisations are using as well.

“The UAE is a great headquarters for Africa,” says Mitchell Prather, the managing director of Djembe Communications, which operates in Angola, Mozambique, Nigeria and Dubai.

The company, which will open an office in Ghana this year, has found success with its formula of building an African communications network that is internationally focused. It has grown from a staff of four to 27 in just over a year.

“The Middle East has a long history of doing business in Africa,” says Mr Prather. “It’s easier for us in Dubai to get to most points in Africa than it is for our colleagues in Switzerland or London.”

He believes that companies looking to venture into the African market do not necessarily need to be big brands, citing ongoing investment in a number of African countries looking to tap entrepreneurial efforts as part of their wider economic development.

“There’s a lot of opportunities for SMEs to make inroads and grow in all African markets. And for that growth to accelerate there’s a need for a lot of cross-border activity,” he says. Skills development is pivotal to making this happen.

“For clients in Africa you need to have a lot of local insights, but what you also need is to upskill local teams, teams that are passionate about communications but also about developing their skill set. Dubai is a great centre of excellence for that,” says Mr Prather. “Before Africa can continue on its growth path it needs to expand its skill set. It’s not just building bridges, but teaching too. You have to be committed to the region in order to be successful.”

It is a formula that has helped businesses from China to thrive in Africa, as they offer knowledge transfer and capital infusion to gain ground and secure a competitive advantage.

“Particularly in East Africa there is no lack of either business and investment opportunities, or access to skilled labour,” says Oscar Wendel, a former UAE resident who is now the event director for TEDx in Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa.

“What is lacking however is both the in-depth technical knowledge and application in many high-tech areas, as well as access to capital to fund significant projects.”

He says these examples point to a role that Arabian Gulf businesses can also take on to meet a need in African markets.

“There is a lot of potential reward to be had for investors that are able to attract the right talent, hone their skills and develop market offerings to meet the increasing demand from many growing sectors,” he says.

The development of computer games and mobile phone apps is “booming right now and particularly promising for UAE companies”, says Mr Wendel.

“Real estate development, agriculture, tourism and financial services for the growing middle class, are all expanding and open for foreign investment.

“For UAE companies that can find the right blend of talent, training and endurance, Africa may put future growth in a vibrant market well within reach.”

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