A BORDERLESS WORLD
Any company in Africa that exists today (2022) and does not, by 2035, expand its customer base past the borders of its home country home country will go out of business or become a fraction of its current size.
In 1981, my grandfather – my mother’s father – died in Freetown, Sierra Leone. My parents, siblings, and I were living in Accra at the time (my father was the Registrar of the West African Examinations Council at the time). In order to send the message to us, my uncle (mother’s brother), a executive with the Bank
of Sierra Leone, sent a messenger to the Sierra Leone External Telecommunications company to send a
telex message (sometimes called “Telegraph”) to my parents. The message had to be limited to 15 words
and each word could not be longer than 15 characters. So the message said “Dad died yesterday STOP
Please call STOP. Funeral arrangements awaiting you STOP. Condolences STOP. The messenger was
sent by my uncle late afternoon on a Tuesday. On Wednesday, the message was delivered to my father’s
office at the West African Examinations Council (“WAEC”) by a messenger on motorbike. On the same
day, my father communicated this sad news to my mother, and after informing their children, my father
made travel arrangements for my mother. On Thursday, my father sent a messenger to the Ghana P&T
with the following message: “Received sad news STOP. Olive travels Sunday STOP. Collective
condolences STOP. The message was delivered to my uncle via messenger on Friday.
18 words of communication took three days to execute. Total cost: $17.
Last month, I sat in the dining room of my house, and chaired a call for 60 minutes on Zoom conference
from Freetown with someone from Kenya, Switzerland, USA, and Accra. It was a business call, and we
were all working for a company based in Mauritius.
Total number of words exchanged: hundreds
Total time: 1 hour.
Total cost: $0.
25 years ago, the largest retailer in the world was Walmart. The largest retailer in Ghana was Kingsway.
Today, the largest retailer in the world is Amazon, a company with no stores or inventory. Today in
Ghana there are Jumia and Zoobashop, fast-growing companies with no stores or inventory.
One hundred years ago, 90% of the market, services, employees, contractors and costs of the world’s
largest companies were incurred within a 100 mile radius of the company’s headquarters. Fifty years ago,
that radius expanded to over 1000 miles. Twenty-five years ago, there was no more radius. Today, people
live in Calcutta and work for Tescos, a UK company. People live in Accra and provide back office
functions for American companies which have no apparent business in Ghana. Medical scans are taken in
Florida and read or interpreted by doctors sitting in Botswana.
The world has become borderless. Products and services that were previously restricted by geography
have now become available everywhere. Cost differentials are reducing around the world due to reduced
logistics and communications costs that come as a result of advances in technology. Technologies like
high speed rail, smartphones, Broadband Internet, VOIP, RFID, cloud computing, the Internet of things,
are all reducing the barriers to entry, reducing the cost of logistics and communications, and forcing a
change in the way we go about our business. Some have described these as; disruptive technologies,
because they disrupt our way of life, either positively or negatively. They are bringing competition to our
doorstep. What does this mean for business in Africa?
It means that the bubble is about to burst. It means that the cocoon of protection that being in a small,
remote market affords us is about to disappear. It means that very soon, we will not be able to continue
running businesses that do not provide world class services or products or provide them at more than
world class prices. Those of us who don’t provide that will find ourselves soon being MD of a dinosaur
that cannot pay its bills or a micro-enterprise that cannot outgrow its owner and will die as soon as the
owner becomes old. Companies are invading your market, and I don’t mean the ones you can easily see,
like Nigerian banks or the South African medical clinics. Companies are doing business in and taking
market share from each of you without having to come to Ghana or be in Ghana. Citydia supermarket is
not just competing with Shoprite supermarket; it is competing with Amazon! University of Ghana is not
just competing with Ashesi University, it is competing with University of Liverpool online, and Walden
University. GCB Bank is not just competing with Ecobank, it is also competing with Wells Fargo Bank.
These companies are taking part of the Ghana market share away from you. Disruptive technologies are
threatening the survival of your business.
But even as they threaten your business, they also bring opportunities. Globalization and disruptive
technologies mean that those of us that have a product or service that is globally competitive have the
opportunity to provide them to a market larger than Ghana! The reduced cost of logistics and
communications works both ways! You have an opportunity to take market share in other countries at a
lower cost and risk than ever before! Your company can sell globally, establish relationships and
customers, deliver products and services outside the borders of Ghana with greater ease than ever before.
Not only is the risk of growing past the borders of Ghana less, the risk of not growing has increased!
Now you may be saying to yourself: & I hear you, but I am so busy just trying to make sure that my drivers
do not steal my fuel, my employees steal my company’s money, or having to attend every meeting
because my people cannot be trusted to make the right decisions at those meetings, or I am afraid of the
risk of expanding my business because my business may be robbed blind if I conduct operations outside
of my sphere of immediate geographical control. To that I remind you – every problem has a solution, and
if other companies are able to come to Ghana and solve the challenges of doing business in Ghana when
the owners are not there to watch it night and day, so can you. There is no problem that you have to deal
with that someone else has not successfully dealt with in business. Additionally, the risk of not growing
is increasing, and will soon outweigh the risk of growing. Don’t wait until the scales tip to be in your
disfavor, and you are too late to react to it.
Surviving and thriving in this brave new borderless world requires leaders who recognize that they must
find innovative solutions to problems, upgrade their own capacity and performance, and find new markets
outside of their company’s national borders. It requires employees that are constantly being trained and
retrained to ensure that they acquire and demonstrate the skills that will produce products and services
that are world class. It requires leadership that recognizes that technology must be more than just access to email, or Facebook or WhatsApp. Technology must be used to create or market a competitive
advantage. It is not just a cost center, it should be a profit center.
Do you know what your return in investment is for your technology?
As you ponder on how to ensure that your company survives and thrives, and as I conclude, I have a few
suggestions for you on how to position your company for success in a borderless world:
1. Use your investment in technology to help you train your people. The only sustainable competitive
advantage in the new borderless world is going to be the quality of your people. Why is Amazon.com
beating Walmart.com? Because they have better people. Walmart had more cash flow, more goods, better
brand name recognition, and certainly more money to spend on IT than Amazon. And yet they got beaten.
Badly. Invest in the development of your people. It does not cost a lot of money. Most of the resources
required for your staff to receive training is available free on the internet. Instead of leaving your
employees alone to use your Internet investment for email, Facebook, and WhatsApp only, encourage,
incentive and force them to take courses online. There are free courses for every training need available.
Go to Khan Academy. Go to Coursera. Engage your HR manager in identifying training needs and
finding courses for your people. Give them a bonus for every course they complete. They may complain
but it is for their own good, and necessary for your company’s survival.
2. Use your technology to expand your market; find customers outside of Ghana. Get a first class website.
If you already have a website, revamp your website and make it world class. It is your primary marketing
tool. Ask your sales or marketing manager how they plan on finding more customers outside of Ghana.
Demand to see a plan.
3. Use your technology to lower your other costs and improve quality in your company. Ask each of your
direct reports how they are leveraging or plan to leverage your investment in technology to reduce cost
and improve quality of the service or products that their department produces.
Notice that all of the activities or recommendations that have been provided require initiating from you.
The borderless world is filled with opportunities and threats. The greatest determinant of your company’s
fate and the prosperity of your employees is the quality of your leadership. Enhance it, and you will
enhance the prospects of your business.