How being a military pilot prepared me for business in Africa

For most people, flying a $30 million Harrier Jump Jet over one of the world’s most dangerous countries, and helping businesses thrive in Africa seem worlds apart.

In many respects, they are. But the truth is that my nine years in Britain’s Royal Air Force (RAF), which saw me serve multiple tours in Afghanistan, could not have left me better prepared for a life advising businesses on what they need to do to thrive on the continent.

Whether at 30,000ft or on the ground in a remote community, you must see yourself for what you are: a visitor in another country. Successful entrepreneurs act similarly to successful military presences; they work closely to build ties with local institutions, tribes, clans and chiefs, laying the groundwork for future success. Whether that be getting your tax certificate on time, or gaining some key intel for your next flight, success comes from immersing yourself in local customs and adapting to complement them.

I have lost count of the number of new entrants who attempt to impose their own cultural norms. Granted, some have short term success. However, all eventually pay the price, either going through an awkward and painful phase of backtracking or at worst, being forced to exit a market entirely.

Most important is making sure your presence benefits the community. This ethos must be baked into the DNA of any company wishing to have a long and sustainable profitable venture in Africa. The same rings true for successful military campaigns.

I once helped a group of investors to set up a range of business ventures in South Sudan around the time of independence. Those lacking local know-how deemed market entry too risky. However, we created a supportive environment through active engagement with the local community – for example by digging a well to provide steady supply of fresh water. Over 10 years later, the businesses are thriving, with the local village providing much of the workforce and security needed for them to continue making solid shareholder return.

It is this type of win-win relationship that local intermediaries can help realise. Having advisors with the cultural appreciation, respect and knowledge is not just a nice to have. It is the foundation upon which all successful and sustainable businesses are built upon in Africa.