Tsitsi Mutendi is a cofounder of African Family Firms and a Montessori Educationalist. She believes that Africans want to create multi-generational wealth but they can’t because of the political circumstances they find themselves in.
When considering the family business from an African perspective there are many differences to it compared to a Western or European perspective. These differences can be emulated from societal, cultural, and the purpose of the business itself.
For a family business to flourish, it needs to overcome many external and internal challenges in order to be considered a successful business. With African family businesses, part of the challenge they face is ensuring that they survive the political landscape they are in. Tsitsi explains that many African countries do have dictators who steal from the people and these are people African entrepreneurs have to be aware of in order to plan ahead.
As for the internal challenges, African family businesses have to decide what their history is, where they come from, who is a part of their family and how do they help the family? Discussing these aspects of the family helps establish a shared history that is a starting point for where the family wants to be in the future. It helps establish a vision to ensure everyone is on the same page and to discuss any legal precautions that need to be put in place.
Africa is a culturally rich continent with the cultures being embedded within each other. In Africa your culture is a part of your nature, essentially your culture is a part of who you are. In the context of business this can make matters, such as governance, complex, as at times our nature trumps mitigation.
Within an African family business equity is a topic that can become a complex matter. The core members of the family own the business, they proceed to share the wealth the business brings in, and the children inherit the business. The complexity comes in with culture, as some African cultures are more patriarchal than others, Tsitsi explains. This means that the daughters cannot have shares or own the business, because they took someone else’s last name. And so it is not seen as the daughter owning the business but as the in-laws owning it.
These are elements that can make an African family business have more complexities than expected but there can be measures put in place in order to work through them and make this type of transitional stage easier.
Another aspect of African family business that Tsitsi speaks about is how legacy comes into the discussion. When African family businesses have moved past the entrepreneurial elements of the business, such as whether the business will be successful, an important aspect they discuss is the legacy of the business. Legacy is how the family will be remembered once they have passed down the business and it is what makes a family business generational from an African perspective.
This aspect of building a legacy is why African family businesses also focus more on connection rather than structure. In African culture the essence of people plays a big role in history and in business as well. Tsitsi explains that once you enter a person’s home or space you can immediately tell when you feel welcomed or unwelcomed and you can feel the presence of a person’s personality or achievements.
Often in African cultures people will find themselves conforming or accommodating themselves to make them feel more welcome and they find themselves unconsciously carrying their burdens and decisions. When aspects of society are considered natural, they do not necessarily discuss these aspects because they want to accommodate everyone and they do not want to make people uncomfortable by having a discussion.
When discussing the topic of not wanting people to feel uncomfortable it begs the question of what takes place when you need to have an uncomfortable conversation, when you need to discuss that you were hurt because of something. Sharing emotions, what is important to us and discussing a shared identity is important, especially when discussing painful memories from the past and the present to understand pain that was inflicted.
Part of African culture is acknowledging that there is a starting point, a changing point, and an ending point, Tsitsi explains, that there is no such thing as always has been. No matter what happens in society, what law or tradition, whether it is behavioural or thought processes, there is always where it happened, acknowledging that starting point had happened. At some point in time that incident happened, and sometimes you have nothing to do with it, because the people in that time thought it made sense, explains Tsitsi further. Holding that person accountable for the starting point is not something we should do, however hold them accountable for the decision they make at the shifting point.
Tsitsi says that when discussing matters of the past, when discussing racism, you need to ask yourself where the starting point was, where it is now, and how you can contribute to the conversation. Taking responsibility for our contribution to the conversation makes it easier for the other person to feel heard and seen. Go listen to the full conversation Eksteen de Waal had with Tsitsi Mutendi and see how African family businesses differ from Western and European ones.