Opinion: How to invest responsibly in Africa’s human capital

Factory workers producing shirts in Accra, Ghana. Photo by: Dominic Chavez / World Bank / CC BY-NC-ND

For many developing countries, building a skilled workforce is one of the greatest challenges. In a digital age where an increasing number of traditional jobs are being replaced with technology, it is crucial for emerging markets to build a knowledge economy where their citizens can contribute to their nations’ sustainable development. However, history shows that in many countries, international companies and expatriates have often gone in, done the work, reaped the rewards, and left.

In sub-Saharan Africa — the region with the world’s youngest and fastest growing population — investing in human capital is imperative if millions are to gain employment and build better lives for themselves and their families. The good news is that for many organizations doing business in African countries, hiring a proportion of local people is now a legal requirement as part of “nationalization” strategies. While this may appear to be burdensome, there are compelling reasons for hiring local people. They understand their cultures and business practices much more than expats ever can. Smart companies hire locals as much as possible because they very often instinctively understand business etiquette, networks, and cultural nuances. These capabilities are particularly important for companies that are outward facing and who engage with the public and other external stakeholders.

Here are a few ways to invest responsibly in Africa’s human capital.

1. Enable local development through job training

Empowering those who work for international companies with skills and training is especially important in communities where large numbers are employed by only one foreign firm. Major industrial plants in sectors such as mining rely very heavily on local employees, and communities can be left unable to find new jobs when companies leave. And, while it is true that many jobs might require only basic skillsets, there are opportunities to train and develop large numbers so that they are better equipped for whatever the future holds. The responsibility for doing so, however, does take time, planning, and resources. In the mining sector — where sites can often employ many thousands of people in remote locations — companies can choose to delegate training and development schemes to third-party companies that specialize in on-site operations, logistics, and management.

2. Learn from working in conflict-affected areas

Private sector companies such as RA International often take on the responsibility of training and development in difficult terrains. From running remote mining camps in the middle of nowhere to delivering communications equipment to war-torn areas, the company has succeeded in helping local employees skill-up, so that it can leave behind a positive footprint. For instance, in 2009, RA was tasked with disinfecting hospitals in Chad as part of a wider U.N. program. The company developed a training scheme for widows, teaching them modern sanitation practices so that they could perform the tasks to the highest standards and then go on and find paid employment in other hospitals.

More recently, one of RAs managers developed a safety training program, known as “Toolbox Talks,” that has been provided to the company’s staff and subcontractors in Somalia. With the aim of generating “catchy” and easily understandable content that is easy to remember, the program has proven to be an effective method for reinforcing the safety message throughout the workforce by taking the form of short, weekly conversations regarding topics such as Fire Safety, Ear Protection, Working at Heights, and Ladder Use. The firm also used its own catering team to provide food safety training, using PowerPoint presentations and online courses to ensure that local employees gained academic as well as practical experience.

Companies that work in areas of conflict or humanitarian crisis also have an opportunity to support populations that may have been displaced. RA recruited internally displaced people in South Sudan in 2005, which provided them with an income for six months, schooling for their children, and then resettlement and reintegration back into the community. Programs such as these enable some of the most underprivileged people to gain a foothold back into the labor market and gain a fresh start for them and their families.

3. Enforce transparency rules

It is particularly important that international companies operating in Africa assess suppliers, including background checks, self-assessment surveys, site visits, and audits. International companies that operate in Africa must do all they can to ensure that their business is not linked to corrupt practices elsewhere along the supply chain. Corruption and bribery inevitably cause the most harm to those at the bottom of the ladder, which is why companies should enforce global standards of transparency and rely on extensive supply chains. Such companies must ensure that their accounts are independently audited every year so that payments that could be related to bribery or corruption can be identified. It is incumbent upon foreign employers to make sure that those they employ must not only be trained and developed, but valued, respected, and protected from corrupt practices.

4. Leave a positive footprint

The real legacy goes beyond employment. With ongoing training and investment in skills development, companies operating in Africa can contribute enormously to the development of a skilled workforce and in turn get better at what they do without the input of expats. This developmental curve adds incredible value to clients and, most importantly, means that organizations can leave the communities where they work significantly richer in skills. However, the real value comes from the mutual respect that employers and employees have for each other — and the respect that businesses have for each other across the supply chain.

Communities learn from their employers and will, if given the opportunity, follow best practice. It is crucial that international companies respect the natural environment and are seen to do so, so that they leave behind a lasting, positive legacy. Policies governing recycling or responsible waste disposal, for example, can also inspire others to understand the importance of environmental and social responsibility across the local supply chain and wider communities.

When communities and their natural environments are respected by foreign companies and employers, they are left with a powerful impression of how things should be. Best practice in terms of human rights, education, and opportunity can help those we employ become role models for the next generation. In doing so, international companies can play a leading part in Africa’s flourishing ecosystem of highly skilled, responsible workers. This is a positive footprint that we should all work toward and be proud of.

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About the author

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    Soraya Narfeldt

    Soraya Narfeldt is the chief executive officer and chairperson of RA International. A British citizen born in Beirut and raised in Sierra Leone, she founded RA International in 2003. The company is Africa’s leading remote site service provider with a broad range of services including construction, catering, operation and maintenance, life support, supply chain, and accommodation, catering to clients operating in remote and challenging environments.