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Africa’s Got Talent, In conversation with Aisha Jallow

November 19, 2021
Borderless Leadership - article

Click play for the full discussion with Aisha Jallow

Andrew Kris 

Welcome to Borderless Executive Live. We’re going to be talking about Africa. It’s time we recognized all of the talent in Africa, which is why this particular piece is called Africa’s Got Talent. And to talk about this with us, we have Aisha Jallow, who is a Borderless consultant. Having been brought up and lived in Sierra Leone, also in Gambia and Guinea, she came to the UK about 20 or so years ago and studied at LSE, and subsequently worked for a while at McKinsey prior to joining Borderless. Aisha, welcome.

Aisha Jallow 

It is nice to be here, and especially to talk about Africa, which I’m so passionate about.

Andrew Kris 

Indeed, I recognized that in our many conversations, but why the focus on Africa, Aisha?

Aisha Jallow 

Well, Africa, as you know, is a dynamic and booming continent that international organizations cannot afford to ignore. The size of the opportunity and the region that Africa represents is huge. The region has a population of 1.2 billion people. The population is almost as large as India.

It has a fast-growing market, both in terms of population and economic growth. Furthermore, the population is becoming more and more educated, with 50% of the population under the age of 25. So in Africa, there is a young, agile, eager workforce.

Andrew Kris 

Absolutely right, and with 1.2 billion people, there’s some tremendous talent there. So, why do you think international organizations have failed so far to attract and retain the right people?

Aisha Jallow 

Good question. Historically, international organizations operating in Africa have reported challenges in attracting and retaining talented people for several reasons, including the lack of comprehensive education. Companies have argued in the past that Africa’s underperformance in education has been a major factor.

In addition, we have a “brain drain.” Today, more than 10% of Africa’s university-educated professionals live and work on other continents. We need them to return with their skills to Africa. I spend much of my time at Borderless persuading the diaspora to come back to top opportunities in which their skills will be highly valued.

A recent survey found that 31% of companies in South Africa say they have challenges filling top jobs, despite a national unemployment rate exceeding 25%. In addition, poor recruitment practices compound the problem by failing to attract and retain talented people.

Andrew Kris 

I can understand the situation in South Africa having lived and worked there myself. It is a really serious issue. You mentioned poor practices by international organizations. I assume you’re talking about large corporates, as well as NGOs and others. I would assume they’re looking for talented people, especially in Sub Saharan Africa, of course, but what do you mean by poor practices?

Aisha Jallow 

Throughout the years, and through working with Borderless as well, I have observed that poor practices in Africa stem from preconceived ideas about what recruiting processes should look like and that companies have used poor practices for many years. For the sake of this discussion, let’s deal with what I see as five core reasons, starting with the lack of strategic intent to hire local leadership talent. Of course, we see some companies trying to improve, however, the usual response, “find expatriates” is rarely the best answer.

Andrew Kris 

And there’s a limit to the number of expatriates you want to bring in, of course.

Aisha Jallow 

Exactly, expatriates are hugely expensive, by a factor of 4!. And that brings me to my next point. In the past, companies have relied on expatriate hires to staff leadership functions, creating a self-sustaining system. But this is beginning to change; in today’s economic climate the cost of employing expatriates is becoming unaffordable.

A third point I want to make is how companies are adopting a reactive approach, rather than proactively evaluating their local talent pools. Companies have been reluctant to take the risk on bright, educated individuals with that burning hunger to develop. Waiting for that perfect match often means a lost opportunity to develop future talent.

Andrew Kris 

You say they’re hesitant to Aisha but as you know from your own experience there aren’t that many people with potential, and it’s extremely difficult to find the ones that do.

Aisha Jallow 

That’s true, but to find them is one thing, to retain them once you have invested in developing these talented people is another problem. They are in high demand in the market. Every company wants them regardless of sector.

Andrew Kris 

You were saying in our earlier conversations that culture and religion sometimes get in the way too?

Aisha Jallow 

That’s especially the case for North Africa, where some of the companies we work with at Borderless are struggling to attract talent because of intrinsic values and religious beliefs.

Andrew Kris 

One of the things all of us at Borderless have observed about you, Aisha, is the passion that you have for bringing great people into key positions in Africa for our clients, as well as attracting them to other locations around the world wherever companies need people who understand Africa. What would you advise organizations to do differently?

Aisha Jallow 

That’s a great question. Let me start by telling you what a candidate recently told me. He said, “when looking for talented people in Africa, focus on people who are ambitious to work hard, learn, grow and progress – stop looking for perfection”. Go for the right attitude and positive behaviours, and support people to develop skills.

Of course, this applies everywhere, but it’s especially important for Africa. So in the spirit of progress, not perfection, I advise companies to embed the following steps in their recruitment strategy across the region.

Invest in building your local pipeline in your country of operation. A good place to start is to develop leaders in-house and encourage greater mobility between different functions.

Secondly, develop relationships with universities, encourage up and coming young talent. Create internship programs, for instance. Speak at events in educational institutions. Make it a point to position your brand and show the community you’re serious about developing people for important roles. Show your face, be present. So many younger people in Africa today are driven by values. Show the right example by driving diversity and sustainability agendas.

Andrew Kris

So Aisha, not so different from anywhere else in the world then?

Aisha Jallow

No, of course not. Why should Africa be any different? It’s equally important to develop a compelling, differentiated brand for your organization. Make sure that your actions set you apart from other organizations and show young professionals why they should work for you. Keep them abreast of your company’s activities in their country through social media and other communication channels. Create local employee referral programs. You’ll be amazed how you will attract great people.

Andrew Kris 

So if you would just leave a couple of takeaways for our clients and others who are interested in developing their businesses in Africa, what advice would you give them?

Aisha Jallow 

If you want to be ahead of the curve as an international company embrace the following. Recognize and accept that Sub Saharan Africa has an enormous pool of educated, able talent that is determined to prove itself. Invest in developing people because you can be confident that ‘eager-to-learn’ people will grow and sustain your Africa business in the future.

Make employee development the essential component for creating value for your Africa business. Create a robust people development plan to grow your talent from within. For example, bring people to your headquarters for short term assignments prior to re-assigning individuals into key roles in the Africa region.

Andrew Kris 

Absolutely. Companies have experienced how effective this approach can be in the development of Central and Eastern Europe markets over the years.

Aisha Jallow 

It will work in Africa too, Andrew. Going back to diversity, I would also advise organisations to harness the power of inclusion. African countries, such as Nigeria, have a vast, unexploited pool of highly educated women. Take the opportunity to boost women’s participation and advancement at work, expand your talent pool, and introduce more women at the leadership level to broaden your company’s perspective.

Andrew Kris 

You’re making the point that the diversity angle has the potential for a much greater impact, aren’t you Aisha?

Aisha Jallow 

Indeed, yes. Here you have an opportunity to do good for the world, as well as for your company’s reputation.

Andrew Kris 

That’s very well put, Aisha. Too often companies have missed the opportunity to strengthen their reputations by setting the right example in their work in Africa. You’re right to push this message. We know Africa’s got talent! I hope that you will continue to help companies find the right people to develop their businesses and reputations in Africa. Thank you so much for joining today.

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