September 25, 2020

Embracing the new normal of work in Africa

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Sibonginkosi Mlalazi

The past 6 months have really forced us to innovate and move away from traditional methods of working and doing business. And this has understandably shocked many organisations’ systems and work cultures as the change had to happen almost instantly without a transition period. However, because of the fast-paced world that we live in, we have adapted and made the best of the situation.

This supposed new normal has also seen Africa thrust into the spotlight. The world of work in Africa has definitely been disrupted by the pandemic.

Working from home

Working from home has become the solution to adapting to rules of lockdowns and social distancing. Employees can still be efficient and productive whilst working from home. International companies like IBM have allowed their employees to work from home for some years now and have mastered how to make this work for their organisations. The working from home concept is rather new in Africa, and has been received with mixed reactions, as there are problems that have made the transition into this new normal a bit difficult.

Internet Connectivity

While Africa accounts for 15.0% of the world’s population, only 6.2% of the World’s Internet subscribers are Africans. Data costs are expensive, and internet is a sort of luxury in Africa. Because of these high costs, individuals seldom have access to WIFI at home, and therefore during the pandemic lockdown, we have seen the onus falling on employers to ensure that all employees are connected at home. It would then, for example, be the duty of the company to buy mobile WIFI units for those employees that do not have access to WIFI at home.

Centralization of Services

In Africa, most countries have a centralised business district. It is the norm to convene in one district and conduct work from there. As such, a lot of people cannot fathom how one works from home, as they are used to the fact that work happens in the central business district and nowhere else. An example of this centralization is how a lot of government services in Zimbabwe are still done manually, in one office and have not yet been digitized. As such, we have people crowding a government facility for services which can ideally be done online. In order to adapt to working post-Covid-19, African governments should invest in digitising their services, so that those that have access to the internet can get to do everything online. In this time when social distancing is of the utmost importance, governments should try by all means to minimise risks to their workforce.

Cultural Norms

Culture takes precedence in the workplace or when doing business in Africa. It is the norm for people to conduct business face to face, as this shows full commitment and poses as an authentication of business deals. In Nigeria, for example, it is not understood how you can seal a deal over the phone or via email without ever meeting. This face to face culture of doing business also translates to working from home, as employers are not fully trusting that employees can deliver on projects whilst working from home.

The Future Lies with the Youth

However, with the pandemic, there has been a keen interest from young people to try and get online jobs that enable them to work from home, as they are more aware of what is happening around them and are more open to trying out new ways of working. Platforms where individuals can teach English online and freelance platforms like Upwork and Fivver have seen an increase in the number of African youths that are using them to earn an income. So, in the future there is an expectation that this will grow as more and more young people follow global trends of earning income over the internet and working from home. 

SMEs currently account for 90% of all businesses in Africa, and most of these are run by the youth. Hubs such as the Silicon Savanna in Kenya and the Silicon Cape in South Africa, have helped to give rise to a new generation of entrepreneurs that are embracing global working trends. In South Africa, there is a big uptake in shared office space as these entrepreneurs have since realised that there is no need to rent out office space, and that in this new age you can work from anywhere and still be just as productive as the next person.

Moving Forward

This is the time to start having conversations about stepping into the future of work. Covid has given African governments and companies a wakeup call, and they should start exploring such flexibility. 

According to Tony Elumelu, Africa needs to embrace this new normal, as this pandemic has given us a chance to reset, create employment and eliminate poverty. Africa needs to invest in working smarter.


Sibonginkosi Mlalazi is Zimbabwean born Communications Expert based in South Africa. She is the Founder of Ingenious HD, a communications company based in Cape Town.

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