What have your business experiences been so far in Africa, specifically in Zambia?
─ Finnish telecommunications company Elisa has taken only the very first steps toward establishing its business in the African market. What this means in practice, that is what we are still trying to internationalize at Elisa.
The African market is in itself a very challenging one. So far, we have had good, interesting projects in the Southern part, the latest one in Zambia. This does not, however mean that we have made a wider decision to stay in this market.
We have been in Zambia for about one year in order to create a digital service channel, which has been offered from a kiosk as citizen services. This project has been piloted and has proven to be very interesting. The pilot period is ending and as a follow up, we will decide what to do and how to go forward. Depending on the mutual benefit point of view, we will only make our final decision about staying in the market, if and when we have something to offer for the market and if and when the market needs our services
In the Nordic and Finnish media there has been more and more discussion about growth in Africa and increasing business opportunities on the continent. Based on your own experiences, are you still positive about the growth in the market?
─ If you look at growth globally or from the African continent point of view, the GDP growth seems strong, but as soon as you face country-specific challenges, you will see the risks that are involved. These vary across Africa. In addition, oil production and resource production affect the development of countries and creates a threshold. And even though you have the will and the goodwill, there are always funding challenges. Often executing a vision depends on the operative and tactical perspective of finding money for projects. We can easily see from our government, that we are in the same situation with many of the African countries. Even though we have goodwill, we ask the same questions: how to fund this and how is the development executed. This is the reality of everyday life.
In which sectors do you see the biggest gaps or demand in the market in relation to Finnish knowhow?
─ If you look at the entire country, then digitalization comes into picture and that is our role in the game. Then green technologies, environmental thinking overall and everything related to developing shire infrastructure. And I do not mean only the development digital infrastructure, but that among others.
In these countries there are communities that in a short period of time grow into large cities with millions of people around a specific sector. For example, in Zambia people gather around mining areas in the hope of a better future. Urbanization creates demand for Finnish knowhow. What is the demand for water, sanitation, education, healthcare or learning environments? We can link all this to digitalization, where we have chosen the so called domains and e-services. From these we concentrate on citizen services, like in Zambia. We are in Zambia to create citizen services with the support of digitalization. The second focus is learning environments, not teaching teachers as such, but we approach matters from the nucleus of digitalization, meaning what is learning and what is e-learning. We are not really promoting folk knowledge, but how to become an e-citizen.
There has been discussion among Finnish companies targeting Africa and other parts of the world about the lack of sufficient funding mechanisms for SMEs. As a large company, Elisa has had a different level of preparedness to enter the market. What would be your advice to SMEs looking to enter the market with limited resources: what should one know about the market, find out and where to invest?
─ Before going to the market, the product or service has to be high-quality and to understand the market you should have some kind of channels or relationships. It is a big challenger for an SME to do market-mapping, because it takes the effort of a one or two employees. In addition to this, travelling to Africa is expensive. In spite of all this pre-investment you do not get any income yet. I believe that in collaboration with Finpro, embassies are extremely active in conducting market intelligence. We have also had good cooperation with Finnish Ambassadors in Nigeria, Zambia, Mozambique and South Africa. One should definitely go through Finpro and the embassies to Africa. Market mapping is expensive and there are solutions for this, like crowd funding. So most of all one should have a pre-understanding about the market and how business in done.
Many Finnish companies interested in the market have expressed their concern about credible local partners that offer good service. What has been your experience working with local partners? I understand that you mainly work with governmental actors, but certainly also with private sector actors.
─ In this ecosystem we have a wide range of different types of local partners. To summarise, a local partner creates the framework for activity, but above all it depends people. Once you find a trustworthy human-human relationship, you start to build on that.
The most important question related to this is the difference between cultures. For example, the people view the concept of time in a way that is completely different from our European and Finnish perspective. On the other hand, logics based on values for example about promise is different. Promise in relation to the execution of something is completely different. Also some people may think that the level of knowhow is somehow lower in Africa, but in practical terms their way of doing things differently works better in their culture than our methods.
In some events there has been discussion about the idea that it would be good for Finnish companies to cluster or cooperate to lower the threshold to enter the market? What is your view on this: benefits and disadvantages?
─ A large number of business delegations have been organised, including on behalf of the government, to events abroad in the form of trade tourism. People have gone and come back, but with little concrete impact. They have also gathered a group of companies within a specific sector and thought that the sector is somehow a common element bringing the companies together. But what I have understood is that even the impact of those gatherings has been small.
One very positive personal experience that I have had was a cross-sectoral one. In this project different people from different sectors came together. The catch was that the project involved an African village community. We turned the cup upside down and this multi-sectoral group started to brainstrom about the challenges of community life and we came up with ideas about what kinds of services we Finns have to offer to this village, city or whatever the target group is. We involved health, sanitation, construction, learning, digitalization and culture. It was more of a life-based point of view rather than industry-based. That project also seemed to have boosted other projects and that is good. In terms of the big picture the question is also, what impact companies want to have. Companies often think only about trade and we do not really see the impact of business in benefit created. In addition, one should also think more about long term development in addition to short term trade. Instead of trade tourism one ought to think about how to make short term business and long term impact work hand in hand. Because only through long-term impact can we tap into big business and internationalization. But this is a challenge for both small and large listed companies.
Interview with Risto Ojanperä, VP, ElisaValue