Five weeks ago, in February 2017, I ditched my heels for flats, joined RENEW in its impact investment work, and moved to Ethiopia - the land of award-winning long distance runners, out-of-this-world coffee and vibrant, multilingual people. No two days have been the same ever since. The transition has had its highs and lows, for sure, but five weeks later, I am still here in Ethiopia and loving every moment of it. And I have the “Big Long Table” (BLT) to thank for it.
Just so we are clear, I am not talking about the sandwich here (although I could do with one right now). At RENEW, the entire team sits and works together around a BLT. It might look odd to you at first, but it’s actually quite brilliant. By having managers and staff all sitting within speaking distance from one another, we are extremely efficient and timely in exchanging information, facilitating quick discussions to advance work and problem solve, and become up-to-speed with the progress of our projects. The BLT has one added benefit for a newbie like me: I get to watch my team work and learn in real-time how the best in the industry do what they do, successfully. The BLT has allowed me to see things.
What I Saw:
In the beginning, to be honest, I was seeing what I expected to see - the challenges that come with the territory of operating an investment firm in a frontier market. The portfolio companies were slow to respond to my emails and inquiries, I had difficulty validating the information I received, government regulations were unclear and, at times, absent. It was all seemingly bad news.
But then, sitting at the BLT day after day, I began to notice something. The portfolio managers visited the portfolio companies in person and took the entrepreneurs through the reasons for our inquiries and the benefits that they would ultimately reap if they replied with accurate and up to date information. The analysts called the portfolio companies’ accountants and worked with them to verify the financials; they even spent half a day in their offices to get things done. Management in both Ethiopia and North America worked tirelessly with the Ethiopian government to clear the path for investment approvals.
Every member of the team found creative ways to remove roadblocks, one after another. It was hard work and not all the activities would have been necessarily deemed “efficient” by developed countries’ standards. But the RENEW team showed me that there’s always a successful way to navigate the complex Ethiopian business and cultural context, which in turns would allow the team and our portfolio companies to get the right things done and grow into market leaders.
Lessons Learned from the BLT:
Through their actions, the team reminded me that the challenges I saw are really not that different from the ones I had experienced in Canada and the U.S. The important thing was to stay disciplined and to focus on the opportunities and not on the problems. And above all things, the team taught me that the most important aspect about working and living in Ethiopia is the importance of being a great relationship manager.
Ethiopia, as in any developing nation, can be bit separated from the rest of the world and has a singularly unique history, culture, and national identity. And while the people embody different values and cultures, they will be open and respectful if I truly take the time to ask questions and understand where they come from.
It does not mean that I cannot bring change nor be disruptive. In fact, new ideas are welcomed. What the team taught me was that, in this environment, trust and relationship among the team members, portfolio companies, and community at large are not just greatly valued, they are indispensable.
Fve Weeks Later:
I find that the people in Ethiopia are warm and generous, and the work we are doing is meaningful. I now have better clarity and a roadmap of how to approach and achieve RENEW and the portfolio companies’ business objectives, thanks to the team and the BLT.
Moreover, there’s something about the rawness of the environment, the extremes of climate and the intense humanity that strips you down to the essence of who you are. And while that may sound crazy to some of you, I kind of like it.
Renew Capital is an Africa-focused impact investment firm that backs innovative companies with high-growth potential. Renew Capital manages investments made on behalf of the Renew Capital Angels, a global network of angel investors, foundations and family offices who seek financial returns and sustainable social impact. For the latest on investing in Africa, subscribe and follow us at our social links below.