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Winning the East and West African Markets – In the United States and Abroad

How do companies succeed in connecting with African markets? This report shines a light on localization best practices for American companies interested in doing business with African markets at home and overseas.

East and West African Markets in the United States

 

Between 2010 and 2015, the number of African immigrants in America more than doubled— rising from roughly 723,000 people to more than 1.7M.1

For companies in the United States wishing to expand into Africa, learning about the diversity of African languages, cultures, and business practices seems like a no-brainer. But what about American companies wishing to expand their audience reach at home? According to The New American Economy, African immigration to the United States has more than doubled in recent years, with two-thirds2 of all African immigrants hailing from East and West Africa.

With an estimated spending power of more than USD 40.3 billion3 in 2015 alone, the African immigrant population has a lot to offer American businesses looking to expand their reach.

African Immigrant Demographics

Age, Education, and Employment

Nearly three-quarters of all African immigrants are between the ages of 25 and 64, and 40% of African immigrants hold a bachelor’s degree or higher (compared to 31% of the US-born population) with concentrations in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). Not only are African immigrants contributing to the US economy through a growing number of entrepreneurships, but they are filling workforce gaps in highly critical areas, including healthcare. In fact, as recently as 2015, 30% of African immigrants in the workforce were employed in the healthcare and services industry4.

Culture and Traditions

In the United States, the African culture is alive and well thanks in great part to ethnic and national affiliations, television programs (ex. Channel Africa), Nigerian and Ghanian films, restaurants, music, and more. Perhaps some of the greatest examples of African culture can be found in the enclaves of Little Ethiopia5 in Los Angeles, and le Petit Sénégal6, in New York City.

Locations and Languages

African immigrants tend to settle in urban areas but eventually move to suburban locations. Although Washington, DC, New York City, Houston, Columbus (Ohio), Atlanta, and Minneapolis report some of the most predominant concentrations of African immigrant populations, African languages are spoken throughout the country.

The following map displays the states with the most African language speakers:

African immigrants tend to hold fast to their languages and traditions. In fact, some of the most commonly spoken African languages7 (and language families) within the United States include Amharic, Bantu, Berber, Chadic, Cushite, Efik, Fulani, Gur, Ibo, Khoisan, Kru, Mande, Mbum, Nilo-hamitic, Nilotic, Nubian, Saharan, Sudanic, Swahili, and Yoruba.

Although still a relatively small segment of the American immigrant population, African immigrant numbers are growing, and their contributions are starting to get noticed. For companies wishing to connect with this growing population, strengthening your cultural intelligence should be paramount to your company’s expansion design efforts. With this in mind, let’s take a closer look at the very heartbeat of Africa.

Why Africa?

Why Africa8 indeed. Although the main barriers for African economic growth include bridging the continent’s infrastructure gap, working with complicated bureaucracies, generating jobs, decreasing poverty, and in some cases, overcoming political instability, Africa also presents a great many opportunities. Not only is the continent now home to the world’s fastest-growing middle-class, but it is also home to the world’s youngest continent, with a median age of 23.25 years old.

There are approximately “12 million young people entering Africa’s [labor] force each year”9, and this growing middle-class equates to a strengthening economy. In fact, Africa’s average annual GDP growth is outpacing the global average.

Africa also has one of the fastest-growing consumer markets in the world due in large part to increased access to the internet via mobile phones. Clearly, Africa has a lot to offer international companies that can overcome the continent’s challenges – and the world has been paying close attention.10

East African Languages and Culture

Although one could argue that there are as many as 23 countries that make up East Africa, we’re focusing our attention on the East African Community (EAC), a regional, intergovernmental organization of six partner states:

  • Burundi
  • Kenya
  • Rwanda
  • South Sudan
  • Tanzania
  • Uganda

With a population of roughly 170 million, the nearly 20-year-old EAC partnership boasts a combined GDP of USD 172.7 billion (EAC Statistics, 2017).11 These partner states work together on a political, economic, and social level, and have become one of the fastest-growing regional economic blocs in the world. The freedom to move within the member states and the establishment of free trade between these six countries have jointly helped to:

  • Eliminate economic barriers
  • Expand target markets
  • Raise educational standards
  • Strengthen infrastructure, and
  • Improve the standard of living

Under this unique agreement, citizens are able to acquire new business skills, industries are strengthening through the sharing of ideas, educational systems are becoming more harmonized, and standards of living are on the rise.

Languages

Although English remains the official language of the EAC, Swahili, (the EAC’s lingua franca spoken by more than 80 million people), may soon be adopted as a second official language.12

In five of the six member states (Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania, and Uganda) that make up the Great Lakes region, Kikuyu, Kinyarwanda, Kirundi, and Luganda are among some of the most widely spoken languages:

 

In South Sudan, Dinka, Nuer, Bari, and Zande are among the most widely-spoken indigenous languages.

The Four Pillars of the EAC Regional Integration

The strength of the EAC lies squarely in its four pillars13 of regional integration which help guide their common mission of unification:

1.    Customs Union

Established in 2005, the Customs Union refers to the free trade on goods and services enjoyed by member states. The EAC also developed a common external tariff (CET). The same tariff is applied to any imports arriving from countries outside of the EAC when sold to any EAC member state.

2.   Common Market

Five years after the establishment of the Customs Union, the EAC created the Common Market. With economic growth and development as the driving force, the Common Market offers the free movement of capital, goods, services, persons (including works), and labor.

3.   Monetary Union

In 2013, the protocol for a monetary union emerged with the aim to converge the currencies of the member states into a single currency. In addition to the harmonization of monetary and fiscal policies, the EAC aims to establish an East African Central Bank.

4.   Political Federation

The ultimate goal of the fourth pillar focuses on political integration. The EAC recognizes the fourth pillar as a process that is working toward common foreign and security policies through good governance. It is under the umbrella of a political federation that the EAC hopes to strengthen international relations, peace, and security.

International Trade and Investment Potential

The regional integration of East Africa has increased the EAC’s access to global markets, opening up a great many opportunities for international investment.

China, India, and The European Union (EU) have traditionally been three of the EAC’s main international importers. In fact, in 2017, total imports from China, India, and the EU totaled USD 46 billion. In that same year, exports to the EU, Switzerland, and India totaled more than USD 33 billion.14

On May 30, 2019, the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) went into full force, after all six of the EAC member states (along with an additional 18 African countries) “deposited their ratification instruments”.15 As the largest free-trade area in the world, the AfCFTA requires its members to lift tariffs from 90% of goods, permitting free access to commodities, goods, and services across the continent. According to the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa, this agreement is likely to boost intra-African trade by 52% by 2022. These advances in interregional cooperation are also expected to encourage an increase in foreign direct investment (FDI).16 This is further evidenced by the USD 9 million in FDI17 that East Africa has received, 21% of which benefited Kenya with investment in manufacturing, hospitality, chemicals, and oil and gas.

West African Languages and Culture

According to the United Nations, West Africa comprises 15 African countries in addition to the South Atlantic British overseas territory of Saint Helena, Ascension, and Tristan da Cunha. However, this report focuses strictly on the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) with a population of over 368 million:

 

Although the idea of ECOWAS spans well over five decades, it was in 1975 that the member states became firmly established. These member states share a common objective to create a free trade area leading to a West African common market. ECOWAS promotes economic cooperation in order to raise living standards, encourage economic development, and foster relations among both member states as well as the African continent as a whole. And while there have been a number of struggles over the years, ECOWAS has continued to experience significant achievements:

  • Successful integration of the member state economies
  • Enhanced cross-border trading, manufacturing, and industrial development
  • A strengthening environment of peace and security
  • Increased road construction between larger cities
  • The ease of movement for people, goods, and services

In 2014, the combined GDP of the ECOWAS was USD 716.7 billion.18

Languages

Among the nearly 300 million citizens that make up ECOWAS, there are well over 1,000 living, local languages. However, each country’s official language is either English, French, or Portuguese. It was due in large part to this shared linguistic commonality that ECOWAS declared these three European languages as their own official languages.

However, indigenous languages are also spoken by a great many West Africans. Some of the most commonly spoken of these languages include Hausa, Igbo, Yoruba, and the Berber languages (part of the Afroasiatic language family).

The ECOWAS Vision 2020

With its VISION 2020 initiative comprised of five building blocks, ECOWAS draws on geographic, linguistic, and historical commonalities as it works toward the creation of an enabling environment:

1.    Regional Resource Development

By encouraging its academic community to become actively involved in its integration initiatives, ECOWAS recognizes how vital a role education plays in the well-being of its citizens. Part of this first building block aims to promote increased representation of women in all public institutions in order to provide equal access to economic and natural resources. The community is also focused on the development of more efficient technologies which will help to “facilitate the development of various value chains with particular emphasis on agro-processing of both food and export crops.”19

2.   Peace and Security

Without continued efforts to ensure interregional peace and security, ECOWAS wouldn’t be possible. To this end, the community requires its member states to be in full compliance of its Protocol on Mechanism and Resolution, Maintenance of Peace and Security. Under this protocol, ECOWAS urges all member states to strive toward peace and security at the political, social, military, and environmental levels.

3.   Governance

ECOWAS recognizes that at the heart of its community’s political stability and economic growth lies good governance. For this reason, it is committed to strengthening its democratic values in line with international standards in order to attain internationally acceptable benchmarks on human rights. Some of its prime areas of focus include reinforcing anti-corruption regulations and strengthening its laws against human trafficking violations.

4.   Economic and Monetary Integration

Another key factor to economic growth and development is the establishment of the common external tariff (CET) via a regional customs union. Some of the benefits of a CET include the elimination of the many barriers to intra-ECOWAS trade, the merging of member state currencies, and the development of a regional payment and banking system.

Other promising areas under the Economic and Monetary Integration involve:

  • The Project Preparation and Development Unit which aims to strengthen interregional infrastructure, thereby easing the movement of people and enhancing regional trade.
  • The West African Power Pool which will ensure efficient regional energy production, transmission, and distribution.
  • The creation of a modernized regional telecommunication network to keep in step with advanced information-communication technology.

5.   Private Sector

In order to support its private sector, ECOWAS places emphasis on cross-border investments in addition to enhanced bilingual business negotiation and management skills. In addition to a single regional currency, the private sector has a lot to gain with the integration of its capital markets and stock exchanges. The community is also urging an increase in the capital base and operational efficiency of the ECOWAS Bank for Investment and Development (EBID).

Member states are encouraged to support both small and medium-sized businesses (including the agricultural sector) in order to eradicate poverty and envision a more prosperous West Africa.

Localization Best Practices

In today’s global economy, companies need to go even further in their expansion planning efforts. Comprehensive growth strategies now go way beyond the establishment of a committed management team to conduct thorough market and competitive analyses. Whether you are planning an in-country or international expansion, you must learn to tackle a complex set of factors – and this is certainly true for companies seeking to expand into the East and West African markets. Investing in localization best practices is paramount to your success.

Localization best practices focus on developing an intimate understanding of the target market. It’s about getting to know each culture’s desires, expectations, and behavior patterns, and it’s most definitely about connecting with them in their own languages while respecting their cultures and traditions. In this light, there may be some aspects of your business that need to be adapted in order to succeed in your target market. Some companies may even require a complete rebranding. But what exactly do localization best practices look like from a practical standpoint? To answer that question, we’ll first look at what localization best practices are not.

Too many companies have made the fatal mistake of assuming that what works in their part of the global sphere will naturally work elsewhere. Failing to adjust your international business plans to include localization best practices may spell economic and brand disaster20.

What went wrong? From failing to understand the typical consumer in the target market to a complete disregard of the target market’s history, culture, language, and traditions, each of the American companies above lost hundreds of millions – and in Wal-Mart’s case, as much as 1 billion – dollars (£530 million).

It all boils down to neglect. Companies that fail to apply localization best practices to their company’s expansion strategy risk significant monetary loss and brand damage.

Learning from past mistakes

It is in learning about these mistakes, however, that companies can better approach their expansion efforts at home and abroad in a more comprehensive way. Regardless of your target market or the products and services you wish to promote, a critical part of your expansion planning must include localization best practices if you wish to succeed. So, just what is the secret formula for localization best practices? It’s really no secret at all.

Whether you are planning to expand your business at home or overseas, the following list details 10 of the most critical localization steps to include in your expansion plans:

10 of the most important localization best practices

1.   Visit the target market

By visiting your target market, you’ll gain a much clearer understanding of the opportunities that exist than you’ll ever gain from reading the latest and greatest market reports. Getting up close and personal with an in-market visit allows you to study the business environment and become familiar with all of its various intricacies and nuances. In-market visits might also reveal some unexpected and potential entry barriers that you can then bring back to your team for discussion.

2.   Establish positive relationships

Get to know the targeted demographic, their customs, values, and behavior patterns. Make a concerted effort to meet personally with your suppliers and your buyers. Building positive relationships early on in the process is paramount to success – but don’t forget about your competition.

3.   Familiarize yourself with the competition

Studying your competition closely will help you find your competitive advantage, but from a localization best practices standpoint, you’ll also begin to understand the relationships your competitors have built with their customers. What does your target market value most in these relationships? What do they value least? What is the accepted management style and the typical attitude toward labor unions? Does your company’s brand and voice blend in well with these established practices? Are you able to adapt or will you need a little rebranding in order to be accepted by the masses?

4.   Adapt your business culture to that of the target market

It is in taking the first three steps above that will allow you to determine how much of your business culture will need to adapt in order to successfully expand into the target market. Sometimes only subtle changes need to be made, but there are times when your management strategy might require a whole new approach.

5.    Hire subject matter experts (SMEs)

Just as you wouldn’t trust your car’s maintenance to an IT specialist, you equally shouldn’t trust your company’s expansion plans to just anyone. SMEs have an intimate understanding of the target market. For those expanding internationally, SMEs also have a firm grasp on the market’s regulatory requirements, offering you a unique strategic edge.

6.   Hire inside the target market

When you hire from the local talent pool, you’re making a positive statement. It signals to the market that you are truly invested in strengthening their economy and that you’re committed to the community’s financial well-being.

7.    Remember your corporate social responsibility

Companies that actively involve themselves in community events not only build and strengthen relationships, but also increase brand awareness. Consider sponsoring a community program, partner with local non-profit organizations, donate to a local community charity, organize involvement in local festivals and career fairs – the possibilities are endless.

8.   Partner with a seasoned language services provider (LSP)

Some LSPs can provide services in translation for your company’s training manuals, employee handbooks, and legal documents. Some LSPs also offer interpreting services to facilitate effective communication with your employees, suppliers, and constituents. There are even LSPs that manage multilingual contact centers offering customer service for your peak and off-hour times , as well as back-office accounting and technical helpdesk support. Consider what level of support you require, then seek out an LSP that can meet these needs.

9.   Hire LSPs with in-country linguists

Some companies decide to hire bilingual employees to bridge the communication gap for all their translation and interpreting needs, but this is ill-advised. In the short run, you may save money, but in the long run, you may lose in more ways than one. Hiring a professional in-country linguist will help ensure that your communication is translated with the appropriate cultural context, thereby avoiding potentially high-cost misunderstandings.

10. Hire LSPs with advanced technology

Work with an LSP that offers a plethora of technology solutions for your language services needs. With the right technology in place, an LSP can help you decrease costs while significantly enhancing the translation quality.

Marriott International – An International Success

We took a peek at some of the most well-known international expansion fails, but what about an international success story? Let’s see how one of the world’s largest hotel chains put localization best practices to work.

Marriott International hotels span the entire globe. The hotel chain now boasts nearly 7,500 hotels worldwide and has a presence on every continent except Antarctica. In Africa alone, there are 137 Marriott hotels with plans to open an additional 63 by 2023. So, just how does Marriott do it? Here are a few examples of how Marriott International has added localization best practices to its effective international expansion strategy.

Brand Awareness and Adaptation

Perhaps the Protea Hotels in South Africa paint the best picture in terms of brand adaptation. The King Protea is South Africa’s national flower. It not only appears on South African birth certificates and passports, but also on the South African 5-Rand coin. Proteas is also the South African cricket game and is held in high esteem in the country. By adapting its South African brand of hotels to this time-honored national symbol, Protea Hotels by Marriott®21 has won countless South African awards for several years in a row.

Corporate Social Responsibility, Hiring Local Staff, and Promoting Locally-Made Products

In 2010, when the devastating 7.0 earthquake hit Haiti, Marriott International responded. Even though at the time they didn’t own any properties on the island, they immediately sent supplies and contributions. But for the Marriott executive team, it just wasn’t enough. So, just five years after the earthquake struck, the Marriott-Port-au-Prince Hotel22 opened up in partnership with the Digicel Group. The hotel hired 200 local Haitian associates23 and welcomed Haitian-made coffee, soap, and produce. Haitian artists were also invited to display their metal work and papier-mâché artwork in the hotel.

Providing Multilingual Services for Associates and Customers

Associates

Marriott International has invested heavily in multilingual services for its associates, from multilingual24 virtual learning environments that provide training materials, to global language learning25 software to encourage second language acquisition. But Marriott has found another unique way to encourage multilingualism and linguistic inclusion.

In 2008, the company entered into partnership with Rosetta Stone26 and invited its hotel managers to begin studying any one of 30 languages. The program has since grown, offering language learning and inclusion programs to their associates throughout the world. One such program at the Protea Sandton27 in South Africa, provides the opportunity for Deaf students to gain experience in the hospitality industry and encourages hearing staff members to become actively involved in the learning process.

Guests

Over the years, Marriott International has focused on providing an enjoyable customer experience for its guests throughout the globe. To ensure quality care of their growing global audience, the international chain has continued to invest in professional localization and translation services for their websites and mobile apps. A brand as internationally-recognized as Marriott requires a team of seasoned language service professionals who can efficiently and expertly deliver high-quality translation and localization services using machine translation software and experienced, in-country linguists. Marriott International has managed to do just that.

Partnering With Language Services Experts is Your Key to Success

Marriott International didn’t become one of the world’s largest hotel chains all by itself. Among many strategic growth partners, Marriott also invested heavily in language services specialists. By providing access to the highest quality of multilingual customer services in addition to translated and localized content, Marriott International has made it easier for people to travel the globe for both business and pleasure.

Akorbi BPO – A Formidable LSP Presence in Africa

“Akorbi is a U.S.-based company which provides enterprise solutions that empower companies to achieve success in the global economy. We help companies connect with employees, vendors, and customers in over 170 languages 24×7, in any modality, from any location.” Akorbi

 If you are looking for a seasoned, multilingual LSP partner, Akorbi might just be the LSP for you.

Akorbi is recognized as one of the largest US-based language service providers, offering unparalleled worldwide language service support. With a powerful global presence in three locations within the Americas (United States, Dominican Republic, and Columbia), Akorbi has recently expanded to both East and West Africa, adding four new multilingual contact centers.

Answering the language services call with localization best practices

One of the top three rules to localization best practices is to forge partnerships with the local market. Another golden rule is to engage the services of subject matter experts (SMEs), and a third is to hire locally. Not only has Akorbi met these three rules, but over time, the company has mastered all the others.

When Ralph Bonaduce, President of Akorbi BPO, was approached by a client who required Portuguese and Portuguese Creole interpreters, he set his sights on Cabo Verde, knowing that Portuguese and Portuguese Creole were widely spoken in that region. This quickly led to a forged relationship with Victor Santos.

Victor is not only a native Cabo Verdean, but is also a fluent speaker of both Portuguese and Portuguese Creole. Victor offers ground-floor experience in running a multilingual contact center and is closely connected to a highly-educated, motivated, and talented candidate pool of Cabo Verdean multilingual professionals – a proverbial match made in heaven. And so, in April, 2015, Akorbi’s first African BPO multilingual contact center opened on the island of St. Vincent, in the city of Mindelo, Cabo Verde. The partnership has now blossomed into four locations in East and West Africa:

  • Vincent (Mindelo), Cabo Verde
  • Santiago (Praia), Cabo Verde
  • Dakar, Senegal
  • Nairobi, Kenya

A Complete Service Provider

All of Akorbi’s multilingual contact centers offer professional interpreting services with a growing number of European and African indigenous language support:

In addition to interpreting services, the project management and translation management teams at the St. Vincent (Mindelo) Cabo Verde location offer:

  • Inbound, outbound, and back-office accounting services
  • Help desk support (including support for tech help desk)
  • Transcription services
  • On-boarding and recruitment support
  • Accounting
  • Customer Service

Language Services for a Multitude of Verticals

Akorbi manages all the language services needs for a growing number of verticals, including healthcare, technology, business process outsourcing (BPO), government, education, social services, legal, travel and tourism, customer service, sales, and more. With three multilingual contact centers in the west of Africa, and one in the east, Akorbi is strategically positioned to support companies expanding into key African markets28  within the United States and abroad.

Invest in African Markets – Invest in Localization Best Practices

In today’s global market, virtually every industry requires a strategic growth plan that focuses on localization. From life sciences, healthcare, IT and technology, to travel and tourism, finance, and the legal sector, companies are investing in professional language services before, during, and after their expansion planning – and their investment is paying off.

If you are considering expanding your business into African markets either at home or overseas, don’t forget about localization best practices. Strategically adapting your products and services to your target market through localization best practices is a critical step in your company’s success. The key, however, is in finding an LSP that can meet – if not exceed – your expectations.

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Created in partnership with GIM Writing Services.

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