A German Entrepreneur’s Take on Africa

Sebastian Wagner, Executive Director of Africa-focused resource trading and advisory firm DMWA Resources, has lived and worked in Uganda, Equatorial Guinea, Congo Brazzaville, Côte d’Ivoire, and Southern Africa. He talks to the Germany Africa Business Forum about his impressions on doing business as a young German entrepreneur in Africa.

Why focus exclusively on Africa with your firm DMWA Resources?

The uniqueness of our firm lies in our Euro-African pedigree: a European network consisting of traders, financiers, and investors, combined with our firm establishment in Africa. We consider ourselves both pan-African and pro-African because we believe in fostering the African agenda first. Having said that, it is indisputable that the macro parameters support our cause, as well. Africa is often referred to as the continent of the future. I believe it’s the content of the now.

From your experience working in Africa, what do you believe explains the German hesitation to engage with continent?

Germans tend to be very realistic and, for lack of a better word, inert. Us Germans need to realize that we are underselling ourselves in Africa with this approach. Our reputation as Germans on the African continent is much better than we think: To a large extent, we do not have a colonial history and we are starting with a clean slate. More importantly, Africans cherish German precision and work ethic, largely support Germany’s global role in general, and respect the country’s economic prowess. Some German firms have successfully capitalized on this “German bias” and meet African counterparts on a level playing field. My personal experience in doing business and living in Africa as a German has been unequivocally positive.

Culturally speaking, was it challenging to adapt to living and working on the continent?

Like most things in life, it starts with attitude. My first experience in Africa was a true eye-opener: I learned to look at the flip side of the coin, to see potential where fellow Germans saw difficulty. In a way, our role is being an ambassador for Africa in Germany; we need to dispel the myth of Africa being a conflict-prone continent where operating your business is a challenge. On the other hand, African ministers, entrepreneurs and investors appreciate a German’s different viewpoint, which requires me as a young German to get out of my comfort zone and explain my culture, my ideas and my approach. I often find the similarities between Germans and Africans very startling, and it is, among others, those similarities that I am constantly trying to promote.

What advice do you have for German companies making the jump to Africa?

The secret of Chinese or Lebanese investors and entrepreneurs in Africa (both often cited among the most successful operators on the continent) is patience. You need to be in Africa for the long term. In Africa, you build relationships before you do business. When a contract is signed in Africa, that’s when the negotiations are about to begin. The modus operandi is definitely more personal than it is in Germany. On the German side, we have a saying that a German would rather starve than jump a red light. A local in Kenya or Nigeria would smile about this clichéd picture of a German operating in Africa. But this predictability and soberness strike a good counter-balance to the informality of doing business here, and this is why I believe that Germany and Africa are so uniquely complementary.

DMWA Resources is the host sponsor of the Germany Africa Business Forum. Join Sebastian Wagner at the first privately-held forum to promote Africa-Germany trade and business links in Berlin on March 23, 2017.