Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Challenges Facing Beninese Small Businesses

I've been reading a book called Je Gere Mon Entreprise written by a Cote d'Ivoirien named Kanga Ballou. It's interesting because its a practical guide written for African Small Businessman. As such, it explains alot of western-originated management tools as they could--and might not work--in sub Saharan African contexts.

The book does quite a bit of diagnosing of the issues facing small business owners and managers. I've seen most of these problems operating also in Benin, where it can be very, very hard to establish and develop a profitable business, at any level. Despite the variety of causes, when I try to spur the folks I work with here to analyse their business-related problems and then to brainstorm possible solutions, they have a hard time moving beyond "le moyen," or the financial means, as the preeminent problem facing them. If only there were enough of ______ (equipement, money in the cash box, etc), all problems would be resolve.

Ballou is a bit refreshing because it's an African voice giving a more honest assesment of the situation. He finds that the problem of poor management is one of (if not the) key impediment to African businesses. That is, even when businesspeople here have enough capital resources of any given type: money, materials, etc., they often still end up with unssuccesful businesses for lack of proper managament of these resources. For example, stocks are poorly monitored, little market anaylyse is done, often the most basic accounting books are kept, let alone the financial position of the entreprise periodically analyzed and planned for.

The reason for poor management is both a within and without problem. There is certainly often a problem of initiative and will: alot of people that I have given training and guidance to here simply don't put the tools into practice. On the other hand, this is hard. Let's face it, businesses in the world run on western models and values, and most business people are not adequately trained in even the most basic management tools. Many have not furthermore haven't evolved in a culutral milieau that endorses certain Western notions of efficiency, linear time, market operations, etc. This is espcially an issue for in the case of Benin, which before 1990 was a so-called Communism-style controled economy--little opportunity here to develop intuitions about supply and demand, market analyse, workers incentive, etc.

Of course, there are other problems ailing Beninese businessman. Some of the other significant one's I've seen here in Nikki include very poor infrastructure (chronic power outages and one of the worst roads in Benin connecting a major town to the main highway); lack of access to markets (Benin has valuable commodities, but unfortunately doesnt see much profit on them for for lack of market info and a surplus of middlemen); difficult physical environment (sickness, heat, shortage of water); and dishonest business practices (in Nikki, its very difficult to be both honest and profitable as vender of many imported items--gas and processed foods, for example--because of the price-deflating affects that smuggling has on the local market.