Andrea Nelson Trice

It’s About Time, It’s Also About Culture: How do varying cultural perspectives about time and productivity impact social enterprises?

Getting a social enterprise up and running can make 16-hour workdays the norm. Who has time to try making sense of some of the biggest frustrations and roadblocks you face?

Jibu is a social enterprise that currently operates in D.R. Congo, Uganda and Rwanda. NextBillion readers might be familiar with the firm, which equips emerging market entrepreneurs launching smart, organically profitable and safe water businesses. As a social scientist working on Jibu’s impact assessment, Randy and Galen Welsch asked me to review the field notes they’ve written during the past two years. (In my capacity as a social scientist and consultant, I conduct impact assessments and research around social enterprises in the developing world). By being open about their frustrations and failures, Randy and Galen hope they can help others working in this space. The following is the first in a series of blogs based on my observations of their experiences.

On Time

A significant theme that runs steadily through Randy and Galen’s entries centers on time. For example:

“Many delays. Hard to put on the pressure or understand what the real delays are.”

“DR Congo site is still not open. Every week they say next week it will happen. This has been going on for two months.”

“Upon arrival [from the U.S.], we realize that the Congo is not ready – it is sort of the final straw and we decide to return home early from the trip. ‘What is readiness?’ is the theme of this trip. In spite of our detailed checklists, frequent phone calls and emails prior to the trip, we realize that we must find a better way to validate readiness.”

“Our conclusions about ‘readiness’ – the locals tend not to plan, but count on being able to work around whatever problems only when they must. The forcing function is our presence unfortunately.”

“We decide that we must have more physical presence at our sites going forward. Plan at this point is for us to overlap our trips more so that at least one of us is there most of the time. We have enough carrots but conclude that we must find a way to create more sticks.”

What’s happening here? Is this just a case of efficient, “get ‘er done” Americans trying to work beside laid back East Africans who haven’t caught Jibu’s vision – or is there more at work? How do different assumptions about time and productivity explain what Americans often experience when doing business in East Africa and elsewhere around the world?

Common sayings can reflect important cultural differences. What American hasn’t heard?:

Never put off until tomorrow what you can do today.

Time is money.

The sooner the better.

The early bird catches the worm.

Most American business people want things done yesterday. They often won’t take no for an answer. Research shows that entrepreneurs in particular tend to be confident, driven and adept at tinkering.

But how do these values and traits align with African cultures as reflected in common proverbs used across East Africa?:

To run is not necessarily to arrive. ~ Swahili proverb

Hurry, hurry has no blessings. ~ Swahili proverb

Patience puts a crown on the head. ~ Ugandan proverb

Patience is the key which solves all problems. ~ Sudanese proverb

These proverbs indicate quite a different perspective about time – “Africa Time” as many call it – and a more relaxed approach to life generally. So what do you do to reconcile these differences? Must you necessarily do anything, or can your enterprise still be effective if you keep pushing hard for progress using the cultural rules and norms you’ve always known?

I am in the early stages of research that looks at how “soft” factors such as mutual understanding and trust influence the success of a social enterprise, but I do not have enough data to draw conclusions yet. I can say with certainly that it is difficult to overestimate the role of culture in shaping how each of us thinks and acts. For this reason, understanding the culture in which you work is worth the investment of your time.

I can also say that in the course of my research, several African leaders have emphasized how Westerners enter a country carrying a history with them. In the case of entering African countries, it’s a history of colonialism and slavery. More recently, it’s a history of “doing to” and “doing for” rather than “doing with” the nationals we are trying to help.

Given this backdrop, establishing trust can be quite challenging and it will take time to build. There are no short cuts – especially in cultures that place a very high value on relationships. Yes, there are differences in terms of how Americans and East Africans, for example, view time and productivity that teams must be able to address openly. But it’s important to recognize that delays and misunderstandings may be the result of a lack of trust and other issues as well.

So how can you learn to function more effectively in the midst of significant cultural differences? Here are a few suggestions:

  • Recognize that the differences permeate every aspect of your relationships with nationals. You must become a student of their culture. Make it a daily habit to ask questions of the nationals you interact with and then listen carefully to their responses.
  • Watch and read related movies and articles. For example, “African Time” is a 2014 comedy about this very topic. This BBC article about Africa time includes reader comments that may also be helpful.
  • Recognize your need for cultural guides. Partner with an expatriate who has lived in the culture for years or a national who has lived in the West for a period of time. Look to them for help in learning how to operate more effectively in the culture where you are working.

Note to readers: How do you see cultural differences affecting the success of your enterprise? What has helped you better understand the culture where you work? Posting your experiences would be helpful to other readers and to me as I pursue research around these questions.

Andrea Nelson Trice conducts impact assessments and research around social enterprise in the developing world.

Agriculture, Education, Social Enterprise
research, social enterprise