It has been more than two years living and working in Rwanda, yet it is still evident that we will never entirely “blend in” or “go native” here. The fact is, we were all born and learned about management in the United States. We’ve all lived and worked in other countries (e.g. including Scotland, France, South Korea, etc.) but our country of origin has left an indelible mark on who we are today. In Rwanda, the challenge can be to add the best of what American business has to offer while leaving the rest.
There are elements of the American business environment that we would never wish on Rwanda. America’s litigious environment has created bureaucracy, de-humanized policies, and increased costs in ways we are glad to avoid here. As relates to personnel benefits, the relatively high cost of health care and limited vacation time in America are not something we’d encourage Africans to emulate. Unhealthy degrees of independence and competitiveness sometimes found in the US would certainly cause problems in this developing country context.
We have also come to realize there are elements of American business culture that suit Rwanda well, although they do make us somewhat conspicuous. It is difficult for people in a relatively structured, hierarchical culture to see how we could be content in a company with three equal partners sharing the top post. To verify that we were a legitimate business, a government official had to come visit our office(s) and since we predominantly work from home offices, client locations, and conduct many meetings in local cafés and hotels, the inspector left scratching his head. In the end, although our company is a significant taxpaying organization it was not counted in Rwanda’s recent business census since we don’t have a separate and dedicated office space. Given our desire to avoid unnecessary overhead costs, and the fact that our best work is often done on site with clients, we haven’t seen fit to have an office as of yet (and we can charge our clients less as a result). Additionally, we are frequently given funny looks when we come to meetings on motorcycles. We are assured that no Rwandan consultant would be taken seriously if they didn’t have an office and an SUV of their own, but we tend to be less concerned about image and have found we are taken seriously, nonetheless. Besides, at roughly $6.50 USD/gallon, this is another way we can save money, do our part for the environment, enjoy Rwanda’s temperate climate… and it is a lot more fun!
We may never blend in entirely, but we are confident some of the ways we are odd also contribute helpful differences to Rwandan business culture. Our way of doing business brings a dose of informality, suggests our work speaks louder than our look, and suggests it can be good to say ‘no’ to unnecessary overhead costs in order to focus resources where they matter most.
Onward and upward,