Fresh out of business school with a head full of textbook answers, I pictured myself working with young entrepreneurs in Ghana. How to best leverage your e-commerce start up? Easy. Press release for your new customer service policy? Look at a couple I’ve already written. Manage your entire social media profile? I can set it up on your iPhone.
Everyone can learn from me, I went to a good school, I read the Steve Jobs Biography.
While this classic business student overconfidence may have helped me through a few job interviews, it quickly collapsed as I learned my textbook frameworks had no place in Ghana’s informal business sector. It’s a tough pill to swallow when you begin to doubt your value to international development. Almost immediately after unpacking at our worksite in Takoradi, I began to question if I could be any help at all in a market so foreign to me.
This negative thinking left me discouraged and overwhelmed. With only one week in and five to go, I consciously decided to change my attitude. Of course my undergrad didn’t equip me to take on the diverse and varied challenges of development abroad, but it gave me a good place to start. I didn’t need to change what I learned, I needed to adapt it.
Three things helped me to adjust to my new environment:
The always looming danger of international development is neglecting the local context and imposing your own. Had I come in and started preaching the importance of managing your social media portfolio and promoting work/life balance, my value as a volunteer would have been lost. Our group quickly learned that before we could make any meaningful impact we had to ask our students what they wanted to know. Eager to learn and develop their businesses, they were open to discussing the problems they faced and their feedback allowed us to create a relevant curriculum.
2. Remembering that the fundamentals are universal.
While Western businesses are racing to set up Facebook Pages, these entrepreneurs are stopping to talk to their customers at the market between picking up mangos and meat pies. Ghanaian small business owners may not need to know how to advertise on Pinterest any time soon but the concept, reaching your target market, is age-old and world-wide. In identifying the underlying business issues Ghanaian entrepreneurs faced we could adapt our existing business knowledge to the new context.
3. Remaining open.
Any time you immerse yourself in a new culture you run the risk of developing an “us vs. them” mentality, failing to see the underlying similarities beneath two radically different cultures. It was helpful for me to remind myself that Ghanaian business practice is not wrong, but rather different than what I was used to in Canada. Once I changed the way I saw these practices, I gained a new appreciation for their significance. A unique business atmosphere creates unique challenges but also allows for creative solutions.
With a month left in Ghana I hope to practice what I preach and embrace the cultural differences of this beautiful country. After all, I didn’t just come to Ghana to teach, I came to learn.