Five years ago, if you asked me where I wanted to be now, I would have given you a classic almost-college-graduate answer: ‘“San Francisco or New York, working for a startup in the tech world. Doing what? Anything but sales.”
(Un)predictably, life pulled a surprise on me and sent me to Africa – to do sales for a startup that isn’t really a startup, but felt like one when I joined in late 2013. Of course, I’m talking about Infobip.
It all started with a question…
“Would you travel to Africa for work?“was the question that my Infobip journey started with. I responded with a “Why not?” and three months later, I was in Africa, selling A2P SMS solutions.
…And proceeded on a rocky road to Uganda, the Pearl of Africa…
Beginnings were rough, especially because I can’t say I was well-prepared for it. I had no idea what to expect and my understanding and vision of Africa as a place to work and live in couldn’t have been further from reality.
I spent my first 6 months in Uganda trying to prove myself, not only to my superiors but to myself as well. Selling value-added services turned out to be more complex than it seemed. What with a lot of stakeholders to consider, various approaches to selling, a local team with a global mindset and (at the time) 500 people behind you and all the services that you’re putting out there and trying to sell. There were ups and there were downs – I most vividly remember the downs, especially those that were my fault.
But learning from my mistakes is what I’m all about, even if it sometimes might take me a while. Because that is the only way to get anywhere and to truly learn – and you can get a long way with such an attitude in Africa. It doesn’t take too long to learn Africa is a world ripe with business opportunities to those that are bold enough to take them and don’t let their fear of mistakes hold them back from trying.
As for the Ugandan culture, they are by far the friendliest people I’ve had the pleasure of meeting in Africa. Welcoming, warm and always smiling, they seem genuinely happier than most people living in developed countries, despite the hardship of their lives. They call their country ‘The Pearl of Africa’, due to the diverse geography including flatlands, mountains, fields, rivers and the famous Lake Victoria.
It was short, but sweet, Kenya – and it still might be my favorite market to explore and work on, even though I didn’t end up getting involved as much as I wanted to. The relentless pace of doing business and the assertive nature of business people there helped shape that opinion of mine; the kind of atmosphere someone ready for challenges can thrive in.
When you’re off work, though, it can be a very relaxing place with sights that take your breath away, like the Great Rift Valley offering a panorama view of the “Cradle of Humanity” (to this day, the most amazing thing I’ve seen in my life). You also shouldn’t miss out on the Masaai Mara, which will fit exactly what most imagine when they think ‘Africa’ – a golden savannah dotted with acacia trees full of animals; gnus, zebras, elephants, lions…’Mara’ means ‘dot’ in the Masaai language, which captures what the plains look like from a distance perfectly.
…The Masaai Mara leads to Tanzania…
…where I spent more time than in any African country. It was in Dar es Salaam that I was at the peak of learning from Infobip, my colleagues and superiors. Together with Filip Filkovic, I was involved in the recruitment of local staff & MNO relations. Working on that, I learned a lot more about business finance and our obligations to the government, specifically Revenue Authorities of Tanzania.
Nothing I might have learned back home during such a short period of time comes even close to this. In a foreign country with an entirely different culture and complex telecom laws, you learn to adapt to the unknown – and once you’ve climbed the highest mountain, everything else is just hills for you.
Tanzania is an interesting place, especially in terms of so much misused and unused potential. But the people, themselves are really friendly, the culture is amazing and the food incredible. You have to be there to take a proper look at their kitenge clothing and accessories and try their numerous, delicious dishes like ugali, nyama choma and seafood. There is also so much to explore for sightseeing: Kilimanjaro, Serengeti, Ngorongoro, lake Tanganyika, Zanzibar (where, surprisingly, they speak Italian better than English).
…And then a Rwandan vacation…
Unlike any other country in Africa, Rwanda is very safe, organized and – sugar on top – they drive on the right side of the road. It’s called ‘The Land of a Thousand Hills’ for a reason, as those are everywhere, covered in plantations, banana trees and even some pine trees at the highest tops. The whole country is powered by methane gas, on top of which literally floats Lake Kivu, surrounded by hills and the Congolese mountains. Nothing compares to the sight and sound of the fishermen going out to fish there are sunset, singing their song as they depart from the shore.
Rwanda is famous for most people for the genocide of one million people that occurred there in 1994 – I encourage all of you to take time to read more about this and to pay your respects to the victims at the monuments if you are ever there. The Rwandese people are both scared and proud of their history, but how they prevailed and developed after such a horrible tragedy is something I haven’t seen anywhere else. I think the world has much to learn from them, and should definitely look up to them in this regard.
…And the nomad proceeds South to Zambia…
By now, you must have thought of calling me a nomad, already, considering how much I move around in my career. I’m always on the lookout for new opportunities, and the next one took me to Infobip’s newest African office in Lusaka, Zambia – my first South African country.
I can’t even describe the difference between South and East Africa looking at how people lead their daily lives, spend free time and behave in business. Zambians, in my experience, value respect and politeness in business, so being aggressive might just push people away – a more personal and kind approach is what you should go for here. It’s also a relatively small market, but with potential to grow a lot, not just in terms of Infobip but in general.
Every time I think of Zambia, the negligible influence of Mobile Money there is always on my mind. Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania all depend on Mobile Money Services for everyday activities and transfers, but not Zambia. Why is that so? Because two brothers started a company called Zoona – pronounced as ‘zo-ona’, appropriately meaning ‘for real’. They enabled Zambian people to transfer money between themselves by simply walking up to a Zoona booth with the money, providing the phone number of the person they wish to receive it. In a matter of seconds, the recipient gets an SMS message and can walk up to any Zoona booth and pick up their money there.
Easy, convenient and powered by Infobip – which makes us very proud. Plus with the rapidly evolving telecommunications industry in Africa, the continent is full of opportunities like that – waiting for you to show initiative and make them into something great.
Zambia is highly dependent on its natural resources, especially copper and water. It’s one of the world’s largest copper suppliers, and water is there to give electricity through a number of hydroelectric dams, the most important being on the mighty Zambezi River. On this river, you can also witness one of the most jaw-dropping natural wonders of the world, the Victoria Falls. They have an appropriate nickname in Zambia: ‘Mosi-oa-tunya’, ‘Smoke That Thunders’.
No amount of raincoats will prevent you from ending up soaking wet when you get there.
…To share a message with us all in the end
What is the message I want to share through this blog? Africa is not what you believe it is. No amount of words or pictures can truly describe it, and even the way I tried to share little bits of it in this article doesn’t do it justice. To experience it like I have – there’s no other way but to be here.
Doing business can be challenging, sometimes frustrating and exhausting due to cultural differences, stiff competition and regulations, especially when in the midst of it all it hits you how far from home you actually are. But it’s a true test of your skills – of proving to yourself that yes, you can do it, that you can tackle any challenge in your way and emerge better, more competent and proud of yourself afterwards. And once you embrace Africa as I have and something just clicks in your head, it becomes your new home.
Do I regret coming to Africa, working and living here? No. Would I do it again? Most definitely. Would I recommend it to others? Yes. It’s an amazing chance to learn and gather unique experiences through an adventure you won’t find anywhere else in the world.
To all of you who took the time to read my story… thank you, hvala (Croatian), weebale (Luganda, Uganda), asante (Kiswahili, Kenya & Tanzania), murakoze (Kinyarwanda, Rwanda), zikomo (Nyanja, Zambia), natasha (Bemba, Zambia), luitumezi (Lozi, Zambia)!
For more amazing photos of Dinko’s time in Africa, click here!