Drawing the lines – Pakistan and North Africa

Originally posted on my LinkedIn page…

A cursory glance at what’s happened in the past when lines have been drawn on the map of the region without much care shows us the implications can be huge. Getting MENA and MEA right can have big repercussions for any IT company operating in the region. With a regional HQ in Dubai, it’s straightforward to map out most of the territory the office will cover, but in my experience there are always questions over North Africa (Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia specifically) and Pakistan. Which territories should they fall under?

The Pakistan question is close to my heart. I was lucky enough to travel there many times during my time at Sun Microsystems, with good business results and enduring contacts. I enjoyed it. Sadly the security situation meant I had to stop visiting around 2008 (two hotels I stayed in were bombed shortly after I had been there) and then our being acquired meant Pakistan became a different piece in the the acquiring company’s regional jigsaw. Fortunately the re-org happened after I had managed to get a senior US manager out to Islamabad to visit a big customer. It was quite a trip and, aside from the work we did with the customer in question, it was good to have one of the US guys see the challenges we faced in the field in this part of the world…

Things are much better in Pakistan now, both in terms of security and the economy, with growth set to occur again for the IT industry, so perhaps it’s time to review how to capitalise on the opportunity if you feel the lines haven’t been drawn correctly.

IT companies typically either have Pakistan be part of the Dubai office’s remit, or have the team in Singapore take ownership. Before we discuss the merits, or lack thereof, of each approach, perhaps it’s best to consider the third – and worst – option.

When sitting in an office in Europe or the US, looking at a map of the globe, it’s not unreasonable that decision makers might decide to have Pakistan report to India.

With the best will in the world, however, this approach simply does not work.

Having Pakistan be part of the India sales territory, but then having Afghanistan’s revenues fold into the Dubai team’s results is also not the best. I have always welcomed the revenue from the people somehow managing to plug away in Kabul in the face of such immense challenges, but could probably make a lot more out of Afghanistan if I were incentivised to work with the large Pakistani based resellers who sell there.

If we take out the India option, what are the relative merits of the Singapore vs Dubai approach?

To nail my colours to the mast, unless there is a burning reason to do otherwise, I believe Pakistan should be managed out of Dubai and not out of Singapore. Many of Pakistan’s IT executives have various business and personal connections in Dubai and travel there regularly. Resellers will often have satellite offices or holding companies based in the UAE who may be able to place orders on local distributors in UAE dirhams (which are pegged to USD). Training will typically be done in the UAE. From a cultural point of view, vendors will typically have staff who are Pakistani themselves or who, having lived in the Gulf for a while, will have worked with plenty of Pakistani executives, which minimises the chance of cultural misunderstandings. I haven’t spent much time in Singapore or Asia-Pac but my guess is that whilst English is the business language in both regions, there is less of a linguistic challenge when dealing with Dubai.

Travel is also straightforward, with plenty of flights back and forth and visas both ways generally not presenting any major hurdles.

In my experience at least, this means that there has always been at least some focus on what is a smaller IT market than, say, the UAE or Saudi, but one which should not be ignored, especially with a population of 193 million and counting. When this has been the setup for firms I have worked for, things have worked relatively well.

When Pakistan has been managed out of Singapore, the complaint from the resellers and customers I have spoken to in the past (though not in my current role) is that there is little focus, something which can be particularly painful when the geographies change suddenly thanks to an acquisition or re-org. The cultural disconnect is far greater, travel is harder and there are fewer existing business connections to build on to encourage incremental growth. That’s not to say it can’t be made to work, but it may well not be worth the pain of trying.

To my mind, the Pakistan question is easy to answer. The North Africa question is a lot less clear cut and will need careful consideration based on each company’s situation.

The scenario we clearly want to avoid is a regional sales team making a grab for land that they then largely ignore due to other priorities, but which they benefit from thanks to the occasional deal that drops into their laps. Regardless of where the dividing line falls, this is something that can only be fixed with the right management attention.

What needs to be considered before the line is drawn?

Having North Africa ultimately be part of the French sales territory appears quite seductive. For historical reasons, many French business are deeply involved in North Africa, resellers and distributors are active across the territories, or are easily able to be when called upon. Whilst I have seen the levels of spoken English improve remarkably over the last decade, French is still a must when dealing with many customers and is essential for government projects. Many employees in the French HQ will have cultural connections to the Maghreb and are often keen to travel and work there.

That said, the anecdotal and personal experience I have is that when North Africa is managed out of France, it is in danger of being seen as something of a backwater – a lot of sales effort needed but for smaller returns than would be seen when deploying that manpower in France itself.

When the region reports to Dubai, it becomes an emerging market for a team that is used to dealing with emerging markets. Care is needed in your own sales teams and in the channel to avoid grey market or out of territory sales that undermine effort and investment, but there are plenty of Dubai based French speaking sales and pre-sales staff who can take the territory on. With their managers folding North Africa into plans to grow the overall business based on a solid Middle East North Africa sales plan, you should have a recipe for success.

Many North African resellers and integrators do business down into French-speaking and, increasingly, English-speaking Africa. Skilled partners that can make a difference into the territories for which many vendors are unlikely to have short or even long term plans for local presence. Tunisian companies have been particularly active in this respect whenever I’ve covered this turf and I’ve been grateful for it.

Travel does present a challenge, although direct flights from Dubai to Algeria and Tunisia have been available for a while now. That said, these things can work both ways. When working on a project in Tunisia many years ago, the customer was impressed with the commitment we showed – an English guy from Dubai making the trek over to torture the French language and run through our recommended solution showed them we really cared about their project. Our competitor’s Paris based sales rep flew in and out in a day and didn’t stay for dinner, which didn’t go down well. (We were selected in the end).

Later I found myself in a situation which worked very well for what I was trying to achieve at the time. The pre-sales engineer I worked with in Dubai was French but had lived in Morocco for many years. Whilst being technically very astute, he was also very sales focused. This meant I could rely on him to get a great deal done in Casablanca and Tunis whilst I spent more time in Beirut and Lagos. He seemed quite happy with this situation.

So, to nail my final set of colours to the mast, I believe that if you are looking to develop business in North Africa, particularly from a low base, the Dubai connection is a must. However, if it’s with France today and things are ticking along, there is reasonable run rate and and fulfilment is working well, there may be no compelling reason to change.

My past and my amusing travel anecdotes aren’t the sole basis on which to make major business decisions – these are just my opinions, based on the experience I have. I’m sure there are good examples of the opposite to my assertions above being true – and I would be keen to hear them.

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