Business Execs Gain Insight into Working in Africa
By Kevin James Shay
Earth Networks has set up its weather monitoring systems worldwide but only recently entered Africa.
What the 160-employee Germantown company, which operates the WeatherBug brand, has found is a continent eager for technological advancements, said John Doherty, global development officer.
“They are thirsting for new technology,” Doherty said Monday during a forum on doing business in Africa at Johns Hopkins University’s Montgomery County campus in Rockville.
About 180 people attended the forum, which featured addresses by U.S. Commerce and State Department officials, ambassadors to Chad, Lesotho and Guinea, and trade leaders, as well as panel discussions and networking opportunities.
The conference was one of several coordinated in recent months by the Montgomery County Chamber of Commerce, state Department of Business and Economic Development, Montgomery County Department of Economic Development, Prince George’s County Economic Development Corp., U.S. Department of Commerce and Hopkins as part of a global trade program. Past conferences have been on Mexico, Brazil and multilateral development banks.
Africa is one of the fastest growing regions in the world in terms of technology and development, said Nancy Wallace, vice president of innovation and strategy for Frederick-based Computer Frontiers. The company has four call centers in Africa.
“You can’t ignore what is happening there,” Wallace said. “Every time I go back, there is something new. … The adaptation to technology and learning is incredible.”
Exports from Maryland companies to many countries in Africa increased last year from 2011, according to U.S. Department of Commerce figures. Egypt, which has a small portion of its country in Asia, was Maryland’s favorite African trading partner in 2012, with $391.5 million in exports, up from $301.5 million in 2011. Nigeria is another significant partner with $194.1 million in exports from Maryland companies last year, up from $166.5 million in 2011.
Being a small to mid-sized company with 100 employees, Computer Frontiers has found Africa’s market to be the right size, Wallace said.
“It takes awhile to get in there and find opportunities, but they are there,” she said.
Finding a partner you trust who brings funds to invest or assets is a key factor, she said.
Earth Networks, which is developing Guinea’s first comprehensive early warning storm system, worked through embassies to find partners, Doherty said.
“They have programs to help companies get high-quality partners that have been vetted,” he said.
An initial challenge in some countries is just getting through customs, Doherty said.
It is important to work with reputable people, said Vince Onuigbo, senior marketing director of Germantown satellite company Hughes Network Systems. The company has marketed its satellite systems in Africa for many years.
“Make sure you find someone local who knows the system well,” Onuigbo said.
The forums have focused on areas that are prime for partnerships with local companies and offer good opportunities, said Barbara Ashe, executive vice president of the Montgomery chamber.
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