Adapting in Tanzania's Business Environment

Initially, we planned on writing our second business blog about our first meeting with our colleagues at the University of Dodoma. There’s plenty to say about the differing style including: how and when to introduce yourself (Swahili has a structure of greetings based on familiarity, respect and seniority) and the concept of time. Since that meeting, we’ve come to recognize more evident and frequent differences in the business setting – let’s call it "operating in a less structured environment".

Two notable differences we’ve encountered so far: structure and cell phone usage.

Our colleagues provided a day-by-day schedule for our time here in Dodoma. Like all schedules, we knew this would change, but hoped it would include most of our meetings and remain mostly accurate for the duration of our stay. During our time here in the capital, some changes were communicated in a manner we’re quite used to - i.e. tomorrow’s visit will include village X rather than Y. Other changes were communicated with gaps in information, such as: “We’re meeting with an NGO tomorrow morning. See you at 8 a.m.” This message, despite our follow up, included no information about the name of the organization or what they do. And the final category, the most trying from a Western point of view, is the unannounced meeting. In this scenario, the car stops at a government building, and we’re given a two minute heads up that we’re meeting with the municipal water director for Dodoma.

The unnamed NGO, Maji Na Maendeleo Dodoma.
The unnamed NGO, Maji Na Maendeleo Dodoma.

These occurrences are, at times, very difficult for a Westerner, especially for those of us who need high structure. Going into two meetings blind and totally ignorant of the organizations' efforts can be nightmarish. The peak of unpreparedness, we had to ask the terrible question, “So, what do you do here?” With notification, we would have created an in-depth set of questions to gather as much information as possible and facilitate a lively discussion. We were compelled to improvise and think on our feet in order to conduct these meetings. They’ve been challenging meetings and great tests of quick thinking. We’re still acclimating to this style of business to try and better mimic our Tanzanian colleagues.

One of our trusty, noble steeds - the Rav4.
One of our trusty, noble steeds - the Rav4.

Less of a frustration and more of a surprise, we’ve had multiple internal discussions about cell phone usage here in Tanzania. Throughout our village visits and official meetings, we have been interrupted by the screeching ring of a cell phone and the person conducting the meeting and speaking at that very moment, will stop the meeting to take the call. It’s almost been difficult to get through a meeting without multiple ringing phones or the out-in-the-open texting of a meeting participant. It has served as good practice in redirecting our conversations to better capture their attention. Not to say that this is the case with each visit. We know cell phones are now ubiquitous and provide an ever-present distraction – just look around class during lecture. It’s just been surprising to see the distinct nature of the cell phone first, meeting second approach.

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