"Afrika kommt!"

Continent of the Future

19 German companies want to support economic development in sub-Saharan Africa. As part of the AFRIKA KOMMT! initiative, they are offering in-house vocational training in Germany for young managers from Africa. One such company is Boehringer Ingelheim.

Confident and with a friendly smile, Boipelo Bolen enters the reception hall of Boehringer Ingelheim. The young woman from Botswana takes in her surroundings: this is where she will be working for the next nine months. Michael Rabbow from Corporate Communications and Beate Hunzinger, from Human Resources, are expecting their new colleague. It is not the first meeting between the African and the two staff members from the pharmaceutical company. Bolen and Hunzinger first crossed paths six months earlier in Nairobi. The HR manager had travelled to Kenya to meet a group of 64 highly motivated young people from 14 African countries. Together with Heiner Boeker, Bosch GmbH, and two GIZ experts, her task was to select 17 candidates to spend one year living and training in Germany. Launched three years earlier by Bosch and 18 other German companies, the initiative goes by the name AFRIKA KOMMT! ('Africa is coming!'). These companies give young managers from sub-Saharan Africa the opportunity to learn first-hand how German companies operate, while developing their own management and leadership skills. Close cooperation of this sort builds lasting partnerships and helps develop networks between Germany and Africa.

Boipelo Bolen and her colleagues are the second group of young professionals from Africa to be received and welcomed by the host companies. Once they have completed the preparatory phase, including a four-month language course, the participants will be officially welcomed in Berlin by Federal President Christian Wulff and high-ranking representatives of the host companies. After that, participants will be closely integrated into the day-to-day operations of their host companies.

Spoiled for choice

A total of 1,697 young Africans applied for one of the 17 scholarships; just 64 of them made it through to the final round of selection. The jury's criteria were stringent, Hunzinger recalls: 'We were looking for open-minded people with a desire to learn and a readiness to commit themselves fully to the German experience. We wanted people who would bring African culture to us, as well as take a piece of our culture back home with them.' It was also important to match the applicants' professional profiles with the work placements in the host companies. Boipelo Bolen had what the jury was looking for. She and her colleagues have now been learning German for three months and soon she will be setting off to Boehringer in Ingelheim. Alongside her new boss, Judith von Gordon, Head of Global Media & PR, she casts her eye with interest over her future place of work. Bolen gave up her job as PR manager at the Ministry of Energy in Botswana to take part in the programme. 'My ambition here is to learn how to manage, organise and develop a PR department so that everything runs really well. Some people find Germans rather rigid and inflexible. That's not at all how I see it. Their reputation for expertise and efficiency is based on knowing what they want and having the determination to achieve their goals.'

Responsibility for major projects

Bolen feels she has landed on her feet in the Corporate Communications Department at Boehringer Ingelheim. Since the family-owned company sells its products worldwide it has to develop international communications strategies. Today, the company makes increasing use of social media for image and product communication. Von Gordon is keen to pass on such expertise: 'We're doing some good work in this area. These are the sort of things I would like to share with my colleague from Botswana, to give her an idea of how to make the most of this form of communication.' The focus is not just on technical expertise, however. Management skills are also covered. And Bolen will learn a lot in this regard from the corporate communications team, since at Boehringer Ingelheim she will be responsible for some complex projects. In addition, all scholarship holders will attend a one-month management course, where they will underpin their in-house practical experience with theoretical knowledge on all aspects of project management, project planning and HR management. According to Beate Hunzinger, the basic aim of AFRIKA KOMMT! can only be achieved if scholars embrace the entire package. 'We want to be part of a German group of companies that provides vocational training for young African professionals and junior executives. The young people then take what they have learned here back to their home countries, where they can help shape and quicken the pace of economic development.' Scholarship holders will be given the tools with which to implement plans of their own at home. 'I dream of setting up my own image consulting company one day. I would like to train up people from my own country. Everything I learn in Germany I will be able to pass on to others in Botswana: to colleagues, to friends, to my family. After all, I'm not just taking home expertise, I'm also learning an incredible amount about myself,' explains Bolen.

Useful contacts

The stay in Germany is also an opportunity to develop close personal and professional contacts. So if at some time in the future Bolen seeks professional guidance, she will be able to pick up the phone and ask a colleague at Boehringer Ingelheim with a minimum of red tape. However, the reverse is also possible: 'If Boehringer Ingelheim is ever interested in developing business contacts in Africa, I will be in a position to help open certain doors more easily,' affirms Bolen. The networks that develop from such relationships are what really matter. That's why the German companies involved recognised that these had to be formalised from the outset. So on behalf of the companies, GIZ set up an alumni network with the first cohort of scholarship holders, which gave former and current participants a platform on which to exchange experiences. On the last Thursday of each month, Bolen and her group have an opportunity to ask old hands questions, glean advice and get their take on things. And it is not just a platform for African participants to talk among themselves; representatives of the German companies go along too.

Along with Beate Hunzinger, Michael Rabbow from Boehringer Ingelheim also shares responsibility for the company's part in the AFRIKA KOMMT! initiative. 'With each year of the scholarship we learn more from the programme. The intercultural exchange between scholarship holders and the company works very well indeed. And it doesn't stop once the scholarship period has ended.' Boehringer Ingelheim's previous scholarship holder came from Rwanda. Today he is attached to the German Embassy in his home country and remains in close touch with his host company. The vision of a German-African network dreamed up by German entrepreneurs back in 2008 is increasingly becoming reality. And for Rabbow the reason is simple: 'Africa is the continent of the future!'

Author: Gabriele Rzepka is a freelance journalist, specialising in development policy and technology.
The article first appeared in the GIZ magazine akzente, issue 04/2011.