Africa is changing rapidly, with eight of the top twenty fastest growing economies within its borders. Despite knowing this information, it took a friend’s internship at the Nigerian Guaranty Trust Bank in London for me to truly realise the potential within the continent. Following this, I immediately explored the Internet to search for possible internships in Ghana’s financial sector. However, to my disappointment, there were no structured internship schemes in place. After probing my family about their network back home in Ghana, I came to be connected with the Manager of one of Barclay’s largest and oldest branches in the country. Following this, I was fortunate to gain a two-week internship during December 2013, after my first term at the University of York, where I am currently studying Economics & Finance.
The greatest challenge I encountered during my internship (within the Corporate Finance and Enquiries team) was the language barrier. I underestimated the prominence of the native language (Twi) within the business environment, as the official language is in fact English. Before the internship I thought I would only speak a very limited amount of Twi with the customers, as I imagined, most of the customers to came from the middle class. Instead, Barclays’ customers were drawn from across the entire spectrum of society, which with hindsight I recognise as a likely characteristic of an institution with a nearly 100 year-old Ghanaian brand. As a result, the language was the main problem for me, as my Twi speaking abilities had not been fully developed in the UK. However, with the assistance of family members and colleagues, I was able to improve my Twi to a far more sophisticated business level, which greatly improved my interactions with clients.
An additional misconception I had was that it would be relatively harder to work with my colleagues as although I am of Ghanaian heritage, all of my life has been spent abroad living in the UK. However, everyone was so welcoming and kind, when I arrived. Funnily enough, everyone in the branch nicknamed me “Akwasi UK” (my traditional Ashanti name) and was always willing to take me out for lunch to try out the local cuisine, which was absolutely delicious.
One important difference I discovered between the financial sectors within Ghana compared with the more established financial hub in London, was the uptake of technology. There were many processes in the Bank, which I knew could be done more efficiently and faster with more sophisticated software or computer hardware. I think companies in emerging markets are a lot more skeptical about making investments within technology because labour is significantly cheaper, so there is less of an incentive to make large long-term investments to improve productivity. However in the UK for example, the average worker commands over £24,000 compared to Ghana’s average annual wage of just over £1100. Therefore there is a greater incentive in developed nations to reduce labour expenditure, as it probably constitutes a higher proportion of the company’s cost. My view upon the significance of lower average labour cost in emerging markets was strengthened by my 10-week volunteer placement in India. I found most traditionally western goods (such as McDonalds, Oreos and Coke) cost the same price in India as they did in the UK. On the other hand, Indian services for example a male hair cut cost Rs. 50 (approximately 50p), compared to £8+ in London. However with continued growth in Ghana and India, I expect GDP per person to increase too, which I hope will encourage African companies to invest in better technology to enable Africa to compete more effectively on the global stage.
What experiences benefited me on the internship?
Attending boarding school gave me the opportunity to develop the skills, which I believe helped me in making my internship successful. Due to being constantly around my peers, I feel this has shaped me into a much more sociable person, as I am more confident in working in a team. Furthermore boarding school instilled a proactive attitude in me, which I think made me have the passion to constantly seek new opportunities during my time at Barclays.
Moreover, the fact that I had previously been to Ghana a number of times, allowed me to adapt quickly, as the culture shock was not as dramatic. Also speaking Twi at home with my parents, allowed me to interact better with customers, whom I felt was generally a lot more comfortable speaking in their native tongue as opposed to English.
Your Future: Top Five Tips (Preparation)
- Spend a significant amount of time researching the country – Is country X really the best African nation to go to for industry Y?
- Work with your strengths – Banks exist in all of Africa’s fifty three countries, but I chose to work in Ghana because I spoke the language and that was where my network was strongest
- Think about how you are going to add value to your firm – For example, your employer may hire you because they expect you to know a considerable amount about their industry within with your home nation. So make sure you do!
- Book your flights as early as possible – Africa is not the nearest place, so make sure you book your flights early to ensure high value for money
- Have a reliable network – navigating in Africa isn’t a simple process, so try and have a trustworthy friend/colleague who you can rely on if you need any sort of assistance or advice
Your Future: Top Five Tips (in-country)
- Be very open minded and flexible towards the African approach to business
- Explore the history of the country – this will give you a great insight to the core values its peoples and their culture
- Network effectively within and outside your firm
- Try and pick up important words in the local language – Your peers will take really well to this proactive approach and it will help you getting around
- Try to stay away from comparisons between the developing countries in Africa and developed nations elsewhere. A better comparison may exist between a neighboring country for example
Following my experience with Barclays in Ghana along with an internship within Morgan Stanley’s Institutional Securities Group, I am interested in a european career within Investment Banking, more specifically Global Capital Markets. In addition, completing a 10-week volunteer placement in India has further enlightened me about the vast opportunities that exist in emerging economies, which are already starting to play a prominent role on the world stage. As a result, I have a strong inclination to return to Africa to work in the growing financial sector, which I will ultimately strengthen the continent’s economic circumstances. So watch this space!
After visiting Ghana a number of times before my internship, I thought I knew pretty much everything about my home nation. However, working in a professional setting in Ghana, has exposed me to a completely different aspect of Ghanaian working culture and industry. Furthermore, there is a vast amount of fantastic opportunities in Africa, so don’t miss out on the action!