We often hear businesspeople commenting on the difficulties of doing business on the African continent.  Most commonly it’s about infrastructure challenges, weak currencies, the influence of politicians and other powerful individuals in the business environment. But it’s not often that you hear about the difficulties that may confront a woman trying to do business in what can still be a very patriarchal environment.

Jeanette Moloto faces these issues regularly in her work in Global Sales in the Sub-Saharan region for Marriott International, the world’s largest hotel group. But she has learned how to deal with the challenges.

“It’s certainly true that women are often not seen in business leadership roles in some countries on the continent,” she explains.  “I sometimes feel that, initially, the men I am meeting think that my role is to pour the tea and to pass the biscuits around,” she says, with a serious dash of irony.  “And the fact is that, in the majority of my business meetings, there are no other women attending who are there in a business capacity, so it may in fact be unusual in some cases for the male businesspeople to understand my role.”

Moloto has learned from her experience in the field how to cope with this – and to anticipate these types of situations arising.  “I know that I need to prepare for the possible scenarios that could arise, and so I practise in advance how to deal with what could come up,” she says.  Based on what she has seen happening, she makes sure that she knows the latest news about the country she is visiting and what is happening there in business – so that she can talk confidently and reflect strong knowledge of the environment.  “I read a great deal about Africa, and I use my time in my car in Johannesburg’s traffic to listen to podcasts about various countries on the continent.  Listening to music on the radio is, for me, not time wisely spent,” she comments.

“I also remind myself before I walk into a business meeting what it is that I hope to get out of it.  That goal remains paramount for me, and it’s then easier to brush off certain  behaviours from male clients that would otherwise be offensive. The sorts of things that would usually leave me feeling angry or insulted are things I can accept when I know what I am there to achieve.  So, I don’t turn that sort of occasion into a battle – it’s counter-productive when the goal is to secure a deal.”

A further thing Moloto has learned is the need to understand and respect the culture and norms of the country she is visiting and not to be judgemental based on her own culture.  So, for instance, she has found that business meetings in Nigeria can often be quite aggressive in their nature.  Armed with that knowledge, she knows that she must accept the tone of the meeting, participate in it in the same way as the other parties, including using the appropriate language and jargon, and not take anything to heart.  It also means that she may sometimes partake of food or drink she would not otherwise have chosen.  “I know that I must say yes to a cup of tea and biscuits in some meetings,  whether I’m thirsty or not, because it is regarded as an insult to turn the offer down,” she explains.

Armed with this sort of attitude and always keen to learn, Moloto has shown her mettle in many a business meeting on the continent. It’s seen her rise through the ranks at Protea Hotels by Marriott, secure a senior position with the African Business Travel Association, being named as a Top Hotelier in the Africa Top 100 Women in Tourism Awards and, most recently, being appointed to her current position.  There’s no doubt a whole lot more still waiting for Moloto in the world of business in Africa.