Opinion: What Papua New Guinea taught me about doing business

Now a Chief Financial Officer based in the UK, Aarish Shah occupied senior executive roles in Papua New Guinea for nearly a decade. Here he reflects on the lessons he learned from running businesses in PNG—lessons that he believes are ‘poignantly transferable to life and business anywhere.’

Aarish Shah Source: Aarish Shah

Aarish Shah, former Managing Director of Pacific Foam in PNG

I have spent a bit of time leading teams and running businesses in Papua New Guinea (PNG): the self-styled Land of the Unexpected.

Truly one of the last frontier economies, I am constantly amazed by how much it taught me. The lessons I have learned are poignantly transferable to life and business anywhere. Here are just a few that still inform the way I think about leadership and business every day.

Don’t judge a book by its cover

PNG is a largely rural, agrarian and subsistence economy; you’re not going to find many people swanning around in the latest designer labels.

Some of the biggest sales we’d make were to guys who’d rocked up in a battered 4×4 or on foot, wearing a tattered shirt, half-consumed rubber thongs and a big bag of cash. They may have travelled for days to get to the city, hitched part or all of the way and slept in friendly villages.

The lesson: never discount anyone just on the basis of how they look. Treat everyone with respect—you never know their story unless you take the time to find out.

Infrastructure

PNG is one half of a huge island. There is limited road connectivity, no rail transport and the only way to get most places is by plane or ship.

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When your customer is dependent on your product and is losing money every day you don’t satisfy their requirements, saying ‘I couldn’t figure out how to get it to you’ just isn’t going to cut it.

‘Risk management is a must in any business.’

The lesson is: solve problems as creatively as possible. If there is no road, can we get it on to a ship instead? What’s the going rate for air cargo? Can I consolidate with another one of your customers? Know the shipping schedules, build contingency into your timing, talk to your customers about their needs and work out how to solve the problem with them, not for them.

Law and order

PNG suffers from a poor reputation regarding violent crimes. In my experience, it is no different from many economies on the development curve; but it pays never to be complacent.

Risk management is a must in any business. Assess what your business needs are and implement risk management policies that make sense for you . If you are handling a lot of personal data, make sure that you have appropriate security systems and back up. If you manage cash on a regular basis, switch up your routes or the bank branches where you make deposits. Do your best to dodge the bullet before it is fired.

Language

There are well over 800 individual languages spoken in PNG. The national languages are English and Tok Pisin, a language borne of the vast trading networks and intermingling of peoples. It is not unusual to meet people who will speak only in the latter.

While Tok Pisin (or pidgin as it’s known) is an amalgamation of a number of languages, including English, it has its own nuances that may not be obvious to the uninitiated.

The lesson: we live in a global market—irrespective of what the politics of the day are trying to tell us—and language should not be a barrier for you, or your business. Figure out how best to communicate with your customer, face-to-face, in writing or on the phone. Pay attention to cultural norms, but don’t let not speaking the same lingo stop you in your tracks.

Leadership

Literacy in PNG is still well below the global average due to a lack of decent educational infrastructure and resources. It often falls on the private sector to train its employees and provide ongoing learning and development. If someone doesn’t know how to do something, show them, teach them and repeat the lesson.

If you are leading people you need to step up in a big way. Don’t act like a leader ; be one.

Aarish Shah is Chief Financial Officer of EtonX and Director of EmergeOne, a business advisory focused on startups in the UK. He is a former Managing Director of PNG manufacturer, Pacific Foam. This article first appeared on smallbusinessforum.co.

Comments

  1. Eartha says:

    Yep …. Land of the unexpected indeed.

  2. Aarish, many thanks for the frankness of your views. Much of what you said is very true, I for one am an advocate of a transport network that works, it is definitely a huge challenge in terms of logistics when business operate here in PNG, the sooner the transport network is opened up, it will do a world of good for everyone. Thank you for acknowledging that crime is a norm as in other developing economies, its unfortunate that it also happens here, but crime should not cloud the potential for businesses to invest here, it will eventually fall back to the Government of the day to realize its lack of efforts in providing and policing a safe, secure business environment.

  3. Howard Philemon says:

    Png does pose a lot of challenges but yes slowly and surely we are getting there. Thanks for sharing these wonderful experiences and lessons learnt.

  4. Kanau Iobuna says:

    yes very true in PNG

  5. Nick Kirke says:

    Nothing new in any of this – it’s called culturally and environmental sensitivity – same anywhere – “when in Rome policies” kick in

  6. Peter Shepherd says:

    Thanks Aarish a Great insight into some of the issues we confront working in PNG. The unique environment of this very diverse country makes working there the best and biggest challenge an expatriate can experience and many lessons are learnt and you have to look outside of the traditional boxes to resolve the many issues you will be confronted with.

  7. A good listener will do well in an environment as illustrated by Aarish Shah. Therefore, patience and good listening skills are key in instances where you have language barriers, doing problem-solving and generally leadership roles.

  8. Ruben R Joel says:

    Like this piece: “Never discount anyone just on the basis of how they look. Treat everyone with respect—you never know their story unless you take the time to find out”.

  9. Is does not matter what language, culture, background, politics, economy is, business is all about solving clients problems creatively.

  10. PNG teaches you to be on guard always and brings the best and creative of you.

  11. Ernie Gangloff says:

    The experience from working in PNG is the equivalent to twice that time ina developed economy.

  12. Invaluable lessons learned–useful insights for successful business strategies in PNG

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