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Biltong, braais, being an 'IT bitch': A UK woman on working in Africa

Ghana, Nigeria and South Africa as seen by one Milton Keynes woman

The eXpat Files Jo Crawshaw is a 28-year-old woman who hails from “just outside the concrete jungle that is Milton Keynes, Buckinghamshire”. These days you'll find her all over Africa, because her work for Opera Software means her gig is all about chatting to the continent's carriers.

That job's taken her into some pretty confronting situations regarding race and gender.

Jo's loving it and has decided she'll stay in South Africa. Why? Cast your eyeballs downwards, dear readers, to find out ...

The Register: What kind of work do you do and with which technologies?

Jo Crawshaw: I work for Opera Software and spend most of my time travelling around sub-Saharan Africa working with our partners (primarily mobile operators, handset manufacturers and content providers) to communicate our services to media and consumers.

The Register: Why did you decide to move to Ghana? And then South Africa?

Jo Crawshaw: The move to Ghana was before my job at Opera. At the time I was consulting to the likes of Google and Gateway Comms (satellite and fibre company owned by Vodacom at the time). I had worked for the previous three years at the HQ of an Africa-focused consultancy based in London. In London I was a complete workaholic, much to the detriment of my social life but to the benefit of my career. Looking back, I wouldn't be here now if I hadn't hit it so hard straight out of uni so I certainly don't regret it.

My plan was always to get real experience of working in challenging markets, so when the offer finally came to work in Ghana, I ran with it. When my contract there was over I was offered a more senior position in the South Africa office. I'd never been to South Africa and had heard all the the horror stories of violence, etc, but I thought, why not? I'm very glad I took the move.

The Register: What are the challenges that face a professional woman in Africa?

Jo Crawshaw: I think the challenges I face are common to many women working in male dominated industries. I once heard an associate flippantly say that women working in tech have to either be bitches or flirts if they want to get anywhere. When I asked him which he thought I was, he quickly backtracked! The issue is that there is a lot of inherent sexism in the tech industry and whilst we're definitely moving in the right direction we still have a long way to go.

In Africa more so than in Europe I do believe that women are still seen as subordinates and this very easily trickles through to how you're treated in business situations. It's quite an interesting juxtaposition working for a company headquartered in Norway - a country known for its gender neutrality - to regularly doing business in Nigeria, which tends to come near the bottom of global gender gap reports. I have become far more patient and accepting of differing cultural attitudes throughout my career so far. You just have to! It certainly helps that I have some fantastic male colleagues and we support each other as a team.

When it comes to race, it's always a touchy subject and there is still shocking segregation in South Africa, which generally doesn't appear to be imposed, or even intended, by either black or white but just seems like a horrible hangover of apartheid. The government introduced Black Economic Empowerment to redress the inequalities of apartheid and offer "previously disadvantaged" racial groups certain economic privileges, such as employment preference. This certainly impacts the South African job market and I have also found that some do hold the belief that whites are taking jobs that should be given to blacks. This can be a difficult attitude to deal with sometimes.

The Register: In your email to us you said "There's nothing more dynamic and innovative than the African tech business." We can't let that go: give us some examples!

Jo Crawshaw: Innovation in Africa has been referred to as the rawest or truest innovation because it stems from real human need. Never has the phrase, “necessity is the mother of invention” been more true.

“Pay as you go” was invented in Africa because contracts require reliable systems and people with enough money to pay for them. “Please call mes” were invented in Africa because it's common for people to run out of calling credit. Safaricom in Kenya pioneered mobile money because, well let's just say that their banks weren't exactly great at the time. When the latest outbreak of Ebola occurred, Africans rushed to their mobile phones for information and as they did, free apps and services offering advice and up to date news sprung up from all around the continent.

I can't think of another industry in Africa that is as fast-moving, exciting or rewarding as tech and telecoms. It's not about having a device in your pocket, it's about providing an outlet for knowledge, opportunity and socio-economic growth. Without coming across like a geek version of Bob Geldof with a better haircut, I honestly think that mobile is the conduit to improving lives in Africa.

The Register: We keep hearing a lot about "the next billion" people to come online, and it's assumed they'll do so with smartphones. What do you see happening in Africa? Is it phones? Or are PCs and tablets a force?

Jo Crawshaw: Phones, phones, phones! Whilst PC usage won't decline as is happening in other parts of the world, mobile adoption is growing exponentially. Smartphone penetration is still low in the majority of the continent but is increasing with the introduction of low-cost handsets such as the recently announced Nokia 215 series which goes for around US$29 and a boasts a good battery life.

Price points and battery life are a big thing for the entry-level feature phone market and competition is stiff to win over this huge consumer group in Africa.

The Register: Pay: up or down?

Jo Crawshaw: When I was in Ghana my pay remained the same as it was in London and I felt slightly less well off. Ghana is an incredibly expensive place to live if you want to maintain your London lifestyle. After Angola it has the highest living costs in the continent according to an article I read recently. In South Africa I have been much better off, especially given that I earn pounds. The rand is currently very weak, so my pounds are going far.

The Register: How do workplaces differ between the UK and Ghana? And South Africa?

Jo Crawshaw: I think in London more than many other places there is still a outdated attitude that it's about how long you're seen to be in the office rather than a focus on your achievements. In Johannesburg particularly there's a work hard, play hard mentality; people want to get things done and get them done well but they're also keen to pop open a Castle Light and have a few friends over for a braai (barbecue) in the evening.

Internet and power are not reliable in Africa. In South Africa, we've recently gone through a bad patch of load shedding (where Eskom, the public electricity utility, turns off the power for hours on end). Naturally, this can impact one's ability to work effectively - much to the confusion of my colleagues in ever-functional Norway!

The Register: What's cheaper in Ghana and South Africa compared to the UK? What's more expensive?

Jo Crawshaw: Nothing is cheaper in Ghana with the exception of public shared transport (shared minibuses are called “tro tros”) in which I had a multitude of near-death experiences due to reckless driving and bad roads. Rent and property is particularly expensive in Ghana.

South Africa is cheaper for pretty much everything except for things like cars (double the price of buying in the UK) and cosmetics, which both have a luxury tax slapped on them. Domestic and inter-Africa flights are disgustingly expensive. For the price I have paid to get from Jozi (Johannesburg) to Cape Town during the busy Christmas season you could fly from London to New York. This is a particularly dramatic example but you get my drift. Internet is also hugely expensive and given the limited fibre networks, a lot of people rely on mobile internet. Competition is increasing and prices are coming down but it's a slow process.

The Register: You now consider South Africa home: what made you decide to stay?

Jo Crawshaw: There's something very unique about South Africa. The thing that attracted me to it first were the people. I've never met more welcoming and friendly people in my life, particularly in Jo'burg. Of course the weather is a definite plus and the food is just awesome, especially considering what you pay for it. From a work perspective, I love how entrepreneurial people are and how positive attitudes abound when it comes to new ideas. I'm also engaged to a Saffa guy and we love our life here.

The Register: Food: what have you learned to love? And what don't you touch?

Jo Crawshaw: When I first arrived I couldn't get my head around biltong. I'd come across it before in south west London but the thought of dried-out meat left to hang for days made me feel a bit queasy. Four years later and I can't get enough of it! I now know that I like the "wet" meat, which is a bit more like carpaccio. The really dry stuff still freaks me out a bit because the meat fibres look like hair and hairy meat doesn't really appeal. More so than in Europe, South Africans have a strange obsession with tequila. No can do. My stomach becomes a springboard if I try to force that stuff down my throat!

The Register: What's your top tip to help new arrivals settle in?

Jo Crawshaw: Talk to people - lots of people! Try and get some different perspectives on your new home. South Africans are friendly and I have found that they get so excited when someone takes an interest in their country that they'll gladly and proudly be your tour guide. Go to as many braais and parties as you're invited to and take advantage of the multitude of business-focused networking events. Make sure you get out the city occasionally - South Africa is stunningly beautiful.

The Register: What advice would you offer someone considering the same move?

Jo Crawshaw: Find one person, a friend of a friend perhaps, who is happy to provide you with a quick intro to the city. I only knew one person when I arrived in South Africa but that one person quickly turns into many more friends.

If you're moving from the UK, try and keep that salary in pounds! The rand fluctuates more than Cape Town's weather so you could end up getting a pay increase one month only to be poorer than you started out the month after.

The Register: What can you get up to on weekends in Johannesburg you couldn't do in the UK?

Jo Crawshaw: Wherever you are in Jo'burg you're no more than 45 minutes away from the bush. This means that you can leave after work on Friday and by the evening you can be in a “big five” game reserve with a camp set up and a braai lit. Also, I'm convinced Jozi has the best climate in the world - winters are beautifully clear, sunny, dry and cool (although during the day temperatures often reach highs of 20+) and summers are hot with predictable dramatic afternoon storms. This means that outdoor activities are always an option and is why Jo'burgers tend to be a very outdoorsy bunch.

Have you moved to a new land? Tell us your story by writing to me. We're keen for stories from anywhere, but have yet to hear from many folks who've moved to Asia, South America or Europe. C'mon - one of you must be doing the idyllic French village thing... or the post-colonial enclave thing in Shanghai? Don't be shy! ®

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