As one of the fastest growing economies in Africa, there are many opportunities for doing business in Tanzania. Expats will likely find themselves working or doing business within one of the three most important sectors of agriculture, mining or tourism and based in one of the major centres of Dar es Salaam, Arusha or the capital, Dodoma.
Nevertheless, expats will find that doing business is not always easy in the country, as evidenced by its dismal ranking of 141 out of 190 countries in the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business Survey for 2020. Factors for which the country ranked particularly low were trading across borders (182nd) and starting a business (162nd).
The work week is Monday to Friday and office hours are usually between 8am and 4.30pm, with lunch between 12pm and 2pm.
Swahili is the official language, but English is widely spoken in business circles. Arabic is also common in some predominantly Islamic areas, such as Zanzibar.
Business attire should be smart – suits for men and long skirts for women. The tropical heat dictates that lightweight fabrics are best.
It is important to greet the most senior person in the room first. A handshake is the most appropriate when greeting a man, but it’s best to wait for a woman to first extend her hand before shaking as some Muslim women will not shake hands with men. Sometimes a nod is sufficient when greeting a woman.
It’s customary to give a gift if invited to someone’s home – a small token from one’s home country is best. Flowers should be avoided as these are usually only given as condolence.
Generally speaking, business culture in Tanzania is traditional and male-dominated. Although women’s rights are protected, it’s still not common for them to occupy high-ranking executive positions.
Business culture in Tanzania
The business culture in Tanzania is generally friendly and easy-going, but there are some cultural nuances that may take time to get used to.
Tanzanian business structures are hierarchical, with the most senior person being the primary decision maker. Employees are used to taking orders and accepting the decisions of those in senior positions, so decisions are not often questioned and ideas are not regularly shared between management and subordinates.
Networking is essential to business success in Tanzania. Establishing a relationship and getting to know associates on a personal level is important to doing business successfully in Tanzania. It’s not common to get straight down to business when first meeting with colleagues – it’s customary to begin a business meeting with small talk, with topics such as family and sport being good starting points.
Tanzanians are not always direct in their communications and decision-making can be a slow process, so expats will need to exercise patience when doing business in Tanzania. Being direct can often be misinterpreted as being rude, so it’s unusual to receive an outright yes or no to any request, which is often a frustrating delay to making decisions.
The Tanzanian understanding of personal space may be different from what expats are used to, and it’s quite normal to stand very close to someone when talking to them. Hand gestures and direct eye contact are also common, and expats should not be surprised if their associate puts a hand on their arm while talking to them.
Tanzanians don’t often show anger in public and the concept of saving face is important in Tanzanian society. It’s best to always speak calmly and to never show irritation or impatience in order to avoid offending associates. Never criticise a Tanzanian associate in public. If there is a disagreement it should always be discussed in private.
Dos and don’ts of business in Tanzania
Do always be punctual for meetings, even if it means having to wait for Tanzanian associates.
Do try to learn Swahili, even if it’s just a few key phrases. Although English is the main language of business, efforts to learn the local language will be highly respected.
Don't say or do anything that will cause an associate to lose face in public. Any disagreements should be discussed privately.
►Learn more about the business environment in Working in Tanzania
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