‘From America to Africa in the Digital Era’ Elfreda K. Sheriff on the Heart of Remote Consulting

Thursday April 12 2018

Elfreda K. Sheriff is the founder and CEO of Kilsah Consulting. Kilsah specialises in the provision of management and development consulting to African nations. Born and raise in Liberia, Elfreda travelled to the USA to for her college studies, and since graduation has called Atlanta, Georgia home.

The experience of growing up on the Africa continent, and thereafter studying and building a career in the United States provided Elfreda a rare combination of skills and expertise in which to found Kilsah, and run an authentically African consulting firm. Having ran the business partly-remote for a number of years, Elfreda is now set to make a permanent return to Liberia in July 2018.

This move will close one chapter of Kilsah’s story, and begin a whole new one its founder’s life.  Our team at TDB got in touch with Elfreda to learn more about what it’s like to run a digital remote business in the African region, what opportunities and challenges exist for the future of business across the continent.

 

EK: Thank you for speaking to us Elfreda. Kilsah Consulting is a distinctive business, and one with a distinctive mission. For that reason many people may identify different goals in its work.  So, as the founder and principal consultant, what do you define as Killah’s core goal?

 

Elfreda K Sheriff (EKS): At its core I think Kilsah is about working for Africa. About a love of Africa. As a consulting firm that specialises in international development, we provide a number of services obviously, but it’s always underpinned by growing Africa, and loving Africa. So I always make that point: what Kilsah does it not just about work and services – it’s a real mission.

Expanding beyond that point, Kilsah serves Sub-Saharan Africa. It is a full suite consultancy, that advises on development projects from design and implementation through to evaluation.

 

EK: Africa is a huge region, with over 50 countries, and a huge diversity of cultures. How does a consultancy navigate that?

EKS:  Well, we work across a diverse client book, but tailor our solutions to each and every one. And that’s pretty uncommon actually, because many people think Africa is a ‘one size fits all’, but it’s huge and diverse, and so it require diverse strategies. Nobody would say the US or European Union is that, so why would that work for a continent with 54 countries!

But I’ve a real advantage with Kilsah,  and Kilsah has a real advantage with my leadership. I was born in Liberia, I grew up in Liberia. After high school, I travelled overseas for study to Atlanta, Georgia, and then built a career outside the African region.

But my upbringing is with me forever, and it’s given me an understanding of what it means to be Liberian, and what it means to be African. That is always a big advantage at the start. I’m not saying nobody else can’t provide a good service, but I am African. I’ve grown up in Africa. I always find clients feel that really counts.

“many people think Africa is a ‘one size fits all’, but it’s huge and diverse, and so it require diverse strategies”

 

EK: Kilsah specialises in the African region, but it actually has an American component to it too. Can you tell us about that?

EKS: Sure. Kilsah is an African consultancy. It is as African as I am! But it is rare because of my experience in America. Originally I came here to study, and then worked here for many years before starting Kilsah.  It’s no secret that is not everyones cup of tea in Africa. There are still some unfortunate views around that think because I’ve gone to study in America, because I’ve worked in America, and yes because I’m a woman, that that means my expertise in Africa has somehow decreased.

But I always say the smart people know better! At the end of day, Kilsah can bring to African professionals and business an authentically African understanding, but also the real experience of seeing how things can work outside of Africa. We are able to create the blend of the world around us and still be specific to Sub-Saharan Africa.

Nobody says the United States does everything perfect – and I think sometimes Africa does things better! – but when it comes to things like transparency, accountability, and values like that, America has got a good system. The story of Africa is still being written, and Africans must write it, so nobody should be lecturing on the continent.

But if nobody is lecturing, it is always good to listen. And I find in the work Kilsah does, we meet our clients ‘as friends’, and show a way to deliver great results on a local level. When Africans take charge of a project with the understanding of how to implement locally what has worked well elsewhere, that’s always great.

 

EK: You touch on a difficult issue here but it’s important: the cultural divide. As someone that is a first generation African living in America and now running a consultancy in Africa, what’s the biggest trial you encounter in this balance?

EKS: I think no doubt it is the failure of both sides – if I can call it that – to understand each other. Like i said before, nobody should hop of a plane in Africa and start lecturing people on how things are done in other parts of the world. Africa is still growing, but the people of the region are incredibly talented and dedicated. Just because Africa’s story is still being written, doesn’t mean its OK for someone to take the pen and start demanding to edit the story!

But on the other hand, there are some things that America, Europe, and elsewhere do really well. Not perfectly, but really well. Near and dear to my heart, not only as an African woman but a businesswoman and entreprenuer, is the recognition of women’s equality on the continent. It’s not only a human right, its common sense – what team would ask half their players to sit down?

So put simply I think a bit more good faith all around would be really beneficial. Yes nobody in Africa should be lectured, but it’s never good to not listen. To just shut off any outside ideas. If the first group speaks try to really understand, the second group tries to really listen, real progress will come really fast.

And that’s really what Kilsah is all about, unifying perspectives to deliver a great result.

 

EK: The work you do is wonderful but someone might say ‘it also sounds needlessly hard. Why not just start a local consultancy in America?’ What would you say to them?

EKS: I’d say three things. Yes the work I do is hard, but Africa is part of my heart and soul. To quote Nkrumah, I am not African because i was born in Africa. I am African because Africa was born in me. I now identify as African-American ( African), though as a first generation African living in America it’s perhaps different from the regular use of that term!, so I love the United States too, and it’s a part of me also.  

But if anyone asks about the difficulty, I always ask them: would you feel it’s too difficult to try and build your family? Or build your home? Sure Africa has challenges, but every family and home does. It’s about facing them honestly, but with resolve they can be fixed.

The second point I’d make is its because that work is hard that I want to do it. If it’s too easy its not worth doing. And so that’s why I’m really always fine with saying to clients and people I work with: I don’t want photo ops. I don’t want Facebook likes. And while I’m a proudly a woman of faith, I don’t just want thoughts and prayers alone – I want action.

I measure Kilsah’s success by action. And that goes back to what I said at the start. It’s not just about growing a client book and paying the bills at the grocery store each week. It’s about developing  Africa, because it’s possible.

And the final thing I’d say is I have some terrific partners.  Africa’s population is 1.2 billion so I’ve plenty of inspiring entrepreneurs, professionals, and loving people around me. The sort of people that are proudly African, but could easily move to America, Australia, or whoever and quickly build friends and find success.

And that point is the most important of all. The work we do is difficult, it is hard at times, but it is also very inspiring and rewarding. With all respect to people who do something different for a career, I don’t think I could be at all happy professionally if I wasn’t doing what I’m doing now.  

So really, I don’t look at any difficult circumstances as something seperated from me. When someone becomes a client of Kilsah they become partners in the development of Africa, they become family, and their trials are shared.

 

“Africa’s population is 1.2 billion so I’ve plenty of inspiring entrepreneurs, professionals, and loving people around me”

 

EK: We have kind of circled this question but haven’t yet touched on it direct so let’s do that now. We talk of challenges in Africa, what do you mean specifically and what can be done about it?

EKS: To be blunt? Greed and corruption. One person or one family can have so much when others have almost nothing. And I know, I know, if one of those families hears I say this and they are greedy they’ll try and say my opinion doesn’t matter because I’m a woman, because I’ve lived in America, gotten a college education, or some other dumb excuse.

My opinion might not matter to them. But I know it matters to every other person in their community, that doesn’t have so much. That is really struggling. And that’s why I’m always ready to declare this and speak about this. Because this perception we see globally of the African region being unstable, or full of conflict – inequality is at the core of that.

You go to any neighbourhood in the world and give just one person or one family 99% of all resources and every community would have instability.

So what fixes this? It’s not easy. And it’s not just an African question of course. Its seen in all regions of the world. But I will say the more we bring people together, the more pressure is placed upon those who would be greedy, and those who would be corrupt.

As a proud Christian whose faith is very dear to me in my daily work, I always think of the beautiful quote that explains the purpose of the Bible. It’s there “to comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable”. We don’t need to take that literally of course – I hope anyone reading this interview right now is seated comfortably! – but anybody who has twenty gold rings on their hands when someone else in their community has no food in theirs should be uncomfortable.

And on the other hand, when you reverse that quote, you see how much good work can be done. That you always remind people progress is always possible, we can always build, and grow, and create. And that’s a personal comfort to me, and in my business something I use as a foundation for helping to grow businesses and deliver projects. As well as this, I always remind people the African continent has a vibrant energy to its movement and pace. Stop on any street and you’ll see so many people going in so many different directions! The future of Africa has so many paths we can travel.

Stop on any street and you’ll see so many people going in so many different directions! The future of Africa has so many paths we can travel.

 

EK: What’s the unique selling point of Kilsah in your mind?

EKS: Expertise. Real proven knowledge. Not just a textbook.  Sustainable long result.

I think I have three. The first is my real proven knowledge. I didn’t just decide to start studying Africa one day and pick up a textbook. I’m African, born and raised. My world has expanded as a adult to not also hold the United States dear to me, but that’s point one: I can bring authentic understanding.

Point two, I have real expertise in the field. With Kilsah I’ve worked in Africa with stakeholders, I’ve lived in the communities, and I can bring to day by day a rich foundation on which to draw options, and define the next direction.

And point three. I’ve the proven experience. I mean what I say, and I do what I say I’ll do. I think this is always really important in consulting. You’ve got to be able to point to results.

So when I say to you we specialise in  business development training can tell you about my work with of ten local businesses.And when i say we specialise in democratic development I can tell you about the project we’ve done with a human rights organisation.

 

EK: What is the biggest hurdle in managing something from Africa in Atlanta?

EKS: Two things I think. The first is the travel. We do have a really digital and accessible world of technology now, but when there are times I simply must have my feet on the ground in Liberia? Then it is still 5000 miles [8000kms] between Atlanta and Monrovia.

The second issue is internet access across Africa. It is pretty reliable and consistent in the United States, but less so across the continent. This delays progress at times.

Finally, time zones also remain an issue. At 4 hours difference between Atlanta and Monrovia it’s not too bad – but if I’m looking to connect someone in California with someone in Monrovia? – then suddenly that’s a 7 hour gap that can be more difficult.

Ultimately, none of these issues are unmanageable, but they do factor into my calculations about how to ensure a project successfully runs efficiently and without delay or disruption.

EK: Your mention of the internet raises a good point. What about issues for African eCommerce? There is much potential there. What holds it back?

 

EKS: I think this is actually a really important area to talk more about. If you look at the coverage of the Africa continent, many people talk about the growth of entrepreneurship and eCommerce as if its a philosophical or cultural process. And Sure, that can be a factor in certain communities and countries.


For the most part though, African entrepreneurship and eCommerce already has the talented professionals and creative skills to succeed on a global scale – but it often lacks the reliable infrastructure to really see it through.

“African entrepreneurship and eCommerce already has the talented professionals and creative skills to succeed on a global scale – but it often lacks the reliable infrastructure to really see it through.”

 

I’m talking about access to the internet, a consistent connection to that internet, and a reliable speed. Beyond that, it goes to issues like electricity, and sustainability of power. And these issues are really important event if they are ancillary to the internet connections itself.

If you don’t have sustainable power that means you are often required to cook every single day. Over each day of the week that can really add up to a lot of lost time that could’ve been used elsewhere, if someone was able to cook once a week and then refrigerate their food for later.

It can’t be overlooked there are deeper concerns here of course than just the business community. Access to basic needs must be a first and foremost priority by itself. But I feel this example does show a key element of all the issues that exist when it comes to talking about growing startups, and business hubs and so forth on the continent.

People lose a lot of time and energy they would otherwise have used elsewhere. So that’s why I always say Africans don’t need TED talks – they need practical solutions. If we can consistency build necessary infrastructure across the continent, the foundation will be there for growth of business in a really exciting way.

 

EK: What does a day in the life of Elfreda K. Sherrif look like?

Right now I’m in a pretty big construction phase as I prepare for my move to Liberia. But actually each day there is a pretty consistent routine to what I do.

Early Morning to Late-Morning

Research. Lots of research! If you are going to be a good consultant you have to be a leading authority in your industry. And I find I research best first thing in the early morning when my eyes are fresh.  Liberia is 4 hours ahead of Atlanta so sometimes I’ll take a client call that necessary due to time differences, but usually I try to keep the morning free.

Even when there’s not a specific area to research (which is really, really rare!),
Kilsah’s special devotion to working with Liberian-owned businesses, and women’s development groups, means I’ll use the early hours to build my knowledge further in these fields.

Late-Morning/Afternoon

Once I get into the late morning I will start making some cold calls. At the end of the day the best consultancies will always have a mix of existing and new clients. Every existing client is very treasured, but consultants also build their expertise by encountering new circumstances and experiences.

That’s why I think its a very important principle of business that consultants keep proactively trying to grow their client book. Usually I’m on the phone from 10am to 1pm or so, and the cold calls can be really diverse! Some of them are a quick ‘Hi, here’s what I’m doing, I’m just in touch to say hello…’ and that’s that!

But others quickly turn into a long conversation, as a client is ready to go right away once they hear what Kilsah can do for you. So I always know when I start my cold calls that no two days are ever the same. Around this time I’ll also have a lot of calls with existing clients to update them, and progress to the next stage of a project. Once calls are done regular project work begins.

Often a lot of progress has already been made on them with the research or a client call done earlier, but anything yet to be done will take place in this time. Like my research time, there’s always some flexibility here, but I am also a big believer in getting work done with strong focus. So I try to put the phone to the side for a while and really work hard and efficiently here.

Evening

Once the evening comes around  I will usually step away from the desk. There’s some rare exceptions now and then, but after dinner is family time. To unwind once the day is done, I’ll usually take a walk around my neighbourhood. No work is done in this time on paper, but like most consultants I use a bit of my spare time to write mental to-do lists, and begin thinking about what we I will work on tomorrow.

 

EK: How has the digital arena helped your business grow?

EKS: I think there’s no doubt the digital world has allowed my business, and all others like it, an ability to work in a way that would’ve been impossible a generation ago. Maybe even just ten years ago. There’s always something to be said for meeting face-to-face, but that’s not always possible of course.

So the digital world has meant I can reach out and build my client base effectively in Africa while living in Atlanta. And also while I am in Africa. I can seek out clients around the region too. I mean, Africa is huge! So even when I am there, actively growing business is not just about the local neighbourhood, it’s about the next city, the next country, and so on.

And I can note too, it’s often made business more efficient. I really like to be lean and efficient when it comes to consulting. I always have time for my clients, but know their time is precious.

So I think one of the advantages of the digital world is using something like Skype or Whatsapp means we are always in reach, but also able to progress matters when one party isn’t available.

Once upon a time you’d have to wait till someone is in their office at 9am to have a meeting. It drives my crazy to think of the amount of time that could be lost under the old system. People could be waiting days to progress on a really small matter! Now a quick video call can prepare us.

And I think my clients really value that. Some consultants can often drag things out and fail to progress things quickly because ‘oh we needed to have a big long meeting and have a long, long chat’. Sometimes of course something like that is necessary, but I think keeping the wheels in motion is important. That’s why the variety of communication tools I use has been so valuable in this way.

EK: What is a favourite digital app you use each day?

EKS: WhatsApp has really been incredible for me. I think it’s lost on alot of people what makes it special. I understand that for a lot of people it may seem similar to SMS or Facebook Messenger. But really it’s great because it essentially combines phone/text and voice calls.

I know other services can do that too, but not everyone will use Facebook or Skype or Co. In this regard, I’m always really pleased by the diversity of uses WhatsApp offers.

EK: You are now set to move back to Liberia in July of this year, and for the first time run Kilsah while living permanently in Africa. What will that change mean for your business day by day?

EKS: It’s going to be an interesting mix! It’s going to be wonderful to working in Liberia. I’ve been working for Liberia and Africa for many years, but now I will get to see day by day the positive changes we can make, as we progress a project step by step.

At the same time certain issues like internet connectivity and speed won’t dissapear, in fact they may become more difficult to deal with. And even though I will now be living and working in Liberia, beyond a certain point being ‘closer’ is a relative term given Africa is so big and vast. Lots of Skype calls, long plane flights, and the like will still be a common feature of my day by day work.

But that’s OK, I have factored that in, and ultimately the benefits of this move will far, far outweigh the positives. I’m proud of the work I’ve done while running Kilsah from Atlanta, but now I’ll get to run it on the African continent. And the potential that awaits is so exciting.

EK: What has been the most surprising thing about the work you do?// What is something about your role other’s might not often recognise?

EKS: Other people may look at this and think the situation is bleak. But I look at it and see its possible. I see it can be done.

And I also believe if we really put our heart into something and commit to, good results will follow and good people will be inspired to join you.

“Activism has no expiration date. Do the work now and keep doing it in future”

Elfreda K Sheriff is Founder & Principal Consultant at KilSah Consulting.
Elfreda can be contacted via elfreda@kilsahconsulting.com

 

Ed Kennedy is a journalist, ghostwriter, and web developer from Melbourne, Australia. Contact Ed via enquiries@edkennedy.co on LinkedIn or Twitter@EdKennedy01

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