26. October 2023

«For coopetition, we need to engage not only the head and the hands, but also the heart»

Today I am very excited to meet Cynthia Kauami, a lecturer in Management Sciences with a focus on Innovation, Creativity, Entrepreneurship and Coopetition at the Namibia University of Science and Technology (NUST) and a dear friend of mine. In this interview, she shares with us her in-depth knowledge and insights on coopetition among small businesses. She explores with us the overlooked cultural context of how we approach economic cooperation. Tune in to this interview and be inspired to learn how and why African entrepreneurs approach cooperation, especially with competitors, and what we can learn from them for our Western entrepreneurial thinking and management.

Thank you very much for taking the time for this "Human Facts meets". You are a true expert on cooperation and specifically on coopetition research, having dedicated your master's thesis on managing emotions in coopetition, which you wrote in Sweden, and having lectured specifically on innovation, creativity and entrepreneurship, among other modules, at NUST. You are currently in the final stages of your PhD research on coopetition in the Namibian context. As someone who is passionate about collaboration in an economic context, I can't wait to learn from your knowledge, insights and observations.

1. But before we dive in, would you mind telling us what coopetition is and what brought you to this topic?

Cynthia: I was first introduced to the topic of coopetition during my Master's studies at Umeå University in Sweden in 2005. I was fascinated by this paradoxical idea and how it brings together these two counterintuitive forces of cooperation and competition, and this prompted me to explore it in my master's thesis. In particular, how does it work emotionally to integrate the hostility associated with rivals in the same market - seeking to acquire and increase individual shares - and cooperation as a friendlier approach to pooling resources for mutual benefit? That's why my co-author and I focused on the role of emotions in coopetition in the tourist destinations of Tärnaby and Hemavan in northern Sweden. Our findings were surprising in the sense that an underlying cooperative bond between competing businesses (called coopetition) led them to manage their emotions more consciously, i.e. by, in a sense, "bringing intelligence to their emotions".

2. What still fascinates you: Was it specific suffering or specific benefits that prompted you to continue with this topic?

Cynthia: Especially from the perspective of living in an emerging economy, I was intrigued to explore whether coopetition could be a promising avenue for sustainable and equitable economic growth in the African context, by specifically strengthening the segment of social entrepreneurship.
So when I came back from Sweden with these hopeful insights, and continued to teach entrepreneurship to small businesses and students in Namibia, this issue always lingered in the back of my mind. I wondered how coopetition could be applied or help specifically in the context of Namibia, which has a market characterized by large enterprises and micro and small entrepreneurs, with very few medium-sized enterprises compared to the EU.
Knowing about the benefits of coopetition from a large body of research literature, it was clear that we needed to understand more about how coopetition unfolds in the African and Namibian context if we were to scale it up as a business strategy specifically for the benefit of a developing country. This motivated me to embark on a PhD, which is now in its final stages, on what drives it, how it emerges and why people would engage in it here in the Namibian context.

3. That sounds amazing, Cynthia. So, we will be keen to hear from your insights as soon as you have published them. Speaking more generally: What do you think we can learn from you having studied coopetition in both, the European and African context?

Cynthia: What I have learnt over the years is that context, and in particular social and cultural context, does indeed seem to matter if we want to fully understand why and how coopetition emerges. Most of the existing literature assumes that co-opetition emerges for economic reasons, which at first sight seem to be independent of context. When I looked more closely at coopetition and specifically at small business owners and entrepreneurs in the Namibian context, I learned that there also seem to be other, more non-economic reasons why coopetition occurs, which I call altruistic. Essentially, businesses would engage with each other collaboratively with the aim of helping, supporting and improving each other. This seems to be something that is rooted in our specific African context and culture, which can enrich our current understanding of coopetition, which is traditionally viewed through an economic lens.

4. What do you see as the main drivers of these non-economic altruistic motives?

Cynthia: While good and particularly altruistic qualities are inherent in every human being, the contexts in which we find ourselves bring them out in different ways and to different degrees. Because small business owners, in particular, are deeply embedded in the cultural context in which they operate, they tend to respond to its challenges, to be shaped by it, and to seek to shape it in turn. In Africa, for example, the concept of 'care ethics' is specifically rooted in our cultural and linked to the philosophy of ubuntu, an African communitarian ethic commonly practised in sub-Saharan Africa. Ubuntu comes from the Nguni languages of southern Africa and is also found in other Bandu languages, and is translated into English as 'humanity' or 'being human'. In my local Otjiherero language we speak of 'omundu', with the key virtues of tolerance, respect, compassion and sharing embodying this communitarian philosophy and defining life in a particular community. Living or growing up in such a context shapes your belief system, your moral compass and your behaviour, and this seems to carry over into your approach to business.

5. Based on your knowledge of coopetition so far: What would be your advice to small entrepreneurs on how to engage in coopetition?

Cynthia: When entrepreneurs consider coopetition as a strategy, the first thing they might be aware of is that it is a relational strategy, one that relies specifically on taking the time and care to develop relational assets. So it's about working out the mutual benefits and taking the time to engage in coopetition in a way that builds trust and longevity in the relationship. When it comes to choosing the area in which to collaborate, I would suggest starting with low-risk areas such as sharing knowledge or resources, referrals, joint marketing approaches or joint service delivery. If that works, you can move on to higher-risk areas such as joint product or technology development, or even joint entry into a new market. And third, be aware of the cultural tribe, community or context in which you are operating. How familiar your context is with engaging or building as a community in general will determine how open it is to coopetition efforts.

6. When there are more than economic reasons to coopete, how do you think we need to rethink management?

Cynthia: I believe that coopetition is undoubtedly a way to improve business and our economy. For coopetition, we need to engage not only the head and the hands, but also the heart. I think it's an important way to move away from a pure focus on profit to include humanity drivers in the equation to make businesses, markets and economies more sustainable. Corporate altruism was certainly brought to our attention during the pandemic. But we have always known that remarkable results have been reported when companies have adopted characteristics of care, solidarity, compassion and sympathy These are not just subjective approaches to business, but support a broader rethinking of management that is much needed in the midst of socio-economic and environmental challenges that require a different approach to business in general. In essence, I believe that altruistically driven coopetition is a critical strategy that could support the pursuit of Agenda 2063 for a prosperous Africa through inclusive growth and sustainable development.

7. Human Facts collects from every interview partner questions that had the power to change your live or your thinking. What is the question that you’ve been asked that changed your life?

Cynthia: In my case, it's not so much a question as a saying that one of my supervisors kept repeating in my early years of work, which was: "The day you stop learning, you stop living". I believe this statement has, in a way, set me on a journey of lifelong learning. I have developed an inquisitive mind that not only wants to learn, but wants to see how my learning can improve the lives of those around me. As a result, I have embarked on a career that helps to make a difference, not only by sharing knowledge, but also by putting my heart into the process to achieve tangible and hopefully lasting results.

8. And finally, is there anything left you would have loved I ask you – or that you would like to share?

Cynthia: Coopetition has opened up a lifelong, enlightening learning journey for me, where I have met great people who think differently and therefore approach business differently. It is my hope that by sharing these promising learnings, they can pave the way for small businesses in the Namibian and hopefully African and global contexts to achieve improved and sustainable businesses that address relevant challenges.

Thank you so much for your time, Cynthia, and for generously sharing insights from your deep knowledge of the contextual lens on coopetition.  I wish you all the best as you complete your PhD project, and I look forward to inviting you back to discuss your findings beyond Africa's borders in my guest podcast series in our Partnering Leadership Academy. I am so grateful that our paths have crossed and that you have helped me to broaden my horizons beyond European cultural boundaries.

I met Cynthia the first time at NUST Windhoek, where I was engaged as a volunteering guest lecturer for B360 education partnerships. We were both co-teaching coaching skills to managers at that time and this resulted in a continuous highly inspiring relationship among cooperation research fellows and management education colleagues. She makes part of the “Friends of Partnering Leadership Academy Council” and helped greatly to set-up the Partnering Corporation Charter. I am grateful for all the light and wisdom you spread so authentically, mindful, humble and generously into this world –  you are a great inspiration for me in listening and receiving with an open mind and heart.

*) Background of Ngunoue Cynthia Kauami (M.Sc.): Cynthia is a lecturer at the Namibia University of Science and Technology (NUST) and is currently pursuing a PhD in strategy and entrepreneurship. She teaches modules on Innovation, Creativity and Entrepreneurship (ICE), Operations Management and Corporate Finance. Prior to taking up a full-time academic role, Cynthia worked as Manager of Executive Education at Harold Pupkewitz GSB and as Project Officer at CED, NUST. In these roles, she coordinated and managed training programmes for industry executives and mentoring programmes for SMEs across Namibia. She is currently coordinating a DAAD Sustainable Entrepreneurship Education Exchange (SEEE) project in collaboration with the University of Kempten (HKE) in Germany and Nelson Mandela University (NMU). Cynthia recently co-authored a paper on African perspectives on social entrepreneurship research. The paper argues for the importance of context in social entrepreneurship and identifies four key issues that are considered to be misaligned with the African context.

Dr. Eva Bilhuber
Dr. Eva Bilhuber
Human Facts AG
Founder | Managing Partner
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