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Doing business in Tanzania

by: Susan Wachira-Nyika, Associate Partner of Hofstede Insights

The United Republic of Tanzania is the largest country in East Africa and covers a total of 948,740 square kilometers [1]. Tanzania's estimated population of about 59 million people is unevenly distributed among its 32 regions. The northern border and eastern coast (Dar-es-Salaam, Mwanza, Arusha, Zanzibar city, and Tanga) are densely populated with about 80 percent of the population residing there, while about 20 percent of the population live in rural areas. Tanzania has a tropical climate with temperatures ranging from 10 degrees Celsius to 20 degrees Celsius. The rainiest months run from March to May. while October to December is a cooler season with less rain. 

Gaining an understanding of the country's geographical location, a sense of its population distribution and the ideal time to visit a country is good information to know for entrepreneurs interested in doing business in Tanzania. The government of Tanzania has continued to take many steps to liberalise its economy and foster a welcoming business climate [2].


The four most important things to keep in mind when doing business in Tanzania

  1. Respect (heshima) is expected in all levels of business settings, and it is a way of life in Tanzania. Society shows a lot of respect to those in power. The boss is admired and commands a lot of respect by the sheer status of the position they hold in the office. Women's modesty is expected and respected. The elderly in society are cherished. At the office, people address each other by their surnames or married names. It is important to greet the most senior (in age and/or status) person in the room first. 

  2. Verbal contracts (mkataba) are very common. Contracts among Tanzanians are made in front of a witness (e.g. family, relatives, spouse, neighbours) that is trusted and respected by both parties. The common belief is that the borrower is beholden to society and will stand to bring shame to the family if they do not keep to the verbal contract. The honour system rules. Written contracts are commonly applied for large scale projects, and it is advisable to solicit the services of a lawyer.

  3. Money (pesa) discussions are held in private. This includes debt collection discussions.  It is impolite to ask someone what they do for a living and their compensation package. 

  4. Business structures are hierarchical, and status is cherished. Decision-making can take a long time as most decisions are made at the top, and subordinates are often reluctant to question authority openly and directly. When doing business in Tanzania, it is important to be patient and allow time for the indirect communication style. Often, Tanzanians are reluctant to give an outright "no" or "yes" to any question. 

What to look for in a good partner

Tanzanians will prioritise the ability to forge good relationships over everything else. Who you know matters considerably. Society will judge you based on who you know and the company you keep. Relationships are groomed over a long period so as to understand their business counterpart's behaviour and character.

Some examples of desired behaviour valued by society include:

  • Ability to invest in the community and watch over your fellow villagers. Anyone who embodies the udungu spirit (brotherhood) is worth knowing and doing business with. Teamwork is valued. 

  • Someone who values work-life balance. Tanzanians enjoy and value social time with family and friends, and in any business setting, time should be allowed for both. Rigid schedules are perceived to be unproductive. 

  • Tanzanians judge a person by their personality and one's ability to save face. It is important to avoid humiliating situations and control one's anger in public.


Desirable characters in a business partner include:

  • Honesty (uaminifu).

  • Reliability is key. Although Tanzanians follow Swahili time and might get to meetings late, they are reliable and take deep pride in keeping to the honour system.

  • Risk-averse. Most people are frugal. Risks are well calculated, and most people are risk-averse. 

  • Integrity (uadilifu) is admired and deeply rooted in society. 

Bureaucracy is high. The process of obtaining any government permits or authorisation often takes a very long time and requires a lot of documentation. Having a business partner with status in the community will help pave and speed up the process.

Tanzania is a multilingual country with most people speaking Swahili and their local tribal language. English is mainly used in business settings. When looking for a business partner, it is important to partner with someone that understands both languages. Partnership with someone who also knows and understands local tribal customs is desirable.


Conducting Business

The work week is Monday to Friday. Office hours are usually from 8am to 5pm. Lunchtime break is often between 12 noon and 2pm. 

Conducting formal meetings in Tanzania takes the normal format with a few notable nuances:

  • Face-to-face meetings are preferred over electronic communication. Arriving in an office unannounced without a scheduled appointment is very common.

  • It is routine and acceptable for people to leave and/or enter the conference room when a meeting is still going on.

  • Most Tanzanians carry one or more cell phones (a phone for each of the cell phone carriers with a reliable network). Most people will indicate which of their phones to call them on.  Phone calls take precedence over all other business. It is socially acceptable for the boss to answer calls during meetings or presentations. 

  • During business presentations, the norm is that all questions will be asked after the presentation.

  • Tanzanians conduct business at a slower pace than most foreigners are used to. The slow pace (pole pole pace) allows for socialisation.

Since business is conducted both in English and Swahili, it is advisable to learn Swahili. This article has included a few Swahili words in context to get you started in your journey to learning Swahili. 

In formal and informal meetings, avoid religious and political discussions

The business culture in Tanzania is traditional and male-dominated, and very few women hold executive roles. On the other hand, in some sectors, women are slowly beginning to hold high-ranking positions. For example, Her Excellency Samia Suluhu Hassan is the first female president of Tanzania who took office on March 17th, 2021. The government has increased the number of women seats in parliament [3]. Many more women are business owners (e.g. restaurants, grocery shops, etc.) and are actively pursuing professional development opportunities. Women account for 70 percent of the food production [4]. At home, women continue to manage a larger percentage of the day-to-day running of the home (e.g. cleaning, raising children, cooking, and caring for the elderly). When doing business in Tanzania, it is advisable to acknowledge the invisible contribution of the women (silent partner) and recognise that they are often consulted on key business decisions in some cases.


Business Entertainment / Meals

Business networking and building good relationships is crucial to successful business undertakings. Business networking is often done over a meal at a restaurant or in a home setting. It is important to be aware of the cultural dining etiquette and to set time aside to eat with friends.

Tanzanians are warm, friendly, kind, love good humour, and are hospitable. When invited to someone's home for a meal, remember to take a gift to your host. Most common gifts include a basket (kikapu) of fruits, or an assortment of grocery items is commonly acceptable. A token from one's own country is also a good option.  Gifts of wine, flowers, and chocolate are typically not common gift options. Flowers should be avoided as they are normally given as a sign of condolences.

It is customary to remove your shoes upon entering your host's home. This shows a sign of respect.

There is a degree of predictability in the type of food that is commonly served in mainland Tanzania and Zanzibar. Some common dishes include rice (pilau), polenta (ugali), chicken (kuku), beef, goat (mbuzi), spinach (mchicha), banana dish (ndizi), and French fries omelette (chips mayai).

In most dining settings, table manners are relaxed. It is customary and acceptable to eat using your fingers even when cutlery is available. Washing of hands before meals and after is expected. Do not pass on food even if you are not hungry. Try and sample each dish served - this will please your host.

The dining etiquette in Tanzania celebrates the traditional culture (utamaduni) that has been passed down from one generation to another. 

  • Communal eating is common in Tanzania. Family meals are served on a big platter, and people eat by hand (right hand). Hands must be washed before and after meals. Eating seated on the floor on a carpet (mkeka) or on a small stool is also very common. 

  • Although all restaurants provide cutlery, learn to take a relaxed approach to table manners. If everyone else is eating with their figures, do the same even if cutlery is available. 

  • Those in high status tend to have higher expectations for refined table manners. In certain ways it is considered a sign of status and wellbeing. 

Music is integral to Tanzanians. Gospel, hip-hop, jazz, Taarab and tribal music are celebrated year-round. With music comes dancing. Tanzanians love to dance and are great dancers. For week-long seminars or workshops, it's advisable to incorporate music/dance on the agenda. The Sauti za Busara music festival is an annual social event that is a great opportunity to connect with local artists and is a great team-building activity. 

How to manage people and build trust

Building trust is the key ingredient to people management. The trust factor is forged slowly over time by engaging in social events (e.g. attending church events, market days, Zanzibar International film festival, business exhibitions such as the Dar es Salaam International Trade Fair or Saba Saba Day, soccer games, etc). Personal relationships are also groomed by attending social events. 

Tanzania is a highly collective, hierarchical society. Grievances are best handled in private. Acknowledgement of people in power (boss) is important and expected, and teamwork and achievement is more important than individual achievement. 

Managing people requires paying close attention to social and cultural norms. Managers should be aware that public confrontation is regarded as humiliating. A manager should allow for time to unfold. Managers should be aware when meeting/workshop agendas are packed with aggressive schedules. 

Managers are socially respected and valued if they are educated, have the necessary business experience, possess people skills, and most importantly have a high work ethic (mchapa kazi).


Showing Cultural Sensitivity

Be especially careful to understand the role religion, including traditional beliefs, plays with your potential business partner and in society. Tanzanians are religious and live harmoniously with each other in tribal and religious diversity. Respect local tribal customs and rituals.  Carve out time for the team to celebrate religious holidays (e.g. Easter Holiday (Pasaka), Eid-Ul-Fitr, etc.) and religious practices (Ramadan, Lent, etc). 

Indirect communication is culturally acceptable. Proverbs (methali) are sometimes used to impart wisdom on sensitive subjects or celebrate acceptable behaviour or character. For example: “there is no bad patience” (Hakuna subira mbaya ), “savings never go bad” (Akiba haiozi), and “a hasty person misses the sweet things in life” (mwenye pupa haridhiki kula tamu).


Short Case Study

Names used in this case study are fictitious.

Mr. Turner arrived in Dar es Salaam from England to attend several business meetings. He had a packed agenda, and his goal was to accomplish everything on his agenda. Mr. Turner believes in the motto "work first, then play." 

Mr. Musa, the general manager hosting Mr. Turner had prepared for months for the arrival of Mr. Turner.  He had lined up a series of fun entertainment events to attend with Mr. Turner. He had planned to introduce Mr. Turner to his close friends and business associates over a home-cooked meal at his residence. He had even planned for a safari adventure. 

Mr. Turner did everything possible to ensure he was productive, and he stuck to his agenda. When Mr. Musa noticed that his "boss" was working very hard and serious about all the items on his agenda, he quietly (to save face) cancelled all the fun events he had prepared and worked long hours along with Mr. Turner and the rest of the team. Mr. Musa did not want to appear like he was not a team player.

Even when the team had an opportunity to eat out, Mr. Turner strongly expressed his preference for eating only in high-end, international standard restaurants.

Key takeaways:

  • Mr. Turner missed a great opportunity to network and forge a great relationship with Mr. Musa and the team. Instead, Mr. Turner was more concerned about following his agenda and checking off his to-do list.

  • By preferring to eat only in high-end restaurants, Mr. Turner missed a great opportunity to experience the local cuisine, eateries, and local hospitality vibe.

  • Mr. Turner should have slowed down and taken things pole pole. (slowly, slowly). 


References and interesting links

[1] National Bureau of Statistics. The Statistical Abstract (2019) Retrieved from (19-36)

[2] Ministry of Industry and Trade (September 18th, 2021)

[3] United Republic of Tanzania. Parliament of Tanzania (2021) Retrieved from 

[4]Tanzania National Bureau of Statistics. Statistics for Development. (September 18th, 2021) 

World Bank Group. Doing Business In Tanzania (2020) Retrieved from  

Tanzania Revenue Authority (September 18th, 2021)

Hofstede Insights - National Culture (2021, August 10) Retrieved from 

Geert Hofstede, Gert Jan Hofstede, & Michael Minkov (1991). Culture and Organisations Software of the Mind. Intercultural Cooperation and Its importance for survival

Quintin W. (2009) Culture Smart. The essential guide to customs and culture. Tanzania, Great Britain, UK: Kuperard


Last updated: 10.11.2021 - 17:36
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