Willy Yav is the co-founder and chief commercial officer of PYGMA, a Pan-African communication, property, telecom and policy consulting firm that works in more than 15 Sub-Saharan African nations.

Knowledge at Wharton: What is the PYGMA Group?

Willy Yav: PYGMA is [an acronym for] five best friends. Paul [Kasseyet] was educated in Canada and Belgium in finance and came back to Congo. Yav is my family name. I was a journalist, media guy, who grew up in the Congo. I went to South Africa and [after going] through struggles started working at the [South African Broadcasting Corporation] — in radio first and then on television.

G [stands for Jean Pierre Sempabwa Gatarayiha, who] is my best friend; he’s Rwandese. He’s an architect trained in South Africa. M is Mandla [Msimang], because it was becoming a bit of a man thing. She’s actually our best friend. She’s a Canadian citizen. She specializes in utility regulations. And Alain [Yav], my brother — marketer, ex-Proctor & Gamble and Cadbury — has trained and worked in South Africa.

We decided one day to do something together instead of only hanging out and partying. We created a company with our initials. We tried something which was to represent Levi’s jeans. We sold to the Levi’s group the possibility of bringing them to Nigeria. I went to Nigeria, researched it and tried to come up with a model that could work.

Knowledge at Wharton: Why Nigeria?

Yav: It’s a big market and Congo was not as dynamic at the time. Nigeria was where Congo is today. So I ended up being there and doing my research. We came up with some conclusions. There were fakes in the market — Wrangler, sold by the Lebanese. There was no way we could bring Levi’s into the market unless the company agreed to give us the lower range [products] at special prices. They didn’t accept, so we left it. Then we decided to do our own business.

“We decided one day to do something together instead of only hanging out and partying. We created a company with our initials.”

We started an advertising agency. Why? Because we had no capital. We were all doing quite okay, but we were employees. Not me. I was already in the private sector. I owned a small television production company. I was also doing some advisory work, introducing people to Africa. That’s what I’ve always been doing. I have good relationships with a lot of people in different African countries. I have been in 30 different African countries in the past 24 years.

Why DRC (Democratic Republic of Congo)? Because that was a market. That was a low-hanging fruit. It’s our country.

It took a year [for us] to become the biggest advertising agency in the country. Coming from a low base, we shouldn’t brag about it. That was normal. But we brought in proper advertising. I had to convince my brother, who’s a strategist marketer, to come in and do this.

We created advertising — the modern advertising worked in the DRC. It was based on the fact that we believe in skills. My brother would take local guys and train them. We were investing in people, sending them for training. More importantly, we were recruiting people from abroad, a lot of them Congolese back from the diaspora.

It was a difficult model because as soon as the market started catching up, these people became more important. We’d get him for $2,500. You invest in him for two years. And two years later he becomes so important to the market that he wants $7,000. That you can’t absorb in your model.

Knowledge at Wharton: Who were your clients and what kind of campaigns did you do?

Yav: The biggest client we had during that time was Celtel. That’s Zain today. That was a pan-African telecom group. And we became their agency in the DRC. We also had Heineken.

Alain, my brother, brought in Kris Luckraj, a South African of Indian descent, as creative director. Alain fought with us and said, “Guys we can’t have an advertising agency without a creative director. It’s crazy, like having a restaurant without a chef.”

So he brought in Kris who became our partner at 13% of the advertising group. Kris was a genius. We used to call him the guru. [He took a] Heineken … beer called Primus from 30% of the market to 70% of the market in two and a half years. They just killed the competition.

“The Congo I went to 13 years ago and the Congo today are two different countries.”

Knowledge at Wharton: How?

Yav: Strategy. Understanding what was happening on the ground.

Knowledge at Wharton: What was the strategy?

Yav: The most important thing that came out of this was that we discovered, and Alain said, this is the base of marketing. Don’t change what works; don’t try to come up with your own way of seeing things as the best way. Adapt what the consumers like; just make it proper. Package it in the best way possible. Really understand the real market. Go from knowledge zero and look, learn. There are 70 million people there that have been living without you for years.

Knowledge at Wharton: How has your business transformed? How have you taken those lessons that you’ve learned in advertising and marketing to other sectors?

Yav: Our motto is local knowledge, global standards. It took years, but we started trying a lot of different things.

Knowledge at Wharton: Give us some sense of the range of your projects. How many employees do you have and are they spread out in the DRC and South Africa and elsewhere as well?

Yav: In South Africa, we only have eight consultants. It used to be a bit more. But we’ve reduced because the model has changed into making them associates, which is easier. We had an office in Washington with a partner helping us to channel business from America.

In advertising, it is around 200 people. But we’re going to downsize because we’re changing our model. Advertising is now very vibrant in the DRC; competition is high. We’re moving towards production. We do big shows, we do a lot of reality TV shows and things like that that are relevant. Production quality is as good as on international TV. But it is relevant to the people; it has to touch their soul.

Knowledge at Wharton: As someone who’s had as much experience as you’ve had in business, what is it that you would want readers — who don’t have experience in Africa, but are interested in business in Africa — to understand about Africa today and where things are going?

Yav: I guarantee you this continent will be different in the next 10 years. Within the next 20 years, it’s going to be dramatically different. Why? Because the Congo I went to 13 years ago and the Congo today are two different countries. I’m telling young Africans, open your eyes without emotions and face the reality of the challenges. That’s where the growth is. That’s where the opportunity is.

Knowledge at Wharton: So you’ve emphasized the opportunity. What are the important challenges that need to be overcome in the DRC, or you can pick other countries?

Yav: In Africa, the challenge is the mentality of the old guard. It’s not their fault. They came from colonization. (But) even the worst president in Africa today thinks of building roads. He didn’t have to before.

(I tell people,) you are younger, you’re an entrepreneur, you wake up in the morning, look at the difficulties, look at your abilities, be realistic, pick what you believe you can achieve better. Fight for it. Believe in it. Work on it. Be honest about the difficulties. Share it with other people.

Stop looking at little … borders. We don’t plan, at PYGMA, with [borders or roadblocks in mind, but] we respect them because they are a fact. But we plan knowing that they won’t be there soon.