Postcard from Colombia: Challenging yet exciting times for Aussie expats

John Mannion is an Advance member based in Latin America

John Mannion Contributor

There’s a buzz of change in the air in the Latin American region. We aren’t sure exactly what type of Latin America will emerge from the wreckage of COVID but despite tragedy, there are silver linings to be celebrated. Many see the pandemic as a speed-bump in long term growth trajectory. From the context of ‘the now’ however, that molehill can feel like a mountain.

Plunging into Latin America as my first regional international management role would have been no simple task, even in the best of times. A decade in marketing and brand management had not prepared me. Adding layers like attempted mastery of Spanish, a recession and a global pandemic to the mix and the challenge is very sharp and confronting. In Colombia, lockdowns, airport closures, demonstrations and restrictions on movement have all been taxing, but the worst is by far the dreaded ‘picu y cedula’ system, limiting grocery days by ID number. In the face of hardship, I have had to ‘roll with the punches’ as they say.

The professional and personal challenges here however, have proven to be great personal growth opportunities. Such experiences have birthed a deep sense of resilience and flexibility and I carry this through with me to a professional level. Setting up a new business in Latin America from scratch for my Australian employer, has now seen me pioneer an expansion of our viral immunity products into Colombia, Mexico, Central America, Ecuador and Brazil. I have been supported by Austrade and the Australian business community whose help has been vital.

In Colombia, the Australian community holds on strong and it’s nice to connect over that uniquely Australian sense of humour. It’s nice to feel at home in the strange new world we’re living in, even if we’re connecting more digitally than in person.

Socially, the major communities in the region; Colombia, Mexico and Chile, all have their own Australian Facebook pages and we are connected digitally through professional Australian Latin American networks like Somos21. Despite the challenges, many Australians have decided to stay due to a long-term upwards outlook. There’s still a sense that us expats are helping to form part of the economic modernisation of Latin America. I have heard Latin America described as feeling like China before the boom, and I think this can only be accelerated by Latin America’s furious digitisation of society over the past months. Latin Americans are very resistant to hardship and no stranger to re-invention. In Latin America, several industries remain stubborn to growth through technology. A culture built on face-to-face contact is also growing increasingly comfortable on Zoom and Teams, changing the way organisations interact. Furthermore, many government institutions have been forced to adopt digital systems rather than paper based systems, which will inevitably decrease government bureaucracy and traditionally onerous processes.

While the catastrophic impact of COVID-19 has been felt on all levels of society in Latin America, there are silver linings. The long-term post-pandemic indication is positive and I strongly believe many countries will revert to a path of growth. Reinventing society and bouncing back from hardship is part of the very DNA of Latin Americans and the recovery from Covid will be no different. It’s a challenging yet exciting time to be an Australian expat on the ground.

Connect with John

John Mannion is an Australian entrepreneurial marketing and sales manager based in Bogota, Colombia. Make sure you connect with him on LinkedIn if you are thinking about a career in the Latin American region, or in any developing economy around the world.