COMMENTARY: Getting to know you

If the world wants to be here, it must understand Africans I have been in Africa nearly 20 years and I never tire of the surprises this Continent produces.
Chris Harrison
Chris Harrison

If the world wants to be here, it must understand Africans

I have been in Africa nearly 20 years and I never tire of the surprises this Continent produces. In the words of the Grandma in the movie ‘Parenthood’, I’ve always liked to ride the rollercoaster. That’s why I am still here. But I understand that soon we’re going to be joined by all sorts of new people, companies and brands.

For a variety of reasons, some cosmetic, some genuine. And some because right now there aren’t many places in the world you can turn a buck.

A good friend from Ghana recently sent me a marvelous picture for my office wall. It is made up of six front covers of The Economist, from this century. And it charts our perceptual process from 2000 (Headline: The Hopeless Continent) to 2011 (Headline: Africa Rising).

According to the UK newspaper The Independent, Africa is experiencing its longest income boom for 30 years. Gross domestic product growth rates here have averaged about 5 per cent annually over the past decade. Even in 2012 (as markets elsewhere collapse) the Continent’s income is projected to increase by around 4.5 per cent. International Monetary Fund forecasts also show that seven of the world’s 10 fastest-growing economies will be African, with Ethiopia, Mozambique, Tanzania, Congo, Ghana, Zambia and Nigeria expected to expand by more than 6 per cent a year until 2015.

So the world is starting to take notice: trade between Africa and the rest of the globe increased by 200 per cent between 2000 and 2011. As well as the usual exports of oil, natural gas and minerals, the sale of African-manufactured goods is also increasing. Over the past ten years, African manufactured output has doubled.

So welcome, World. But understand that even as you plan your entry strategies, we here in Africa continue to change. Best you keep up to speed with whom we are – especially when it comes to the practice of marketing. And luckily for you there are plenty of research companies here taking an interest in wider issues than sanitary practices and traditional parenting techniques.

Some of them have evolved out of the aid culture, but others are new to here and freshly commercial in their approach. Take Nielsen ( for example, who have just published a strong piece of work entitled ‘The diverse peoples of Africa’.

In fact the weakest part of the report is its title, which makes the reader fear he is dipping into a travelogue, bloated with whimsy. But the content is pragmatic, and focuses on brand usage and media consumption.

As Africa is made up 54 distinct countries, each containing societal anomalies originating in the colonial era, it is easy for a marketer to roll their eyes at the scale of the task, Helpfully; Nielsen begins by talking about similarities.

‘While diversity defines the African consumer, traditional attitudes and beliefs centered on family, affordability, loyalty, history and planning for the future are core themes that permeate the lifeblood of the African consumer and strongly influence buy and watch behaviors.’ Says the study

On the media front, while TV and radio dominate the airwaves in the countries studied with penetration levels of 90 percent and 87 percent, respectively, mobile technology is rapidly growing and keeping pace. The mobile phone has become a cornerstone for connection among 86 percent
of respondents who use the technology primarily for text messaging. No mention of Internet here, but from other sources we know that young Africans are using mobile to access the world community of knowledge faster than anyone before.

Nielsen goes on to profile three tiers of customers marketers will have to get to know. They looked at how people in these tiers consume packages goods and how that relates to their monthly income and expenditure.

Let’s take a closer look at these tiers next week.

Chris Harrison is Chairman Young & Rubicam Group Africa

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