Inside Africas consumer revolution

Updated: Nov 16 2012, 08:30am hrs
David Fine

Nowadays, Africas economic potentialand the business opportunities that go with itis widely acknowledged. Poverty and unemployment are still more widespread than in other emerging markets, but accelerating growth since 2000 has made Africa the worlds second-fastest-growing region (after emerging Asia and equal to the Middle East).

With rapid economic growth have come more prosperous consumers and vice versa: 45% of Africas total GDP growth in the 2000s (before the financial crisis erupted in 2008) came from consumer-related sectors of the economy. It is expected that, by 2020, more than half of African householdsalmost 130 millionwill have discretionary income to spend (or save), up from 85 million today.

Moreover, Africa has the worlds fastest-growing populationand the youngest, with more than half under 20 years old, compared to 28% in China. The UN estimates that the continent will account for more than 40% of global population growth through 2030, with the working-age population expected to surpass that of China by 2040.

Given these trends, the continents consumer industries are expected to grow a further $410 billion by 2020more than half the total revenue increase that all businesses are expected to generate in Africa by the end of the decade. But, for many companies entering Africa or seeking to expand there from a local base, the challenge now is to obtain a better understanding of the market and its consumers.

In one of the first studies of its kind, the McKinsey Africa Consumer Insights Center surveyed 13,000 individuals from 15 cities in 10 of the continents 54 countries in 2011 and 2012. The ten countriesAlgeria, Angola, Egypt, Ghana, Kenya, Morocco, Nigeria, South Africa, Sudan, and Tunisiaaccounted for 81% of Africas private consumption in 2011. But, throughout the continent, market opportunities for consumer-facing companies are concentrated more in cities than in particular countries.

Indeed, with 40% of its population living in cities, Africa is more urbanised than India (30%), and nearly as urbanised as China (45%). By 2016, more than 500 million Africans will live in urban centres, and the number of cities with more than one million people is expected to reach 65, up from 52 in 2011 (on par with Europe and higher than India and North America). This development is critically important for consumer companies. Urban household spending in Africa is increasing twice as fast as rural spending, with urban per capita incomes, on average, 80% higher than those of countries as a whole.

Befitting the continents strong macro trends, the survey found a high degree of optimism among urban African consumers: 84% of respondents expect their households to be better off in two years. Sub-Saharan Africans are the most optimistic97% of Ghanaians, for example, expect to be much better off in two years. (For North Africans, however, that figure drops to only 10-15%, which is unsurprising given the uncertainty generated by the regions recent political turmoil.)

Overall, consumers are increasing their spending across most retail categories. Up to 30% of the more optimistic consumers in some countries say that they are shopping more frequently and purchasing new and more expensive products. And half of all respondents claim to make daily sacrifices to save for major expenditures. This suggests that companies offering cheap, poor-quality, unbranded products are unlikely to succeed in the long term. For apparel consumers, for example, quality is second only to price when choosing a store, and second only to fashion when choosing a specific item. And, in both North and Sub-Saharan Africa, brand loyalty is strong, averaging 58%.

But quality and brand must be delivered at the right price. Even though Africans value brands and product quality, affordability remains crucial. To succeed, companies should work to reach consumers price points through a combination of product re-engineering (such as removing low-value-added features), smaller package sizes, and low-cost operating models.

Moreover, timing is crucial when choosing where to play. Demand for consumer products typically follows an S-curve. As incomes rise, categories reach a takeoff point where demand accelerates by 3-5 times. At higher levels of income, markets become saturated and growth slows. Different products and categories enter the hot zone at different moments: those with low price points, such as snacks and beverages, typically take off relatively early; beauty products somewhat later; and luxury goods, such as branded fashion, later still. Not surprisingly, in most African markets, few categories have entered the slower-growth chill-out zone.

This is where understanding opportunities at a city level is vital. Country-level planning and resource allocation is still the rule for most businesses operating in Africa, resulting in inefficient allocation of human and capital resources. By creating detailed profiles of the most promising urban opportunities, companies could target their investments more effectively.

Identifying growth hot spots is only the start. Substantial differences among and within Africas countries imply the need for a much deeper and finer-grained understanding of consumer preferences and affordability profiles by product category. Likewise, many markets are still in early stages of development, and must be built through concerted consumer education and trial.

Here, Africas youth merit special attention: the survey found that the 16-34 age group already accounts for 53% of income in urban centres. Young peoples consumption habits are quite different from their elders. They are more than twice as likely to search for information online and to seek products and stores that reflect the right image. They are also more educated, with 40% of 16-24 year-olds having completed high school, compared with only 27% of the 45-and-older group.

These characteristics point to a major change in African consumption habits as this cohort ages, its incomes increase, and its behaviours and decision criteria become the societal norm. Many companiesparticularly multinational firms accustomed to old and ageing populations in the advanced countrieswill have to adapt accordingly.

The author is a director at McKinsey & Company and leads McKinseys office in South Africa

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2012