An African consumer revolution needs African leaders

Any business that is in Africa for the long term needs to become part of efforts to drive equitable and sustainable growth.

Frank Braeken

Frank Braeken is executive vice president of Unilever Africa

Doing this at the same time as developing new products to meet the rapidly changing needs of a growing, urbanising, and better connected population poses a unique business challenge. It also means the resulting pace of change in African markets is faster than at any time since Unilever first began producing its iconic African brands like Blueband and Omo over a century ago.

We need a new generation of visionary African business talent who can be the innovators and drivers of new business practice and help us meet this challenge. To train and inspire that new generation we also need new thinking about Africa in universities, politics and business circles. As business, we need to be driving the debate about improving that educational infrastructure. Unless we create more problem solvers, managers and thought leaders, Africa will remain dependent outside help and the latent energy of markets will go untapped.

We also need to break the perception of Africa as a single, unsophisticated, market best served by basic products. I believe the African consumer has been underestimated and under-served for far too long. This makes no business sense. It is the soft tyranny of low expectations – on a continental scale. My work across Africa has underscored to me time and again the enormous energy that can be released by sustainable business models. Too much business has been based on blunt assumptions about what people need and well meaning but unsustainable business models which simply do not take the African people seriously as consumers.

Let me give you the concrete example of hair care products, where the manufacturing world woke up some 20 years ago to the differences between Caucasian and Asian hair. The resulting brand differentiation and product development created a multi-billion dollar business category. During my career, I’ve seen this kind of shift in thinking create tremendous growth and build whole new economies and I want to repeat this experience in Africa.

But when I took over the helm at our Africa operations a few years ago, I found a different story. Black hair care products were more easily available in London or New York than in Abidjan or Nairobi and the concept was of “black” hair as though Africans were all physically and culturally identical. The list could go on from food to washing to personal care, with few companies bothering to tailor brands to different African tastes or develop better, safer and more nutritious products.

This is now changing and I’m particularly proud to be part of the team at Unilever that is playing its part in this revolution – not just in hair care but across the range of brands we make, from soaps and shampoos to soups and stock cubes. But there is more to do, we want to double our business sustainably, increase local sourcing and production, and accelerate the development of products tailored to different African markets and aspirations.

I would also go further and say the time has come to challenge the thinking, particularly prevalent in Africa, that the key to poverty reduction lies more in the business of development than in the development of business. I sometimes get the impression people feel that discussing sophisticated brands, products and markets is inappropriate in a continent where poverty is pervasive.

I can accept that many Africans don’t have much money. I can’t accept they are any less intelligent or sophisticated consumers than the rest of us. I do believe that by changing our perceptions we can engage with them to build sustainable and equitable new economies.

The best known example is mobile phones. Fifteen years ago, anyone suggesting an African villager could afford a mobile phone would have been considered crazy. These were not low tech products designed for rural Africa. In the end it didn’t matter, they might be high tech but they created a whole new economy because they met people’s needs. I want to drive the same kind of revolution in retail trade. Modern business thinking can drive economies of scale, consumer understanding and product development to provide what poor people want and, by so doing, create new markets.

I see Africa as the new generations of Africans see it – a growing, thriving and vibrant market with a population soon to rise to over 1 billion people. If we limit our ambition to the status quo then we’ll miss this demographic dividend. Business thrives by creating new markets. In turn this builds economies, employs young people, generates money and stimulates entrepreneurs. What can do more to reduce poverty and build self esteem?

Let me return to the people we need to do this. The key to realising our vision is clever people not clever technology. At Unilever we see Africa as a place of inspiration and opportunity, a place for people with a passion for business and a springboard for exciting careers. This means applying the highest standards of management, ensuring talent based recruitment and promotion. This means getting the message out and inspiring people to see the Africa of the future not the stereotypes of the past.

Frank Braeken is executive vice president of Unilever Africa. This article was first published in ‘New Africa: From Growth to Jobs’, a publication by Business Action for Africa.