How to sell energy drinks in East Africa… and why Somalia is a big market

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For the last five years Kenyan-headquartered trading company Ocean Foods has been distributing the energy drink brand Shark across 11 countries in sub-Saharan Africa. The brand is manufactured in Thailand by the Bangkok-based Osotspa.

Ocean Foods is now planning to launch a plant in Africa, within the next 18 months, that will handle local packaging of the energy drinks. The factory is earmarked for either Kenya or South Africa.

“It will solve some logistical challenges, and it will save us costs and the problem of stockouts,” says Romana Chaudhry-Kamal, sales and marketing manager at Ocean Foods.

Currently Ocean Foods distributes a minimum of four containers of Shark energy drinks per month in well-performing markets like Kenya, while new territories, like Zimbabwe, absorb about one-and-a-half containers. The company also distributes to Somalia, South Africa, Djibouti, Uganda, Rwanda and Tanzania and Ethiopia. Shark energy drinks compete with brands such as Monster and Red Bull.

“We chose Shark because it has high quality, it has natural caffeine, and it is halal-certified, which is very important since there is a perception among the Muslim community that all energy drinks contain alcohol,” notes Abdi Mohammed, CEO of Ocean Foods. “We don’t only target Muslim customers, but we didn’t want to miss that one community. We target everyone.”

But there is tough competition, especially in Kenya and South Africa, where many other brands, some manufactured locally, have a large following.

“Kenya is a saturated market – with imported and locally manufactured products, margins are squeezed. We also have the emergence of cheaper products that are probably not of substantial quality, but they still have a market. There is a market for everything in Africa. But at least Somalia, Djibouti and Ethiopia is a bit of a Shark zone, although Red Bull too has a presence.”

Diverse customer preferences

Chaudhry-Kamal says energy drinks are gaining popularity among brand-conscious youth, and busy working people.

“These are people who are always in motion – they travel a lot, work late into the night, they indulge in sports, have a busy nightlife or they have to study at night. Some people want to be seen with Shark because they know it is a lifestyle brand and gives them a certain class.”

Shark is available in four variants, each designed to fit diverse customer preferences. For example, the Tanzanian and Zimbabwean markets prefer non-carbonated energy drinks.

“If there is a segment of our market that really drinks Shark in Africa it is the Somali community. One reason is that the product is halal. Second, most Somalis don’t indulge in alcohol, so they want to identify with something that’s clean and a lifestyle brand. We are doing well in Somalia, and even among our Somali community in Kenya.”

Fighting negative perceptions

Ocean Foods’ marketing strategy for Shark has focused on consumer education. Chaudhry-Kamal says most people want to know what they are consuming. There is also a need to counter negative perceptions against energy drinks, such as the belief that products are made using bull semen.

When marketing in the various countries it operates, Oceans Foods takes an approach that fits the local culture.

“The Somalis, for instance, are reserved, so how we present the product there is not too loud, too aggressive or sexual. It is toned down to fit the culture. When we go to Somalia our aim is just to tell them the product is halal.”

“In Kenya we market differently. Here I present Shark in a more social dimension. I tell people you can mix it with your alcohol or cocktails. It is what you want to be seen drinking at a movie premiere or a girl’s night out. I can’t use that in Somalia, but I can tell the women, ‘you can drink this with your husband – and he can have it as he chews khat (a plant that produces leaves which are consumed as a stimulant)’.”

Currently Shark products are sold in retail shops. But in coming months Ocean Foods plans to also deploy sales representatives in the streets of Nairobi, at bus termini and other busy locations in the mornings and evenings.

“We want to make the product available to consumers at the most convenient time,” says Chaudhry-Kamal.