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Why we need to focus on Africa

• Published on 04 Dec. 2012 • Category : nyforum

One of the most exciting phenomena of the past few years has been the swift and steady rise of the African continent. The region has experienced continuous growth, just as Europe and the US have faltered.

Africa’s rise creates new challenges for businesses, which must quickly educate themselves about its complex markets. This was something that Frank Braeken, executive VP of Unilever Africa, acknowledged in a recent interview. “We are still very much in learning mode about what the differences are within Africa,” he said.

Many outside investors have assumed that Africa’s potential derives mainly from the commodities boom and is primarily relevant, therefore, to oil and mining corporations. But that is far from true. Opportunities exist across retailing, telecommunications, banking, infrastructure and agriculture. Addressing the fact that African consumers have been neglected, Braeken noted: “I like to say that the African consumer has been underestimated, underserved and underserviced.”

Businesses need to conduct research and engage in learning about the continent. Africa cannot be viewed as a single monolithic entity; there is variation amongst consumers across the region. Outside investors will need to figure out how to give their businesses a local focus – to spend time investigating precisely how markets in east Africa may differ from those in the west.

Africa’s consumers have a complicated profile. It’s well known that the population is young and booming, and according to a recent report by McKinsey, today’s African consumer “has a smaller family, is better educated and higher earning, and is digitally savvy.” But the emerging middle class is just one facet of the whole picture, with opportunities abounding for firms that produce goods which appeal to lower class people.

There are of course ongoing challenges in the realms of infrastructure, social inequity and good governance. Further, African countries will need to foster education if they are to produce the next generation of engineers, accountants and businesspeople.

It’s clear that the path ahead will require plenty of learning, communication, and education on all sides. But right now, 84% of Africans surveyed feel optimistic about the future, and that’s something to support and to celebrate.

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