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March 13th, 2018

(Re) Defining the African Consumer // MARKET RESEARCH

Article originally published on linkedin by Elizabeth Buckley Recruitment Consultant at Millar Cameron


The Oxford Business Forum for Africa 2018 began and ended with questions to be answered.  

As the forum began on Saturday morning, the entrance hall of the Saïd Business School bustled, as bright MBA students, aspiring entrepreneurs, researchers, investors, and speakers arrived. Everywhere I looked there was networking already going on over the first coffee of the day.  

(I also cannot deny that everyone looked very sharp in their business attire, and a wide range of traditional dress was also on display which made me feel rather underdressed in my black suit and brogues!)  

The forum opened with Barati Mahloele- one of the co-chairs of the event- quoting Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie “stereotypes are bad, not because they are wrong, but because they lack knowledge.” The African consumer is therefore not something which can be simply understood or explained. Each panel of the forum dissected and analyzed the term ‘African consumer’, with speakers emphasizing time and time again that the assumptions held about African consumers, are dangerous. It is not enough to analyze the needs of the African middle class, as this ignores the ‘bottom of the pyramid’- a group which was consistently emphasized throughout the forum. This group of consumers has been portrayed as vulnerable, misguided, and undereducated in the past- something which simply isn’t true when it comes to the ways in which money is spent. As Dougie Brew- from Unilever Africa- rightly pointed out, when you are making $10 a day, or even $10 a week, you are very aware of where you can get the best value and the best services. Leading on from this later in the day, Lynette Ntuli from Innate Investment Solutions proposed that “African consumers are globally minded, but locally influenced” (and hence, business really needs to understand local need).   

As Yvonne Ike, from Bank of America Merrill Lynch rightly stated, the question of whether Africa is rising or not is a boring question. The issue now- according to Yvonne- is related to prosperity, as half of Africa’s population is still earning less than $2 a day. Martyn Davies from Deloitte shifted focus, stating that for him, the focus on growth in Africa is misguided. What really matters is whether this growth rate is enabling, does it result in development and change for people in Africa? The youth of Africa was also a focus for Martyn, who stressed that the combination of youth unemployment and population growth in Africa constituted a ‘ticking time bomb’ – one which could go either way.  

At the moment, demography seems greater than opportunity.  


But how can we change that?  

Speakers from both the private and public sectors stressed that if business and investment is to thrive in African markets, they need to properly understand African consumers. Peter Malia- Investment Director Africa for the CDC group- explained that in his extensive experience on the continent, he has learned the hard way that there is no one ‘African consumer’- but that the needs, desires, and priorities of the consumer vary greatly between countries. Mobile phone services which had been very popular in Tanzania for example simply did not sell in Kenya- the consumers had different priorities. When asked by an audience member how investors should make decisions, speakers on the ‘Actionable Insights into Investing in Africa’ panel all stressed that data collection needed to become a greater priority for those looking to invest in Africa- and that companies needed to be sure that their product had both depth and breadth to penetrate local markets. However, data collection is already taking place- the issue is that the data is not being disseminated widely enough or analyzed properly.  

Making smart investment choices is essential, but speakers also focused on manufacturing on the continent, and how this might expand in the future. Martyn Davies- Deloitte- spoke a lot about Ethiopia in this respect, pinning it as the only African country to really have a ‘long-term plan’, and to have gotten the most out of extensive Chinese investment. Colin Coleman- Managing Director and Partner at Goldman Sachs- remained optimistic throughout, saying that he dreamt of a ‘united states of Africa’ (in the EU sense, not in the USA sense), and manufacturing in Africa for Africa. When put on the spot by a student about ‘what is Goldman Sachs doing for Africans’ Colin responded that it was his job to ask the question to Western firms ‘why aren’t you manufacturing in Africa when so many of your present and future customers will be there?’ Colin concluded by saying ‘I really want to meet Elon Musk so that I can ask him why he hasn’t brought his technology home to South Africa.’  


The Oxford Business Forum for Africa offered much in the way of insights and inspiration. It was thrilling to be in a room full of young Africans, passionate about empowering African consumers and taking their skills and knowledge back home. There was far too much in the way of great personal stories from the continent, and business ideas to share here, but below are a few highlights and take away messages from the day.  

Moving forward

  • More credit solutions are needed (and once this credit arrives at the bottom of the pyramid, African consumption will explode) 
  • Data collection needs to increase, improve, and be better understood. 
  • Governments need long-term plans for projects, which will inform whom they partner with and accept aid from (Ethiopia named as a good example) 
  • As African consumers are predicted to increase to 1.7 billion by 2030, more businesses currently manufacturing outside Africa should relocate to the continent, to better serve these markets.
  • How can we reshape the continent within our lifetime? Delegates were encouraged to actually do something with what they had heard at the forum- not just hashtag about it. 

Quotes of the day

“Every organization should have a social purpose to justify its existence.” 

Mark Lamberti, CEO Imperial Holdings 

“Consumers need business, businesses need leaders.” 

Peter Tufano, Said Business School 

“Anyone who gets Africa is an African as far as I am concerned.” 

Yvonne Ike, Bank of America Merrill Lynch 

Beyond this, as a recruitment consultant I was struck by the amount of bright and ambitious individuals that attended the forum. I was able to meet many of them, understand their motivations, and help them network.

If you are hiring, or looking for a new opportunity, please speak to one of our specialist recruitment consultants at Millar Cameron about their sector and the services we offer. 

For information regarding impact investing, social enterprises, and private equity in emerging markets.Please contact

Author: Elizabeth Buckley



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One Comment

  1. What a great read! Well done! @ Elizabeth Buckley. Thank you for this deep insight.

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