As global firms (MNC) pull back from emerging markets, what does this mean for Africa?

tumblr_nwsbz0ytDw1qghc1jo1_500Last week’s issue of The Economist drilled down deeper to cover the retreat of globalization – at least in the most visible form, that of the multinational brands dotting cityscapes around the world. The retreat of the global company, they trumpet, the end of Theodore Levitt’s vision.

Credit Suisse takes a concise yet comprehensive look at these weak signals in their well-written report that frames the situation as a transitional tug of war between globalization and multipolarity – an inflection point, rather than a retreat. They make it sound like missing the turn at an intersection and having to come back to the traffic lights to figure out which way to go.

Duncan Green of Oxfam captured the essence well:

But the deeper explanation is that both the advantages of scale and those of arbitrage have worn away. Global firms have big overheads; complex supply chains tie up inventory; sprawling organisations are hard to run. Some arbitrage opportunities have been exhausted; wages have risen in China; and most firms have massaged their tax bills as low as they can go. The free flow of information means that competitors can catch up with leads in technology and know-how more easily than they used to. As a result firms with a domestic focus are winning market share.

In the “headquarters countries”, the mood changed after the financial crisis. Multinational firms started to be seen as agents of inequality. They created jobs abroad, but not at home. The profits from their hoards of intellectual property were pocketed by a wealthy shareholder elite. Political willingness to help multinationals duly lapsed.

Of all those involved in the spread of global businesses, the “host countries” that receive investment by multinationals remain the most enthusiastic.

The first thing to note is that the global MNCs being considered by The Economist are primarily the legacy ones  – fast food chains like McDonalds and KFC (Yum Brands) – whose shiny logos used to represent the liberalization of the closed markets of India and China.

Even at powerhouses such as Unilever, General Electric (GE), PepsiCo and Procter & Gamble, foreign profits are down by a quarter or more from their peak.

or the few examples of emerging market brands that have gone global such as China’s Lenovo which purchased IBM’s Thinkpad and India’s Airtel which bought into the African market.

What’s being touted as their competition are regional brands, who aren’t as stretch out globally in terms of their supply chains, and less vulnerable to currency volatility. Further, the majority of these global brands are heavily dependent on their B2C marketing and sales – the question of whether they ever managed to understand their new markets is a topic for another post.

And so, we ask, what will this mean for the emerging economies of Africa, who are only now seeing the first fruits of FDI? Who will come and develop their consumer markets?

India and China apparently. And strategically – through unbranded affordable commodities and the acquisition of successful regional consumer brands – rather than the legacy MNC approach influenced by Levitt. Even Japan recognizes this, as they seek to piggyback on the Indian experience.The economics of scale that propelled the first rounds of growth for the manufacturers of washing machines and the automobiles never did make sense infrastructurally for the majority of the African consumer markets.

Instead, the patterns pointed out by The Economist and Credit Suisse imply that opportunities will lie among regional stars – Equity Bank of Kenya, for instance, whose regional footprint is surely but steadily creeping outwards across the East African Community and trading partners – or, the telcom brands such as Tigo (Millicom) who innovate for each of their local markets.

The jobs and exports that can be attributed to multinationals are already a diminishing part of the story. In 2000 every billion dollars of the stock of worldwide foreign investment represented 7,000 jobs and $600m of annual exports. Today $1bn supports 3,000 jobs and $300m of exports.

Godrej, for instance would be considered a regional Indian giant rather than a multinational in the conventional sense of a Unilever or P&G.

Where [MNCs] get constrained is, they are driven by lot of processes that are global. For a smaller organisation like us, we are completely empowered; decision-making is quick and we can initiate changes very fast. We are more agile and have an advantage over them.

Yet their expansion outside India shows a “pick and choose” strategy of markets they’re comfortable entering.

The group’s acquisition strategy hinges on identifying unlisted companies built by entrepreneurs looking for capital, picking up stakes and working with them to scale up their businesses.

At least two homegrown Kenyan FMCG brands – skincare by a global giant and cosmetics by private equity – have been acquired. As have snack foods, spices, dairy products, and other products that cater to local tastes. The best known being Fan Milk of West Africa. Private equity such as Abraaj make no bones about going after consumer driven opportunities.

Given these choices, sustainable African businesses who understand their consumer markets have an opportunity to establish their brands and grow – with the financial help that’s strategically becoming available.While Chinese imports make the market highly competitive and price conscious, fish and tyres are substitutable goods in a way skincare and cosmetics are not.

African consumer companies – formal, informal, or semi-almost there-formal – need to hustle right now.

The retreat of the MNCs offers a chance to exhale, and expand, and grow, but the advent of the East implies waking up to the need for serious strategic thinking about domestic comparative and competitive advantage – one of which is incomparable knowledge of local consumers, culture, and needs, and critically, experience of their vast informal sectors and cash intensive economies.

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