Archive for the ‘Ghana’ Category

The dangerous assumption that there’s no competition from the informal sector

In addition, the informal economy of open street markets still dominates 90% of retail in large countries like Nigeria and Kenya, meaning it’s a near safe bet there’s plenty of room to grow. ~ Quartz Africa, Jan 2017

Failure is a risk, and an inescapable function of the amount of resources invested, not just money. Time, effort, and managerial ambitions are also losses that destroy value for companies. Danger, then, lies in leaping to assumptions that turn out to be wrong. This is one of them.

First, a bit of history. Just over a decade ago, the Indian market was opening up to world’s investment flows in the retail sector, and estimates of the potential were as rosy and glowing as Africa’s today. From The Economist in April 2006:

Most Indian shops belong to what is known, quite accurately, as the “unorganised” sector—small, family-owned shops surviving on unpaid labour and, often, free land for a small stall. “Organised” retailing accounts for only 2-3% of the total, and of that, 96% is in the ten biggest cities, and 86% in the biggest six. However, organised retailing is growing at 18-20% a year and inspiring a rush of property development. Shopping malls are springing up in every big town: some 450 are at various stages of development.

By 2015, it was clear that these ambitious potentials were never going to materialize, though many malls did spring up in cities across the country. Last year, I covered this topic looking back at the growth projections and the subsequent real numbers achieved from the perspective of the resilience shown by the informal retail sector. I noted, in August 2016:

Yet if you look at the data from 2015, you’ll see that the forecasts were far too ambitious – formal retail has only reached 8% penetration in the past 10 years. Nowhere close to the 25% expected by 2010. Mind you, these were all the management consultancy reports bandying the numbers around.

I bring this up because I’m seeing the same kinds of projections happening right now for the African consumer market by the very same firms.

Second, this time it’s not just a management consultancy report with all the research and analysis efforts they pour into making their case. It’s not been distilled into one single yet dangerous sentence:

meaning it’s a near safe bet there’s plenty of room

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“Plenty of room” (Photo Credit: Yepeka Yeebo in Accra, Ghana)

There’s an inherent assumption within the assumption that the myriads of little stands, market ladies and their longstanding relationships with customers and suppliers, and the entire ecosystem which exists, such as in the photograph above, can simply be bulldozed over with a granite and marble mall development covered in shiny unreflective glass.
It didn’t happen in India, and it’s not happening in Africa. From Ghana, this news article on mall development says:

Ghana’s economic woes have translated into a variety of challenges for formal retailers who are competing for sales alongside the dominant and deep-rooted informal shopping sector. According to a recent report by African commercial property services group Broll overall sales in most modern shopping malls are well below historic averages, despite garnering sufficient foot traffic.

cth8lgkwcaauetyFurther, and more dangerously, this blithe assumption of a cakewalk where an informal sector so tangibly exists, overlooks the innate ingenuity of those who seek a dignified life even while hustling for a living. And that there’s no competition or customer service.

Professionals stand above the competition: Branding lessons from street vendors of Africa

zimbabwe-flashy-vendors

Zimbabwe

Farai Mushayademo’s distinctive dress sense, with a different shiny suit every day, makes him a darling of customers and helps him beat the “rising competition,” he said.

This article on the increasing competition for the burgeoning informal economy of Harare, the capital of Zimbabwe, came less than a month after we saw this smartly turned out fruit vendor plying his trade in the streets of Accra, Ghana.

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Ghana

For communicating brand quality, the Ghanaian gentleman surely deserves an award. His read to eat fruit was as smartly packaged and labelled as any consumer brand in a supermarket.

cth8lhbxyaqv0lyI’ve written before on the topic of ‘Branding the Unbranded’ – whether its the humble avocado being sold by the side of the road in upcountry Kenya, or a designer BBQ meant for the emerging middle class – but these distinctively dressed gentlemen on two opposite ends of the vast African continent come under an entirely new category of product and service innovation happening in the informal sector.

How do you set yourself apart in the unbranded informal economy in response to rising competition is a challenge. Ghanaian market women’s customer development and retention strategies in a commodity market (potatoes) were documented a decade ago, and found to rely on social skills, including non verbal ones such as eye contact and encouraging smiles. Yet, her advantage is that her potential customers are slowly walking through the market, looking for the best potatoes to purchase. She has the time to call out and attract their attention.

For these men on the streets, walking through traffic, that advantage is fleeting or nonexistent. They must grab attention *and* communicate their messaging in an instant (can they have been reading Gladwell’s blink?) – and the fruit vendor, with his spotless white gloves, and packaged fruit, clearly rises above the rest with his strategy.

The police are also, one hopes, less likely to chase a man in a three piece suit off the street. This is one pan African trend worth keeping an eye on.

Research Question: Why is the informal retail sector so persistent and resilient?

retail2Retailing in India is currently estimated to be a USD 200 billion industry, of which organised retailing makes up 3% or USD 6.4 billion. By 2010, organized retail is projected to reach USD 23 billion and in terms of market share it is expected to rise by 20 to 25%. (Sinha et all, 2007)

These claims of projected growth were made based on a 2005 KPMG report on the Indian Consumer market, while the chart itself with it’s aspirational forecast is from the IBEF website. I have been watching and waiting for more than ten years for India’s retail revolution to take place.

The consistent message from the beginning of the retail boom has been that since the organized retail sector (what we would call the formal) has only been ~2% of the total retail trade in India (the balance is informal retail) there was ample opportunity for growth in modern retail.

Yet if you look at the data from 2015, you’ll see that the forecasts were far too ambitious (or, perhaps, aspirational, in the push for modernization driving India’s recently opened markets) – formal retail has only reached 8% penetration in the past 10 years. Nowhere close to the 25% expected by 2010. Mind you, these were all the management consultancy reports bandying the numbers around.

I bring this up because I’m seeing the same kinds of projections happening right now for the African consumer market by the very same firms. And with very few exceptions, the majority of the SSA markets tend towards the same kind of proportions of organized vs unorganized retail  (formal vs informal, modern vs traditional et al are all variations on this theme with minor differences in definition).

And, even as the retail real estate development investments are booming, we are already seeing the very first signs of the same challenge that India faced – over capacity, low footfalls, and empty malls. Just yesterday, the news from Ghana – a firm favourite of the investment forecasters –  has this to say:

Ghana’s economic woes have translated into a variety of challenges for formal retailers who are competing for sales alongsidethe dominant and deep-rooted informal shopping sector. According to a recent report by African commercial property services group Broll – titled Ghana, Retail Barometer Q2, 2016 – overall sales in most modern shopping malls are well below historic averages, despite garnering sufficient foot traffic.
[…]
“International players are also looking at the market and re-adjusting their product/pricing mix to cater for the real middle class, whereby we are talking more in terms of value products rather than high-end products.”

And, retail developers are turning their attention to secondary cities such as Kumasi and Takoradi, as Accra reaches saturation point. The exact same pattern as we have been seeing in India. You would think people might pause a moment to take a look at similar markets and operating environments to assess patterns of market creation development.

This pattern is what gave rise to the research question I would like to frame – why has the informal retail sector been so persistent and resilient? What does this mean for modern trade? And, what are the implications for urban development and planning?

The trajectories of the Indian and the Ghanaian economies have taken different turns, thus, while one might point to these factors as the reasons for the challenges facing the mall owners and the retail brands, the big picture over the past twenty years points to something more fundamental in these operating environments common to the developing world.

That is what I would like to find out.

Will Direct Access to China-made Goods Disrupt Trade in West Africa’s Consumer Market?

jmsamallThe first e-commerce platform for direct trade of China made products has just been launched in the West African country of Togo. Squeezed together with the Benin Republic between the larger, and better known countries of Nigeria and Ghana, Togo is a small francophone country of around 7 million people. Per the article:

“We want to be the pioneer of e-commerce in Togo and to capitalize on the strong multifaceted cooperation between China and Togo, a premier trade hub country in West Africa”, Yuan Li, founder of JMSA-MALL, told Xinhua Friday in Lomé.

“We are promoting a direct trade of genuine Chinese products with fair price between the African customers and the sellers in China,” he explained.

From electronic devices to farm machines, the platform offers a wide range of Chinese products, which are sold in Togo as well as other countries like Benin, Niger, Ghana and Burkina Faso in the region.

All major credit cards are accepted for payment as well as the local mobile money payment system – Flooz. There’s a generous return policy, and shipments arrive at a local brick and mortar shopfront for pickup and returns. That is, if the item ordered isn’t already available in stock at their local warehouse. Furthermore, JMSA-MALL offers local SMEs an opportunity to sell their wares through their platform. On the surface, this looks good – by cutting out the middleman, they can offer lower prices.

Yacine Bio-Tchane, our Beninois colleague also has a footprint in Lome, Togo. She and I discussed the potential impact of this launch in the local context, as well the broader implications in general. Here are some thoughts:

Will this ‘Direct to Consumer’ (DTC) platform have impact on local traders who travel to China for goods?

Yacine made the observation that since the platform sells everything from electronic devices to farm machines, if some pricey and heavy items are not readily available in Togo but for which there is a demand can be bought online, users will take advantage of that opportunity. Going to China, identifying the right product at a good price and shipping it back to Togo is timely and costly (1). The e-commerce platform significantly reduces transaction costs, which makes it very interesting for local buyers.

Chinese products are known to be cheaper (in price and sometimes quality) than other products so they are highly competitive and accessible to many Togolese, especially given the low purchasing power. If, instead of going to the market and walking around in search of those products, anyone can buy it online, people will prefer doing so. However, while Togo has 67% penetration of mobile phones, less than 10% of the population has access to internet. This implies that few consumers have access to the ecommerce solution but it could trigger an increased use of internet from traders interested in China made goods. Although the article doesn’t say who the top buyers are (nationality), it would not be surprising to see that increase in demand is being pulled by Ghana.

Direct trade of China made goods

On the other hand, given the costs, time, and hassles of going to China to source and ship products back home for sale, this platform might be attractive to local traders themselves, both in Togo, and regionally. As Yacine observes, demand might not be from Togo itself but rather the neighbouring countries. As the founder of the platform says himself, Togo is a critical trade hub in West Africa for China.

China has increased trade and diplomatic relations with Togo in the past decade. It is even said that China has become the first financial partner to the country. Chinese companies operate in industries, agriculture, commerce and construction. They create employment and compete with local companies in selling certain products such as fabrics.

The fact that this e-commerce platform is a B2C marketplace backed by a local warehouse full of China made goods is a signal of this investment. For Yacine, the strongest message the launch of this platform has sent is that the Chinese are fully settled in Togo. That kind of long term investment, coupled with their increased investments in industries is a game changer. China is no more a simple partner coming in for projects but has now become an important actor with influence on consumer behaviour. This is a big pivot in its brand.

west_africa_2_storyGeographically, Togo is well positioned to easily access both anglophone and francophone West Africa. E-commerce has been taking off exponentially in the giant market of Nigeria, but has yet to gain traction in other neighbouring countries. Ivory Coast has seen some gains, but it’s in an early stage. Traditionally, the Chinese have waited for markets to mature before flooding it with their lower priced variations – the mobile phone market is one such example. The launch of this platfrom seems rather early from the e-commerce (and mobile payments) perspective but not from the point of view of global trade and market forces.

China’s manufacturing industries are feeling the pinch of shrinking global trade, and the problems of over capacity. The domestic market has been one major focus for development; this initiative seems like an attempt at creating another. Consumer goods trade between Africa and China has not entirely been under the radar – both African and Chinese airlines were the first to respond to demand. Further, there are other changes afoot that directly impact West Africa, as this recent article from CNN shows:

Over the past 18 months, although concrete numbers are hard to come by, hundreds — perhaps even thousands — of Africans are believed by locals and researchers to have exited Guangzhou.

A dollar drought in oil-dependent West African nations, coupled with China’s hostile immigration policies, widespread racism, and at-once slowing and maturing economy, means Guangzhou is losing its competitive edge. […] As China becomes less profitable, many Africans feel the downsides of living there more acutely.

If the mountain cannot support Mahomet, could it cut costs by building warehouses fronted by online marketplaces? Warehouse centres for China made goods are not new to the African continent, southern Africa has quite a few, while Tanzania’s China funded logistics hub has just been flagged off. The JMALL founder’s opening statement positions Togo as another such ‘trade hub’ in West Africa. Is this e-commerce platform a pilot to test regional B2C marketing cost effectively?

Chinese e-commerce giants like Alibaba have shown the way with their agent led efforts to open up the challenging rural markets of the mainland’s hinterlands. It’s only a matter of time before a different kind of intermediary springs up in Togo (and elsewhere) offering similar agent services to facilitate trade. This time, however, it’ll be from the comfort of their home countries, as they assist traders and consumers with online purchases. Taken together with ongoing investments in mobile money payment systems, financial inclusion initiatives, and the utilization of the agency model – China seems to have grasped an excellent opportunity space to begin exploring.

 

(1) Here’s a documentary following a Congolese trader during her shopping spree in Guangzhou, China, looking to fill her container with tradeable goods. It offers us insight on her customer experience.

This article has been translated into the French by Yacine Bio-Tchané

What marketing 101 can teach development practitioners and academics

The entire universe of people with an unmet need that you expect your solution to fulfill is not your target audience.

The fundamentals of market analysis include the basic calculations that allow marketing managers of all stripes to calculate (guesstimate) their potential market size, and thus a realistic assessment of its value. That is their marketing universe, within which they will set targets for the acquisition of customers. That potential customer base is the targetted audience for their marketing efforts, in order to get them onto the customer journey ladder to “loyal advocates” your brand or service.

This simple yet powerful understanding is known even to Ghana’s market queens, the ladies who trade. They don’t imagine that they can serve the 100 million people without tomatoes that day. Yet these are the kinds of grand targets that development, and its little cousin once removed, social enterprises announce day in and day out in press releases.

I was lucky. Yepeka Yeebo reached out to me before a trip to Accra, where she had been commissioned to write a profile of such an entrepreneur.She has permitted me to use her photographs and to write this story of Auntie Matilda, the tomato trader of Accra, Ghana.

Yeebo_Market_01The market mummies, the market queens – the informal retail sector across most of West Africa is dominated by women. Women inherit their mother’s social and commercial networks, the goodwill of her mother’s trading relationships and thus, her social capital and repute. As Yeppi writes, there was a time when the intricate webs of economic power wielded by these ladies took the full might of the Ghanaian army to dismantle.

Gerry van Dyke has studied the customer experience design strategies the ladies use to distinguish themselves, though selling the exact same unbranded commidity. Even Unilever comes to learn at their feet, and Maggi Cubes know they can’t win if the mummies are unhappy at the margins for breaking bulk of one of those long boxes we all have at home.

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Break bulk is visible across the developing world’s informal economies. Just like the prepaid business model, the irregular income streams of the vast majority of the informal sector, even those who would the upper middle class of their milieu, mean that wherever one can negotiate some flexibility of time and money, their business is assured. It is a mark of trust to be able to agree to accept a payment over time.

This extends then to the way the products are sold. There is no concept of discounting for bulk purchase, simply because you’re unlikely to sink  your daily working capital into a huge bag of toilet paper. Liquidity is the real king, cash is only the manifestation in the real world. Flexibility is one of the ways to mitigate the risk of uncertainty that small business owners face daily.

Auntie Matilda’s business choices, marketing and customer development strategies, and the health of her cash flow, all depend upon her ability to build a network of working relationships predicated on trust, references, and thus, proof of performance. One wonders if the only reason she might not be formal is that there isn’t any particular segment or category in the current forms of registered businesses that apply to her kind of business.

Its time we overturned the ivory tower’s disdain of filthy lucre and trade in the city center and gave these ladies their due.

Economic ecosystems tie the fortunes of informal sector to health of formal business

The story of Ghana’s “pillow city”, Juapong – a small town in the North Tongu District in the Volta region, offers us insight on the inter-relationship between formal industries and the ecosystem of informal businesses that spring up around them.

Juapong is said to be losing its identity as the pillow capital of Ghana.

A few years ago, a common feature on the main road leading to Juapong from the Adomi Bridge was the display of beautiful assorted pillows. Local women depended on waste cotton or materials from the textile factories to produce pillows and mattresses. Today, cheap imports from China have affected Ghana’s textile production.

The Chief Executive of Margico Enterprise, Auntie Margaret Okyere, who sells pillows on wholesale, lamented that the pillow business has collapsed. Madam Okyere took over the trade from her mother in 1991 and had trained several women to make pillows.

She revealed that the business was one of the lucrative ventures in Ghana and recounted how in the glory days of the business, traders from Tema, Accra, Kumasi, Koforidua, Tamale and Togo travelled to Juapong to buy pillows in large quantities. That, she said, enabled them to make a lot of income to support their families.

Madam Okyere, who was making a few pillows to feed her shelf with the help of one of her workers, said fortunes in the trade had dropped because the raw materials were no longer available.

“Previously, if you came to this town, you would find pillows arranged beautifully all over and it created a lot of jobs for the youth. We even supplied some hospitals as well. I did not make less than GH¢300 profit a day,” she said.

And its not just the women who make and trade in pillows feeling the effects, the young men who helped load and distribute the pillows are leaving town in droves to look for work. An entire ecosystem has felt the impact of that butterfly’s wing out flapping on the other side of the world. Industries benefit far more people than just those employed at the factory directly.

The business model of drinking water in urban Ghana

In Accra, Ghana, packaging potable water into single serve sachets for the mass market (the prepaid economy) is a business model that has evolved extremely rapidly in response to customer demand and purchasing power.

Bottled mineral water for the elite trickled down in quantity and form until the man on the street can buy a glassful for pennies. From the article The cost of pure water:

“I think we’ve seen almost an entire product life cycle in just a decade,” Stoler said. “Initially it was more of the autocrats drinking sachets. Very quickly, within a few years, it seems to have shifted to lower income and the poorest of the poor… You don’t go to a conference or symposium and get served sachet water.”

Stoler believes the “warp-speed evolution” of the industry has quickly made the product better and cleaner. Due to the enormous demand, bigger producers like Voltic have stepped in and are using the same water they put in bottles, sold to the rich, in the sachets sold to the lower and middle classes. And with lots of competition in most areas, and billions of bags being consumed each year, the customer base is quickly becoming more discerning about what they buy.

“This is one of those weirder examples of almost pure capitalism,” Stoler said. “You have this gap in supply, so the private sector steps in and fills the demand. Customers start to understand that there’s differentiation in product quality. Better quality producers rise to the top, the market incentives produce better quality products, and without tons of over-regulation, the market has ended up with a pretty good product.”

His work shows that the intelligent Ghanaian customer base has helped evolve the experimental, and perhaps unhealthy, product that Osei sampled into a cleaner one. In a recent study focusing on two poorer neighbourhoods of Accra, Old Fadama and Old Tulaku, Stoler found no faecal contamination in any sachet sample.

Reading the article further, you’ll note that this service is typical of the way the informal sector quickly senses an opportunity to be satisfied.

Africa’s world trade: Informal economies and globalization from below by Margaret C. Lee

Margaret-C-Lee-Africas-World-Trade1The entire text of Professor Margeret C. Lee’s work is made available under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0) Licence. Clicking on the cover will take you directly to the PDF.

Chapter 3 takes the reader through a journey to different countries of Africa, including Uganda, Tanzania, Ghana, Zambia, South Africa, Namibia, Angola, and Cameroon. The reader is introduced to African traders in the markets in several African countries that trade in Chinese goods. Some of the traders actually go to China to buy goods for their shops, some import them from surrounding countries, and others buy them wholesale directly from the Chinese in their respective countries. What is perhaps most fascinating about many of these traders is the networks they have for the distribution of their goods – these traders serve as suppliers of Chinese goods to traders who come from surrounding countries to buy in bulk to sell in their respective shops.

We learn a great deal in this chapter about Africa’s world trade regimes and how globalization from below operates in this part of the world. Again, African traders, through their stories, humanize these regimes for us