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Context is king for Africa’s business consultants

Africa doesn’t need another consultant… says the career consultant. But I think this statement is true for various reasons. The African consulting landscape comprises global and local consultants who position themselves as experts in subject matter, innovative thinkers, corporate entrepreneurs and so much more.

They sit in client offices/businesses, professing they have what it takes to turn your business around ad nauseum. Why don’t they leverage their expertise to set up their own enterprises? There are, of course, those who have been responsible for the development of viable businesses over the last couple of years, such as Deloitte’s Innovation Centre. I give them their dues.

My concern is that the rate of turnover of ideas into businesses from centres of innovative excellence is exceedingly slow. Africa’s problems are nowhere near being solved. We’ve made some great strides, but we’ve only scratched the surface. It’s for this reason that I’m beginning to believe a new type of consultant is needed and given an opportunity to bring a new type of support to emerging market businesses.

Context is king

Too many consultants express their knowledge of the continent gleaned from their travels. Many have hopped from country to country, but their context is limited to the urban centres of the respective countries that they’ve visited.

This suggests their contextual understanding of Africa and its people is limited to urban settings. Yet most of the continent’s population is rural based. Too much time is spent understanding a smaller portion of the population and how better to serve them while we should be studying the needs and aspirations of so-called ‘unbanked’ and ‘bottom-of-the-pyramid’ type customers a lot more.

This would open new and lucrative markets for home-grown businesses because we would supply them with products they need, and the scale would ensure most of our business models were volume instead of margin driven. I saw an FNB advert a few years ago in which a finance consultant spent time at a farm in an effort to understand what was important for small-sized farmers from a financing perspective. Based on this ‘lived experience’, FNB was then better able to serve this customer segment.

Africa’s consultants should stop bringing solutions to the table based on “shared experiences” but should rather live the rural African experience to come up with products, services and solutions that would make a difference and contribute to the GDP per capita doubling over the next five to ten years. There is no point in limiting your transport solutions to luxury sedans when most of your market wants to get from point A to point B on a moped. Great solutions are borne out of an informed understanding of context.

If Africa’s per capita GDP is US$1900 per annum, are current business models and offerings suitable for most of the continent’s populace? I think not. To create sustainable wealth, the business model should be inclusive and not alienate a population unable to afford what’s on offer.

This was evidenced by a recent visit to rural Namibia. A leading bank erected billboard where it hoped to attract potential customers. But it was not delivering the desired result. We asked local inhabitants why they weren’t opening accounts at our client’s bank. Their response was that they weren’t aware of our client’s bank. We then pointed them to the billboard. They replied that they didn’t identify with the image of people on the billboard. Their first look at it told them the bank wasn’t for them and because of this, they paid it no attention. I guess the local community should have been consulted about what they needed before the billboard was erected.

Show me, teach me then let me

Most consultants would say I’ve got this the wrong way around. It should be teach me, then show me and after that, let me. But that sequence won’t work here. Great African consultants build prototypes after spending time in places that inspire. In the outback of a small-scale farmer’s property. At the local bottle store that is the only shopping centre for a 200-kilometre stretch or a clinic where one doctor serves hundreds of patients a day. At a school where 60+ children are crammed into a classroom or sit under the shade of the tree.

That is where innovation should be born. Prototypes such as a hand-held but mechanically motored plough for the small farmer’s 15-acre farm. A solar powered refrigeration and milling system for the local bottle store. A fuel-efficient transport model for the bottle store that enables deliveries to be made for a marginal cost and sustain the business. A water and weatherproof tent to balance out the classroom population at the rural school. The supply of desks that use recycled material, making them affordable for the rural school.

This is the ‘show me’ part of the equation consultants should be presenting to African businesses. The ‘teach me’ portion is about knowledge sharing, as consulting at its heart is about learning and unlearning. While being tested within the market place, the consultant should first spell out the solution based on a lived experience. The potential customer will at first use the solution based on the knowledge shared and provide feedback. Part of this feedback should include how to improve the solution or perhaps adapt it for yet another pressing need.

The result for these teachings is empowering knowledge, allowing the business/consultant partnership to return to the lab to further develop their solution. The improved solution is then presented to the potential customers with all kinks ironed out. Now the product can be left to the customer with the expectation they will derive value from it and that they’ll stay loyal, come back for more and in time, advocate for others to also be a part of your empowering offering.

I end where I began. Africa doesn’t need the traditional type of consultant. Their time has passed. We need consultants that support inclusive and scalable solutions to our continent’s growing number of entrepreneurs. We need consultants who share risks and are willing to back an idea to its completion because of their lived, and not shared, experience. We need consultants that don’t just talk about how good they are at supporting client businesses to grow but have tangible examples of their own to prove what they’re talking about.

We need consultants who embrace context and think rural before they think urban because that’s where most of the continent’s customers currently reside. We need consultants who are always thinking about long-term instead of the short game.

We need consultants who, in the end, will play a significant part in turning around our fortunes, doubling our worth and having our countries trading more and more with each other.

That, in my opinion, is what a good consultant should contribute to Africa’s economic revolution.

Delving into the African truth

To truly get to grips with marketing to the modern African consumer it is essential to realise that you are appealing to a “peculiar” audience. Throw away the theories and rules that you thought you knew and spend more time studying the behaviour of these consumers.

“It is no longer about building a product or marketing it, it is about building solutions to answer the real African problem and productising these solutions,” says Allen Kambuni of Kenyan-based Bean Interactive.

Speaking at a recent Pan African Media Organisation (PAMRO) conference held in Lagos, Nigeria, Kambuni challenged the audience — comprising media, advertising and marketing delegates — to delve into “the African truth” and apply design thinking aimed at solving problems instead of trying to apply a formal sector or class approach to a broader African audience.

Demographics are no longer relevant

According to Kambuni, targeting an audience based on demographics is no longer relevant. “It’s easy to say ‘sports is a man’s game; gaming is for kids; women are homemakers; and men buy cars’, but when we look at the facts, 60% of sporting goods shoppers who engaged with relevant You Tube content are female; 45% of video game searchers are older than 35; 40% of home goods searchers are men; and 60% of auto searchers on mobile are female. Targeting based on demographics is no longer effective. Today it is all about signals. What is your audience telling you about their preference?”

By way of example, Kambuni spoke about a Kenyan nappy manufacturer who wanted to know how his company could increase sales. He spent time in a slum area in Nairobi simply observing. What he noticed was that during the day parents let their children run around “free” without a nappy; only at night did they put a nappy on them, to go to bed. To cater for the practical and economic needs of this sector, the manufacturer began selling the nappies in singles instead of just bulk packs.

“In Kenya, this is what we call the Kadago economy,” Kambuni says. “Matching modern trade to proximity trade, to match the growth of the spaza.”

Finding African solutions

“When it comes to finding solutions most people in Africa have cut their teeth in an environment of scarcity. No one is waiting around for the government to offer solutions. Ask anyone from Nairobi: it’s about taking what you’ve got and making the most of it. [As marketers and advertisers] we must stop trying to take a solution that fits in the western world and forcing it to fit. It won’t. An example is in the DRC Congo, the robots there actually wave. It’s an African solution that may seem mercurial elsewhere, but it’s sustainable here.”

Typical customer experience journeys are built on what people can do, but the African customer experience journey is built on what people can’t do.  “We need to reach audiences based on their need in the moment to provide simple solutions that change the way they live,” says Kambuni.

This can be seen in a recent shift noticed by researchers at Nielsen, where people are moving away from hypermarkets and reverting to shopping at local spazas and shops. It’s hardly surprising, given the excessive rise in fuel and transport costs recently; as a result, people don’t want to travel, instead preferring shops close to where they live or commute.

Even within more structured shopping outlets like malls, shoppers are demanding “proximity, efficiency, in-the-moment rewards and additional services.”

Digital and e-commerce can play a critical role

Digital and e-commerce can play an important role in this by providing on-demand two-way interactions through easy to use apps and addressable advertising.

Internet banking is huge in Africa. According to a study by the World Bank in 2014, Botswana, Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Cote de Ivoire and Zimbabwe were ranked in the top six in the world for percentage of account holders who made a transaction on mobile in the previous 12 months — coming in ahead of South Korea, the United States, Sweden and Australia respectively. Digital has opened up banking in areas it wasn’t previously easily accessible.

E-commerce is also thriving. In Nigeria, 65% of internet users shop online and 24 % say they intend to in the future, which means that 89% of online users are potential online shoppers. In South Africa, this number is 70% and in Kenya, 60%.

An example of where digital is catering directly to its consumers’ needs is OTM, a Kenyan retail disruptor that gives instant access to branded household goods and offers credit and discounts, packaged in easy-to-use apps. “With access to over 300 000 traditional trade outlets, OTM will be able to offer valuable data and insights into untapped consumer opportunities and behavioural trends,” Kambuni says.

“In Africa digital is neither explorative or exploitative. It’s what we eat, live and need to survive. The companies that will survive in the next couple of decades of Africa need to delve deep into the data that defines this new population.”

Interview with Pepe Marais

Co-founder and owner of South Africa’s largest independent advertising firm Joe Public, Pepe Marais’s recently published book Growing Greatness is part autobiography, part account of the rise, fall and rise of Joe Public, and part how-to guide to discovering the deeper purpose of a business.

Tracey McDonald proposed I write a book about entrepreneurship. One of my firm beliefs is that you can’t close the poverty gap in SA without creating more entrepreneurs…[so] the broader intention of this book was to inspire people towards entrepreneurship. But there is a deeper reason behind the book, and that is to inspire any entrepreneur out there to find greater purpose to their business. A reason beyond money.

I attribute Joe Public’s success to this sense of purpose, and to the diversity that has developed organically as a by-product of it. Our purpose is growth: to be the fertile soil which grows our people, our clients, and our country. We’re a small to medium enterprise, with 300 people, but our diversity is amazing. I believe that at the heart of diversity is creativity.  If you’re selling creativity and you’ve got one section of the market’s point of view, in a market where you’ve got eleven different points of view – just culturally, let alone taking gender into account – that’s not going to work.

There’s a quote that says it takes 17 years to become an overnight success. We only began to see returns on our blood, sweat and tears 16 years after the inception of Joe Public. We didn’t go: “year two, drive a Porsche”.

My advice for people wanting to start their own business: START. I find that people dreaming of starting a business tend to overthink it, instead of letting it run and seeing what happens, and maybe failing quicker. We’d rather over-strategize and business-plan it to death, which creates so much angst and fear that we never actually get out of the starting blocks.

My other piece of advice is – if you look at Phil Knight from Nike or Giovanni Ravazotti who runs one of the best performing shares on the stock exchange, the Italtile group – both those men know now that it’s not about money. At school now, entrepreneurs are being taught that the purpose of business is to make money. I think that’s wrong: if entrepreneurs know that money is a by-product, and the purpose of business is something far greater, they might just have a better chance of succeeding.

My advice to someone wanting to succeed in marketing: become product obsessed. The most valuable company in the world, Apple, is product obsessed. In any business, you’ve got a product and you’ve got service, and you need to deliver both to the highest level possible – but always product first. Exceptional, excellent product will create sustainable business over time.

Some of the many books that have inspired me include:

  • Time to Think: Listening to Ignite the Human Mind by Nancy Kline
  • The Art of Possibility by Rosamund and Benjamin Zander
  • Good to Great by Jim Collins

I started One School at a Time in 2008. I’m aiming to change education… I learnt that some 22 000 schools in SA are dysfunctional, so I started with one. It’s been ticking now for 11 years: the results are slow, but significant – the Soweto school is today ranked as one of the top 3 township schools in Gauteng.

I love advertising. It’s one of the few means to counter the negative news out there. It can also be used to inspire people towards greatness. And it can assist brands to play a more meaningful role in the lives of the man on the street. Through this lens, it is perfectly aligned to my purpose in life.

Pepe Marais, Growing Greatness: A Journey Towards Personal and Business Mastery is published by Tracey McDonald Publishers and available in bookshops from August 2018.