African consumers ‘underestimated’ by Western firms

Western companies operating in Africa have long underestimated the continent’s consumers, according to a top executive in one of the world’s biggest consumer goods groups.–(CNN)

Frank Braeken, executive vice president of Unilever in Africa, said that for a long time multinationals have thought of the vast continent as a “monolithic” market, failing to address its diversity.

“The African consumer has been underestimated, underserved and underserviced,” said Braeken. “What I mean is we have looked at it a little bit generically, like ‘the Africans,’ a little bit patronizing generically. Now we start to take the African consumer seriously.”

Unilever, the maker of brands such as Lipton and Knorr, has been active in the continent for more than a century, with a presence in 15 countries and employing thousands of workers there.

Yet, despite its long history and deep presence, Braeken acknowledged that the company had been slow in engaging with the diverse types of consumers in the continent.Orthographic map of Africa

“I’m almost somewhat ashamed to admit that we are still very much in learning mode about what the differences are within Africa.”

Braeken said that it was becoming increasingly clear that there were major differences between the different countries in the continent.

“What we now increasingly do is we think much more in terms of sub-clusters, where you have east Africa, where you have west Africa, where you have southern Africa,” he said.

“It is more about how you define the brand mix, how you bring it to the consumer, that we localize and that we make it relevant for the local consumer.”

A recent survey by Nielsen has identified seven types of consumers that companies targeting African markets need to be aware of.

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