Becoming a consumer society

Indulge me if you will. This article is about Kenya. It reaches out for the human reality

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behind the cold logic of economics. As such I hope it is of interest to my friends in the wider East African region.

In October, Kenya’s Planning Minister Anne Waiguru announced that the country’s Gross Domestic Product is 25 percent larger than previously thought after it was recalculated using updated statistics. Kenya’s “rebased” GDP is now estimated at $53.3 billion (previously $42.6 billion).

This makes Kenya the ninth-largest economy in Africa and classifies it as a middle-income country. Its gross national income per capita is $1,160, surpassing the World Bank threshold of $1,036 to qualify for the new classification. Kenya’s move to revise its GDP came just months after Nigeria rebased its GDP in April and became the largest economy on the Continent.

Despite this boost, observers does not mean that Kenya has overcome its economic challenges: 4 in 10 Kenyans live in poverty according to the World Bank, and Kenya still has a considerable way to go to achieve 10 percent growth annually as outlined in its Vision 2030 Agenda. Don’t you love those upbeat technocrats?

Now as a marketer one has to be attuned to the nuances of human behaviour exhibited in an economy. These small signs are sometimes of limited commercial significance in themselves. But they often point the way to new opportunities. Keeping my eyes wide open in Kenya in the past week, I’ve noticed some indications of a step change in commercial activity there. To me they confirm an established middle class economy hungry for more.

Billboards are a good ready reckoner of sectoral activity. Right now Kenyans are experiencing an explosion of billboards for the real estate sector. They’ve had office developments booming for years. For some reason rentals don’t seem to have eased, but that’s possibly due to one or two big players in commercial estate agency gripping the market. But now there is a profusion of apartment complexes, gated communities, and ambitious developments so peri-urban that they are effectively rural.

Fashion has a big visual presence. We always knew that ladies spent hours every weekend in their favourite salons. But now Kenyan flyovers and lampposts are adorned with hair and beauty products galore. Wig brands boasting the benefits of human hair over synthetics. Intrinsically a bit sinister, but indicative of an economy where more and more women are active, need to be presentable and demand to be more.

Ten years ago, Vaseline was a fairly exciting brand. Nowadays Nivea’s clear brand promise talks equally to men and women about skin care. And is in fierce competition with a huge personal care brand portfolio that stretches all the way up to L’Oreal.

Eating out, a great many Kenyans have transitioned from nyama choma, through Java Coffee Houses to the rarified atmosphere of the ArtCaffé. And across Kenya, coffee (which used only to be bagged and exported) has now become something the domestic public savours.

Ten years ago Kenyans were all waiting for South African retailers like Pick’n’Pay and ShopRite to arrive. They came to Uganda and Tanzania but they never came to Kenya. Now indigenous supermarket brands Uchumi and Nakumatt face the imminent competitive entry of French mega chain Carrefour.

As in Kampala, shopping malls have become the new secular cathedrals of Kenyan cities. Where pilgrims shuffle in time to the muzak, pausing to genuflect at Apple and Hugo Boss. And take Communion in the form of French pastries and frozen yoghurt.

House and home has become a passion. Duracoat and Crown are punting new palettes and textures to sparkle up the most modest estate house. Tile and Carpet Centres are full of ladies buying hectares of curtain material and husbands morosely pondering German bathroom fittings.

For many Kenyans the Boeing 787 Dreamliner is yesterday’s news – even for those who may wait a lifetime to fly on it. While the roads now boast European marques like Jaguar, Volkswagen and even Porsche. Tempting the ever more upwardly mobile away from their Toyotas.

And the Range Rover? Well it’s just like a big bottom. Lot’s of people have one, get over it.

Perhaps the most telling observation came from my wife as we travelled back to Nairobi from an upcountry weekend. She spotted a middle class family in their compact SUV with their children in car seats. After twenty years of breathlessly following cars with children standing between the front seats, this truly was a revelation.

Is this all purely an urban phenomenon? No. It is mainly an urban movement because that’s where these consumer trends are most accessible. But many a market town has a smart coffee house today – sometimes a copycat of an established brand. Cosmetic and beauty purchases are up, countrywide. Satellite TV access is now solar powered for wider distribution. The mitumba phenomenon keeps rural kids in Nike and Adidas. And every day the Android phone opens up new worlds of possibility for the consumer.

Perhaps this is what a middle-income economy looks like. So why not open your eyes to such signs appearing in your own market? Because, whatever the economists say, this is Africa’s future.

Join Chris (and contributors from around the marketing world) in this and other  discussions about behaviour by liking The Brand Inside Africa on Facebook – today!

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