The second largest and the second most populous continent, home to 15% of the world’s human count is deemed to be the oldest inhabited territory on Earth. From the first modern humans to the early civilization, through the scramble for Africa by European imperialists, today, Africa comprises of 54 sovereign countries. Most of these nations, with borders drawn during the European colonisation, are strife with conflict, corruption, violence, abject poverty and authoritarianism.
However, through the last decade, armed conflict has declined; many countries have opened up to a free economy which has fostered stability, economic reforms and greater increase in foreign investment into many African nations. Various African economies have recorded accelerated growth and have been one of the fastest ones in 2016. The story is often dubbed as Africa Rising.
Africa’s growth charts resemble India’s in many ways except the graph lags over a couple of decades. Their evolving lifestyle patterns too find parallels. As major businesses across continents are navigating strategies towards Africa, it is an opportunity for us as brand strategists and cultural trackers, to study conventional trends in African societies from time to time.
The revival of the sun-kissed continent, or typically the sub-Saharan Africa is riding on a single theme – pride. This ‘Afrinewal’ is often underlined with a spirit of pan-Africanism with more countries collaborating by the day to celebrate and grow the African way. Ailsa Wingfield, executive director, Africa marketing for Nielsen, sights the doubling of Africa’s burgeoning middle class, currently at 300-500 million people by 2030. Economic reviewers call this ‘Afropolitan Revolution’.
The youth is defining a new urban culture, an amalgamation of both cosmopolitan and uniquely African with an eagerness on ‘going back to black’. With this has risen a renewed African consciousness, a fusion of local and international cultural influences, a similar pride-pattern that India has witnessed time and again across categories.
Acronyms like FABA are governing businesses and markets as a response to the evolving African consciousness. ‘For Africa By Africa’ is African solutions to African challenges done the African way. There are some stellar examples to reckon with.
Studio Africa is fashion collaboration between Edun and Diesel to come up with collections made from raw, untreated denim, which are woven from cotton sourced from Edun’s Conservation Cotton Initiative in Uganda and are manufactured in Africa. The creative project is also designed to promote young African talent, with the latest campaign featured three musicians from across the continent. Seen as the dumping ground so far, Africa is now increasingly owning and showcasing fashion on a global ramp. Designers like Modupe Omonze (Nigeria), Solome Katongole (Uganda), Chakirra Claasen (Namibia) have pinned the continent on the fashion map, picking on African colours, woven fabrics from diverse countries they belong to and motifs modeled on their African sensibilities.
Closely following is the $6 billion massive hair-care industry of Africa. Owing to the natural hair of Africans that needs several hours of processes and products a week to maintain them, multinationals like L’Oreal and Unilever see potential as much as the local women who open up small salons. For hair extensions, a crucial part of the process, Indian, Brazilian and Korean hair are of high demand. However, there is a natural hair movement gaining momentum particularly among the millennials, who choose to grow, wear and maintain their natural hair. The movement has got some fillip by celebrities like Kenya’s Sarah Hassan, South Africa’s Pearl Thusi and Nigeria’s Asa. Pearl Thusi along with Afrobotanics, manufacturer of beauty products enthused by African beauty secrets using African botanical oils, launched her own hair care range in November 2015 intending to help African women to take care of their natural hair. This is treads similar trails to that of massive growth of Ayurveda in India – using local/ancient products and ingredients for personal care.
While India is still grappling with immense socio-cultural ramifications with fair skin affinity, having Unilever’s Fair & Lovely as the largest player in skin care category, Ghana very recently banned all products containing skin bleaching ingredient hydroquinone (a key ingredient of skin lightening products) in effect from August 2016. Ghana has about 30% of women seeking such products, while Nigerian index is way higher at 77%.
Entertainment and technology are other arenas which are seeing a renewed African pride. Technology and internet are observed as the catalyst similar to what railroads were to the Western economies of the 19th century.
The ‘Made in Nigeria’ Android tablet Bamboo D700 produced by Debonair Devices and the South African-made Android smartphone by Seemahale Telecoms, launched in 2013, are completely manufactured in Africa and specifically designed for the African market. Kenyan nonprofit Ushahidi has come up with BRCK, a portable, durable internet connection hub. Specifically designed for use in African countries without constant electricity, BRCK automatically runs off its own eight-hour battery during power cuts and switches between Ethernet, wi-fi and 3G or 4G networks depending on which signal is available. A flurry of web based services and applications are popping up in tune with the local requirements, quickly catching up with the trends outside the continent. Social media applications have forged a pan-African sentiment bringing countries together on several occasions.
A striking case is that of Kayoola prototype electric bus created by Kiira Motors in Kampala, Uganda. Harnessing any resource available, the bus’ batteries can be recharged via solar panels on the roof which increases the vehicle’s 80km range.
Arts, cinema and music are rapidly gaining voice. So far fed on everything cast off from outside Africa, local ideas, sensibilities and technology are gaining ground. Released in South Africa in October 2013, Khumba is the country’s first ever movie to be produced in both Afrikaans and English. The second full-length movie from Cape Town’s Triggerfish Animation Studios, Khumba is a 3D animated story for kids and families featuring a cast of colorful safari characters typical of South Africa’s indigenous animals. Nigerian comic startup, Comic Republic is all set to feature African superheroes in games, its characters dubbed as ‘Africa’s Avengers’.
Even as Africanism is filling up the discourse, a Sino-African relationship has grown exponentially owing to massive investment schemes China has been signing with the African Union. Zimbabwe has adopted the Yuan as a reserve currency, which is set to gain more significance as China becomes a crucial player on the continent. Amongst grants, agriculture, energy and smart cities, education is a domain which finds a sweet interest of the Chinese with the possibility of introducing Mandarin in schools. There are over a million Chinese citizens across Africa, settling in since 2001. There are newer foods, fashions, familial structures and followed deities.
As history has had it, repeatedly, every single time, with each style of dominance, control or simple association, today, seeds are being sown of yet another confluence of cultures.