JOHANNESBURG – At the entrance to the Shoprite supermarket in downtown Lusaka, women wrestle with shopping trolleys. It is the end of the month and salaries have been paid: the women have bought nappies, rice, sugar and sacks of maize meal half the weight of a bag of cement.
In front of the main doors, young men stand in the hot sun selling tomatoes and onions. On the street, makeshift stalls tout plastic-weave shopping bags, cellophane-wrapped Bibles, pens and herbal potions.
It is, in miniature, a scene typical of the street-side bustle that has long been the African shopping experience. The supermarket, however, is a newer phenomenon. Serene, air-conditioned and well stocked, it is an experience urban Africans are becoming increasingly accustomed to as South African retailers advance north.
The trend is being felt from Lagos to Luanda, Maputo to Kampala, and it is radically altering the shopping habits of the growing middle-class. Where the supermarkets have led, other international brands have followed: from Barclays to KFC and Nando’s.
McKinsey forecasts that Africa’s consumer industries will grow by more than $400 billion (M5 000) by 2020. All want the same thing — to tap into the aspirations of a new generation.
Before supermarkets arrived in Lusaka, Anga Kasanda, an account assistant, did her shopping at the sprawling open-air Soweto market. Packed with people and ripe vegetables, the place is full of sweat, noise and dust. Now she rarely goes.
In the Shoprite on Cairo Road, one of Lusaka’s main highways, Kasanda browses shelves of Italian (rather than Egyptian) pasta.
“Every location you go, there’s malls…. I can say that’s development. It’s changed the perspective of people,” she says.
For her, it’s the basics that have made a difference: being able to get hold of electrical appliances such as a steam iron, and being able to do an entire shop under one roof.
For millions of Africans, following a decade of strong economic growth, it is these seemingly mundane things that have helped to raise living standards.
Winning loyalty is important: Shoprite has opened 22 supermarkets in Zambia since the Cairo Road store first welcomed customers in 1995, but South African peers, including Pick n Pay, Woolworths, Mr Price, Pepkor and Spar, have embarked on their own charges across the continent.
In recent years, nine shopping malls have opened in Lusaka, a city of about two million people, with another three under construction.
“The way it is right now, people have got used to the malls; it’s become part of you,” says Wilson Mulambe, a finance student drinking coffee at Mugg & Bean in the Levy mall.
“When somebody buys something from the malls, there’s that status — you come from the wealthy class. But when you buy from the street, you don’t want anybody to know about it.”
Retailers need to keep pace with these rising aspirations. Riccardo Franco, a South African, moved to Zambia in 2010 as Pick n Pay’s operations manager to open its first store there. He has been amazed by Zambians’ appetite for expensive Swiss chocolate.
“We would sell 30 to 40 cases of Lindt in a month at our store in Woodlands mall when we first came here,” he says. Sales have continued to be strong.
Luke Mulenga, Pick n Pay’s demand planner, recalls that when he was a boy, Zambians relied on three state-owned retailers, which sold basics such as bread, cooking oil, maize and clothes; people would queue for hours to buy them during the shortages of the 1980s. For electrical goods, Zambians would keep an eye out for expatriates selling off bits and pieces when they left the country.
“Brands like Coca-Cola did not exist, you had to stick to local brands … we had Tip-Top, Sport Cola and Tarino,” says Mulenga. “We had a couple of small supermarkets and malls but, basically, they all had the same goods. If you wanted farm goods or something like that, you had to go to the local markets.”
Makeni Mall is an opposite vision — even if it is built on scrubland: two modern storeys of Nando’s, KFC, Standard Chartered bank, LG Electronics and others.
“The way I see it, the retailers are following what is happening … they can see the Zambian consumer has money and they are willing to spend it,” Mulenga says.
“It all started with the boom in copper prices.”
Still, progress can be slow in the developing markets. The cost of transporting goods on poorly maintained roads, ageing railways and through border crossings dogged by bureaucracy and corruption is notoriously high.
Franco recalls that, for about a year, the group’s Zambian stores had to manage without a popular brand of charcoal when the supplier’s machinery broke down, and he struggled to get hold of the spare parts.
“We still have a lot of panic-buying,” he says. “A customer will see a product and buy the whole shelf — because they are not sure it’s coming again.”
Christo Wiese, the billionaire patriarch of African retail, sits at the boardroom table of his office in Parow Industria in Cape Town.
“You just knew that Africa is a sleeping giant,” he says. “It’s going to wake up at some stage.”
Wiese watched with interest as Zambia moved from one-party rule to democracy in 1991 and the state-owned entities were sold off. He and Shoprite’s CEO, Whitey Basson, “could see what was coming” after 1990 and quickly identified the political changes in Zambia as a “very good opportunity”.
“The two of us discussed it and decided, well, that’s the right place to go,” says Wiese. First they had to overcome a lot of “pushback” from board members and colleagues. But Wiese and Basson were determined.
Shoprite — Africa’s largest food retailer, with annual sales of about $8 billion — has since opened in 13 other countries, including Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Lesotho and Uganda. Wiese sold Pepkor to Steinhoff International last year for $5.7 billion but insists his appetite for the African story is still strong.
In spite of the malls and shopping centres, the vast majority of African shopping still takes place in the informal sector.
At Soweto market in Lusaka, in the warren of rickety wooden and makeshift stalls, sacks of beans, tobacco, maize and sorghum are sold alongside cheap shampoos, soaps and brightly coloured heaps of second-hand clothes, known locally as salaula.
Kellys Mwila, a Bluetooth device behind his ear, a wad of notes in his hand, explains the economic attraction of the salaula trade as he sells tops for 10 kwacha (about M17) and dresses for between 20 and 25 kwacha. “In Zambia many people are poor and most buy salaula because they have no money to buy new clothes,” he says. – Financial Times Limited.