African brands

Changing the continent's narrative

Mongezi Mtati chats to Founder and Chairman of Brand Africa, Thebe Ikalafeng who shared some of his findings on what makes some of Africa’s most iconic businesses and brands.

Thebe Ikalafeng has spent over thirteen years analysing Africa’s most successful and admired brands. Mongezi Mtati was in conversation with Ikalafeng about the brands building Africa. “If intra-Africa trade is to increase from 15% – 50% in the next seven years as envisioned by the African Continental Free Trade Area, we need to fast-track the creation of ‘Made in Africa’.” This is the view of Thebe Ikalafeng, Founder and CEO of the Brand Leadership Group and Founder and Chairman of Brand Africa.

A self-proclaimed advocate for a brand-led African renaissance, Ikalafeng has spent 13 years analysing Africa’s most successful and admired brands for Brand Africa. He takes great delight in companies like MTN, M-Pesa, Safaricom, Ethiopian Airlines and Dangote. They are just some of the continent’s brands making it big. What they have in common is that they are enablers.

Enabling and transforming lives

M-Pesa is a great example. Starting at 5% of the Kenyan market in 2006, it grew to 70% by 2010. Why? Because as the first product that enabled Africans to transact across the continent, it transformed lives, businesses and economies.  

Similarly, Ethiopian Airlines was the first African airline to create an African commercial hub. It quickly grew from an intra-continental success into an international sensation, enabling anyone – or anything – travelling into, out of, or across the continent to do so hassle-free. 

Companies like these are what Ikalafeng calls ‘the Story of Africa’. But it’s not all about big heritage brands. 

Challenger brands

South Africa’s Drip Footwear and Bathu are among the young apparel brands challenging Nike and Adidas. They’re flowing into the continent and capitalising on the power of digitalisation to break barriers. 

Ikalafeng sees Africa’s Free Trade Area as driving the movement of goods across the continent, presenting many opportunities. “Africans are naturally spirited, adaptable and entrepreneurial,” he says.

What’s the recipe for a successful continental brand?

Over more than a decade of Brand Africa’s Africa Report, which analyses and ranks the most admired brands on the continent, Ikalafeng says that although the reach of the research has deepened (from 11 to over 30 countries), the fact that only 20% of brands admired by Africans are African, remains consistent. So what are these brands, who go from local product to continental success, doing right?

He says it’s about getting the basics right. “Every successful brand story starts with good insights about what defines it and what it stands for. 

“We adapt our marketing for different audiences, but the one thing that shouldn’t change is clarity about the brand and the difference it makes in people’s lives.” 

What makes some brands fail on the continent?

Woolworths and Shoprite are both well-known for unsuccessful attempts to expand from South Africa to other African markets. According to Ikalafeng, success requires adaptation to different markets, and he runs through a few basics. 

“You can’t tell the same story to a customer in Nigeria as you tell to one in South Africa. Will your packaging and symbolism resonate? There’s a fine balance between keeping your brand essence without imposing on the new market.”

Business imperatives also quickly become issues. If you source all your products from your home market, you will run into problems of taste and supply chain issues. 

Your costs will be higher, and operating in different currencies makes it difficult to repatriate your profits. There’s much to consider when planning a move into new markets. It’s much easier to move an MTN than it is to move food or fashion.

The hottest trends across Africa right now

Ikalafeng sees Africa pushing the boundaries with technology. “FinTech and finance are particular strengths for South Africa, but in West Africa, they use mobile money better than anywhere else,” he says.

Across the continent, music and the African identity are the two most effective communication tools. Music is no surprise, but it brings all the feels to knowing that pride in Africa sells brands.

Winners stand out

Ikalafeng says Africans’ big mistake is undermining what makes us different. “We want to fit in rather than stand out. We forget that winners are the ones who stand out. Our strength lies in being African. We have to stop apologising for that.”

This is a man who loves celebrating his culture. He tells me that when an invitation advises formal dress, that means formal African dress. He loves to stand out as an African. “Show up as African wherever you go because that is your distinction.”

Listen to Mongezi Mtati’s conversation with Thebe Ikalafeng.

This article was published in INC Africa

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