Africa Is Not ‘A Huge, Amorphous Continent’

Africa Is Not ‘A Huge, Amorphous Continent’
The great continent of Africa

AFRICANGLOBE – Believers in pan-Africanism are unlikely to see eye-to-eye with the de facto spokesman for South Africa’s advertising industry, by far the richest in the equatorial part of the continent and arguably the most influential.

Andrew Human readily acknowledges his limited experience of Africa but says he learnt a lot when he went on a four-week working trip early this year, doing roadshows and workshops in Zimbabwe, Tanzania, Kenyan, Nigeria and Ghana.

“The biggest thing that struck me is that we tend to talk about ‘Africa’ but people are not “African” and nobody considers themselves as African,” Mr Human contended as he prepared to host the Loeries, the annual advertising awards that he organises and that he wants to become progressively more for Africa rather than just SA.

“The Zimbabweans are Zimbabweans and they are competing with their neighbours; and so are the Kenyans and the Tanzanians, the Nigerians and the Ghanaians,” he said, reporting similarities with the way Europeans tend to feel about themselves — that is, attached to their own countries but still part of a continental group, the European Union.

“I felt there was a very healthy competition, everyone believes they are better than their neighbours. We need to start promoting the fact that Africa is not just this huge, amorphous continent, there are very distinct cultures.”

It is a complex debate and the idea of pan-Africanism goes back certainly to the 19th century when it was forged and polished by black intellectuals from communities on both sides of the Atlantic. It survives today in many manifestations, like the African Union, or in South Africa’s foreign policy, and in universities around the world. Advertising has not been one of its preferred habitats.

As the CEO of the Loeries — the name comes from the eponymous southern African bird Corythaixoides concolor with its distinct shrill cry — Mr Human is a big fan of competition and rankings for brands, companies and countries. That is the direction he wants the Loeries, and the advertising industry across Africa, to take.

The way not to go is “one size fits all”, a tempting route in an era of globalisation. Economic growth across some African countries has put the spotlight on business and, consequently, the kind of advertising it does. But high levels of ignorance and a frequent lack of any serious research about African consumers and markets will not be an acceptable excuse for very much longer when it comes to dropping cultural and other clangers. When SA-based mobile telephone giants advertised in English to French-speaking West African audiences or when some SA companies in Angola lost market share because their staff were under no pressure to learn Portuguese, their mistakes were due to English-language imperialism as well as to the assumption that a foreign language that was imported and imposed under colonialism could not become a truly nationalised one after independence.

You need to be familiar with Africa’s mega-cities, like Lagos, where the best advertising is on hi-tech billboards with ever-changing content. Why billboards? Because traffic jams are so colossal and slow that motorists are a captive audience for hours on end.

The “Africa Rising” narrative is valid for many African countries but impressive statistics on economic growth can mask the reality: it comes off a very low base. “Often people have no disposable income and the middle class is very small,” Mr Human said. Kenya and Nigeria are leading advertising markets, with Tanzania, Uganda and Angola coming up.

Coca-Cola’s global friendship campaign, where cans of the drink have personalised names, has struck chords because it combines a worldwide campaign with the essentials of local messaging. In Ghana, for example, Mr Human said Coke cans were printed with days of the week. It was meaningless to him until he was told that many Ghanaians are named according to the day on which they were born.

“To me you shouldn’t Africanise communication, you should nationalise it,” he said.

Whatever the market, today’s big spenders on advertising in Africa are virtually the same as many decades ago: beverages, fast-moving consumer goods (as the industry calls anything that flies off the shelf in the local supermarket) and banking.

The huge new sector is telecoms and mobile telephony.

And “aspirational advertising” — convincing poor people that they have access to luxury products they will never be able to afford — can be as successful in Africa as anywhere else.

“It’s about building a passionate relationship. It’s like Ferrari — people will never buy that car but they can buy the T-shirt or the key-ring,” Mr Human said. He recalled an episode in the South African bush years ago.

“There was a guy sitting near me who didn’t have 2c to his name but who was smoking a Peter Stuyvesant cigarette. I asked him why and his answer was “it’s my passport to international smoking pleasure’’.


By: Nicholas Kotch