Home to 1.2 of the world’s seven billion people, Africa has long captured the imagination of both business and political leaders because of its massive growth potential. Until now, however, this growth has been more of a promise than reality, borne out by the fact that several of the world’s leading companies–including Coca Cola, Nestle, Barclays, and many others–have significantly scaled back or altogether withdrawn from doing business in Africa. But, according to a recent article in the Harvard Business Review written by Clayton M. Christensen, Efosa Ojomo, and Derek van Bever, new innovations may help bring the promise of Africa’s spectacular growth to fruition.
In most developing economies, investors and entrepreneurs chase after growing middle classes as the target market for their goods and services. Many leaders hoped that this would prove true in Africa and that the continent would provide a repeat of the Asian “tiger economies” of the late twentieth century, but as the authors point out, Africa’s middle class never really developed. As a result, large multinational corporations seeking to do business in Africa pinned their hopes on a demographic that simply wasn’t there, thus setting them up for inevitable losses. Aside from an anemic middle class, the authors also noted that corruption, skills shortages, and a lack of reliable infrastructure constituted other barriers to growth.
However, rather than wait for a middle class to arrive, business can succeed in Africa by looking to the needs of the “aspiring poor.” The idea that multinational corporations should practice an “inclusive capitalism” that focuses on aspiring poor communities in emerging markets rather than middle classes in established markets first appeared in C.K. Prahalad and Stuart Hart’s 2002 article, “The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid.” Christensen, Ojomo, and van Bever invoke these ideas in their discussion of Africa to point out that business can focus on catering to the needs of the continent’s aspiring poor in order to create new markets instead of pursuing non-existent middle classes.
As a case study for this proposition, Christensen, Ojomo, and van Bever focus on Tolaram, an Indonesian conglomerate that operates in Nigeria and sells the wildly popular Indomie brand of instant noodles. Tolaram opted to market a product toward Nigeria’s aspiring poor through their line of low-cost noodles that are affordable, easy to make, and nutritious. In order to keep costs low, the company “internalizes the risks” of doing business in an emerging market, such as incorporating electricity and water production into its operations, buying a fleet of trucks to transport its product, and more. Today, Tolaram and its Indomie noodles are ubiquitous in Nigeria, indicating that foreign corporations can enjoy success in African markets if they introduce innovative, adaptable strategies for growth.
Of course, investment in Africa will not come without its share of costs and challenges. But as companies like Tolaram prove, for foreign entrepreneurs who are willing to focus their attention on Africa’s aspiring poor, growth and success on the continent are possible.