Thebe Ikalafeng: How Africa can construct world-class manufacturers

For 10 years, Brand Africa has been working to mobilize Africans and the diaspora to proactively advance a brand-led African agenda. Its founder and chairman The existence Ikalafeng tells us how Africa can build more successful brands

If you look at African brands today, would you say they are stronger than they were 10 years ago?

As at the turn of the decade, there is still an increased enthusiasm for building African brands. But the rhetoric does not correspond to reality. There has been less progress in the narrative of creating great brands. If you look at some of the strong brands, whether they are MTNs, Safaricoms or Dangotes, these have cemented their strengths and their brands remain a staple across the continent. But that’s a minority: we have to see a lot more brands come to the fore.

In the past decade, we’ve seen a greater presence of African talent around the world, be it in the fields of fashion, music, or art. Doesn’t that reflect a stronger brand Africa?

Africa has never been short of talent and the world has never stopped looking for inspiration in Africa. What we haven’t seen prominently are global African brands, even as “essential” as Zara and H & M or luxuries like Hermes and Goyard. Wherever people like Zara, H&M and others lead, it’s not just about quick thinking, but also about quick thinking in order to adopt or adapt to trends and customer knowledge.

There are many examples of African talent. The young South African designer Thebe Magugu, who became the first South African to win the prestigious LVMH award for fashion design. Ready-to-use African fashion retailer KISUA was founded by Ghanaian Sam Mensah to challenge Zara and H&M. Alara, the Nigerian high-end retailer founded by Nigerian businesswoman Reni Folawiyo. We have a lot of talent, we have a lot of enthusiasm, we have a lot of excitement and drive, but unfortunately we don’t see enough resources, patience and patronage to support their growth.

Are you saying that we need to invest more in branding, or do we need to look at brands differently, what a brand means, what a brand is and how that brand becomes global?

There are two parts. In general, Millennials brands are less forgiving and loyal than older generations. You will move on to the next brand when that brand doesn’t live up to its promise of what it does functionally, but also how it fits into society or how they see themselves, what it does for the environment. In Africa we are too forgiving and have often returned to brands that have been less benevolent or respectful of us – often because of a lack of alternatives.

When I went to the world’s largest advertising meeting two decades ago as Marketing Director for Nike for the continent on my first trip to Cannes, France, I was quite astonished to see that many brands were inspired by England and capitalize on their English heritage. The French sold France. But the brands from Africa tried to be American, British, or French.

It was a waking moment for me. African brands can’t and shouldn’t compete with the French when it comes to being French. You have neither the authority nor the authenticity. We need to bring a distinctive African narrative to the world. At Brand Leadership, that’s what we call “thinking locally and acting globally”. In other words, we should be inspired by our African identity and heritage, but achieve a global standard.

Where will Africa pierce through? Will it be in fashion, art, music, culture or will it be in technology, innovation, banking, logistics?

The greatest opportunity and low hanging fruit for African brands lies in technology and art. If you look at a brand like EVC in Somalia, Wari in Senegal and M-Pesa, technology has allowed us to overtake many western nations with problems from the legacy of brick and mortar. With mobile money, Africa has probably shown its greatest leadership. They are referenced. Therefore, Rwanda and Kenya are pursuing their initiatives to build world-class technology cities to harness technology and drive development not just for Africa but for the world.

When it comes to art and culture, we’ve always been with a global influence from Miriam Makeba from South Africa, who worked with Harry Belafonte in the 60s, or the most successful Broadway production, The Lion King, or Mantsho, the South African designers, who have collaborated present with H&M for their first global line of products inspired by Africa. Luxury fashion brands are constantly looking for inspiration in Africa.

The problem is not our talent, but the ownership of our creative output. We are often invited instead of owning the space and dictating our own terms. For example, Stella McCartney can ask for $ 1,000 for an item we sell for $ 5, or Louis Vuitton can openly refer to a Lesotho blanket and we’ll be the first to pay the 3000% premium.

We can reclaim our space because there is already an appreciation of the “African” aesthetic, or rather an appreciation of the design aesthetic that makes Africa different and admired.

We have a Ghanaian and Kenyan at the top of UK Vogue and another Ghanaian at LVMH so we see these guys in the most iconic places on a global scale. Still, African fashion remains a very small part of global fashion.

Even though we’ve taken those global positions that are theoretically influential, the faces on the covers and names behind the titles are the biggest change we’ve seen. It has not yet been translated into African-inspired creativity, African procurement, and African wealth. While Virgil Abloh brought Louis Vuitton street credit inspired by hip-hop and rap culture, he has yet to deliver a compelling Africa narrative. But it’s a good start.

One thing stands out from the survey: Africa has tech brands that we consume every day, the Googles and the Facebooks, and yet they are not as well known as your traditional brands. Why is that?

People’s relationship with brands is very instructive. Some brands become part of a person’s identity and affiliation, others become a necessary evil, so to speak.

In general, media and financial brands are not viewed as “badges of identity” but as a necessary evil. They are seen as essential goods rather than “brands” that reflect their status or position. That is the difference.

After all, we are in a crisis, a health crisis and an economic one right now. People say crises make a name for themselves. How do you build brands in a crisis?

As our “Africa’s Best Brands” initiative shows, we have mainly relied on non-African brands for luxury, but on African brands for the most part. During this crisis, in which the non-African and other luxury brands took a break, we have relied more and more on the main brands, mainly African, for our everyday lives.

Out of this crisis, those major brands are rewarded that have delivered with empathy, urgency, and need. The break from the global limelight due to the pandemic has created the opportunity to deepen local brands’ engagement with African consumers in their time of need beyond their functional needs and has once again given African brands a foundation and opportunity to engage in The Challenge.

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