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Dane van Zyl   |   14 Dec 2018   |   Inbound Marketing

The Challenges of Marketing in Africa

The astronomical online growth in Africa can’t be ignored. For all those interested in marketing in Africa, you need to know what’s happening on the continent.

Digital media marketing in emerging markets, particularly Africa, is a challenge. The development of agencies and client management in digital marketing are not as clear-cut as in the Western world. Digital marketing is by no stretch mature in the region yet, and it lacks the stability of plans and processes.

There are factors one needs to consider when undertaking marketing projects in the region, elements you might not even know exist, or consider in other areas of the world. Economies, socio-political intricacies, language, currency and even war all work against you if you are working in a digital marketing agency or even as a digital expert within a large corporate organization.

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Africa comprises 54 countries, with an estimated 2500-3000 different spoken languages, and it’s on the cusp of a technical revolution if the statistical growth of active online users is anything to go by. We’ve “run the numbers,” and the continent is opening up for digital marketing agencies in a big way.

However, successful marketing is one of the most challenging (and underestimated) aspects of businesses new and old. And the question is, how do you go about marketing in Africa?

There are a great many marginalized communities that need specific attention, regarding services or products, that you need to get the word out to. But it’s not as simple as putting up billboards anymore, which is apparent if you’ve ever seen the number of vacant billboards in Ndola Zambia.

So let’s have a look at what the numbers are saying.


Statistics Don’t Lie (most of the time)

The volume of internet users in Africa has grown immensely the last 18 years:

South Africa

Population: 55,436,360
Internet users year 2000: 2,400,000
Internet users year 2077:  29,935,634
Active Facebook users 2017: 16,000,000

That’s an increase of 1,147.3% in active internet users.


Population: 95,215,102
Internet users year 2000: 450,000
Internet users year 2017: 37,333,841
Active Facebook users 2017: 33,000,000

That’s an increase of 8,196.4%


Population:  35,241,418
Internet users year 2000: 100,000
Internet users  year 2017: 20,535,174
Active Facebook users 2017: 12,000,000

That’s an increase of 20,435.2%


Population:  41,063,753
Internet users year 2000: 50,000
Internet users  year 2017: 18,580,000
Active Facebook users 2017: 18,000,000

That’s an increase of 37,060.0%

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What do the statistics tell us?

Mostly, the statistics prove that Africa is one of the most significant emerging online markets in the world. What we don’t see from the figures above is that more and more Africans are entering the consumer class. Tens of millions have been emerging from poverty in recent years.

Making Africa one of the fastest growing consumer driven markets in the world.

According to African Economic Outlook, the percentage of working-age people in Africa is growing at a rate of 2.7 percent per year compared with 1.2 percent in Southeast Asia and 1.3 percent in Latin America. If the current growth persists, by 2025, nearly two-thirds of the estimated 303 million African households will have a disposable income. This significant expansion of the customer base will help fuel the continent’s GDP growth from 4.9 percent today to 6.2 percent in the next decade, far outpacing the global GDP growth rate of 3.7 percent.

African consumers are young and willing to spend. 53% of income earners in Africa are between 16 and 34 years old; an age associated with increasing online presence and growth.

And it’s not just the young that are getting on board with technology.

The consumers might be on the younger side but don’t think the older Africans aren’t getting with the times. If this seems far-fetched, then it’s worth mentioning that I received a Facebook invite a few weeks ago, nothing special you might say, except that it was from one of the elders I befriended while working in a remote village in Liberia, West Africa. Amara is a 73-year-old Liberian who can’t read or write English. Irrespective of that, we’re now connected on Facebook and communicate in our own way using video and pictures.

Urbanization and the rise of mobile communications are the top growth trends fuelling growth and by 2025 nearly half of Africans will be living in cities.

marketing in africa

Ok, so you should be convinced the numbers make sense, but what makes it so difficult then?



There’s no escaping it, with 54 countries in Africa you’re going to run into language issues.  To communicate effectively with African consumers marketing agencies must deliver messages in a wide range of languages. Nigeria’s only official language is English, but there are over 500 local languages spoken in the country. Granted everything could be done in English but will that be targeting your ideal persona

“Abnormal” Consumer Behavior

This might be an obvious point to make, but buying decisions vary greatly from one region to the next, and this isn’t just a language thing. Africa is massive, see the image below for a bit of perspective:

marketing in africa

Convinced yet?

Let’s consider Europe for a second. There are virtually no borders in Europe; when you drive from the Netherlands to Germany you only realise you’re in another country when you start seeing road signs in German. But the consumer habits between the Netherlands and Germany, vary drastically, not just in language but culture and habits as well. Now think about the size of Africa again and see why this is significant.

Take price sensitivity as an example: the majority of Angolans look at advertisements and comparison shop to get the best prices, but only 27 percent of Kenyans do the same. The point to note here is that the audience in a Western country is not the same as the one in Africa. The variation is also evident from one African country to another.

Political Instability And Conflict

Authoritarian governments and wars (most of you probably haven’t even heard of) continue to affect business and policy in many African countries negatively. According to freedomhouse.org, which measure political and civil liberties, of 54 African nations only ten are considered free, 22 are considered partially free, and 22 are considered not free at all. This results in problems with freedom of press, nepotism and a long list of issues that make marketing in the region harder.

Poor Infrastructure

With the help of large infrastructure projects and a good many Chinese road contracts most African cities now have modern road systems. Still, only about one-third of Africans live within two kilometres of a paved road that is usable year-round. There’s a long way to go, travel is prohibitively expensive, with transport costs nearly eight times higher than Brazil or Vietnam. Around 70% of the African population has no access to electricity or running water. These problems not only constrain consumer demands but supply as well.

Ports and access points in African countries are often run like an organised crime circle. Anyone that’s ever had to clear goods from Port Authority in remote African nations can contest the fact. This affects lead times and customs clearance, often resulting in major delays and serious unforeseen costs.

Why does this matter?

You need to know your marketplace, and these are very relevant points you need to be aware of when undertaking marketing projects for Africa. 

Quality and Availability of Data

Historically, there’s been an absence of market research and economic data about most parts of Africa, except for the largest cities. The result is a lot of guesswork, companies often hypothesize using existing data on big cities by applying it to the national or regional level, but this in itself results in inaccurate insights.

Where to Find Your Target Audience in Africa

We’re not talking about going on safari and sussing out where your audience finds themselves on a sunny afternoon, but instead on what piece of technology they spend their time. The apparent front-runner is the Smartphone, but there’s another you shouldn’t forget about. 

Feature Phones (With Advanced Features)

Feature phones are still very prevalent in Africa, and there’s a sizeable market for feature phone app development. Even the more developed countries in Africa still have huge audiences of people using the internet through feature phones. Smartphones are becoming more and more relevant with cheap Chinese Android versions entering the market, but you would be foolish to overlook feature phones in your marketing efforts.

Feature phones have moved away from just a basic phone, but if you’re married to the definition, it would be worth noting that popular devices like Blackberry, Windows and Nokia Asha would also be considered feature phones.

These devices are fully capable of performing the same functions as a smartphone, with some even sporting full touch screens. And if you ask the locals in Africa what they are using they would reply “a smartphone,” and they are not far off.

Advanced feature phones make up the largest percentage of all feature phones used on the continent as they are fully capable internet browsing devices, and thus it is recommended that they are implemented in any marketing strategy.

On that note, it’s good to keep in mind that leading marketing platforms like Google Display Network won’t reach this particular feature phone audience. So if you’re only targeting smartphones, you might be missing out on roughly 50% of the audience with purchasing power in Africa, who still choose to use a feature phone. Older generation businessman might still be using a Blackberry, just because they got used to it, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t make it onto your target audience. 

In-app Advertising Market

No question about it, apps have changed the world and the way online advertising is done. Global advertising conglomerates have lost their market share and many new smaller thought-provoking players have successfully entered the market to compete.

The result of all the new players entering the market? An entirely new and competitive landscape and ultimately a more complicated space to navigate:

If a game developer in Canada launches a new game which they operate on an advertisement model, they would build a game and then implement ad networks to capitalise on traffic. This can be with a range of ad units from native ads, video or even traditional banners. These game developers tend to use what is referred to as a waterfall monetisation model, where they select 3-4 different ad networks and monetise impressions.


Marketing in Africa


Google used to be the clear leader which made it easy for app developers to simply use one ad network, and it worked a charm. But now with a steady growth of specialised in-app advertising networks knowing which platform brings in more money isn’t all that clear anymore, and App developers are starting to explore their options.

Google has an estimate of only 20-30% of in-app inventory in Kenya, Nigeria, Ghana and South Africa. Companies like Airpush, Nexage, Smaato, Mopub, and Inneractive have the rest. App importance is growing by the day in Africa, and like the huge online potential emerging, it can’t be ignored.

It’s no secret that Social Media holds the key to a lot of (arguably the most) marketing potential in Africa. But what we hope you can take away from this article is:

  • The African market is fundamentally different to that of the rest of the world
  • You’ll have to leverage any market research you can get your hands on and truly think outside the box without hypothesizing too much.
  • Realise small things like knowing the difference between Feature phones and Smartphones could be the difference between a successful marketing campaign or a failed one.
  • Make use of local agencies to help build out successful marketing campaigns. There’s no need to reinvent the wheel.

Ultimately, Africa is a massive emerging market and it’s too big for you to ignore. 

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Dane van Zyl

Mostly I double as Robin when Batman needs me! On the side, the Co-Founder and CEO at Uku Inbound. Inbound marketing enthusiast. HubSpotter. Vegan. Amateur Voice Actor.