CNN regularly runs commercials like “Invest in Macedonia” or “Invest in Remarkable Indonesia” that present reasons for foreign investments in these countries such as a growing middle class, corporate tax breaks, a youthful and educated population, political reforms, etc. When it comes to promote the business-friendliness of African countries, so far that message has been mostly carried by events across the world, from invitation-only, highly priced, industry conferences to global platforms headlined by renowned CEO’s and heads of government. The ConnectAfrica conference in Brussels Belgium early 2016 was a hybrid product made of the best of the two categories above.
Hosted in the Galeries du Roi, a prestigious heritage site neighbouring the Grand Place, a world top 10 tourist attraction, the conference was packed with high-level public officials, corporate decision makers, early-stage start-ups and aspiring entrepreneurs. The atmosphere was strong-focus, straight-to-the-point, high expectations.
I presented two case studies. Real world, on-the-ground, actionable insights on consumer-facing enterprises. The phrase that attendees retained the most out of my exposé was “Doing Business in Africa Not For Sissies”. “What do you mean exactly?” many of them kept on asking me.
The best part of the questions-and-answers sessions (Q&A) I participated in this year is sharing ideas, discussing investment opportunities, learning about business best practices, promising innovations and projects from raw concepts and product prototypes to rising SME’s.
But several attendees at ConnectAfrica at the entr’acte said that they were “surprised” that there had been no Q&A after my presentation! What happened is that after I concluded my presentation, the MC told the audience that he had realized that the whole event had started late and was behind schedule as a result. He had no choice but to push the button Catch Up. That meant, unlike each of the two preceding speakers, no Q&A for me.
This “surprise” turned out to be a unique opportunity. In general, in Q&A sessions, the moderator only takes a limited number of questions and gives only one chance to individual attendees to ask a question. Therefore, in this particular event format where attendees are experts and connoisseurs, a majority refrains from asking questions. The reasons are varied. Some have more than one question or they have a question from which they expect a true discussion with the speaker. Others don’t have a question: they want to give their point of view or to tell their experience at length. Others favour a one-to-one with the speaker as their talk might include specific information.
Consequently, the absence of a Q&A unexpectedly offered me the opportunity to have a rich panel of targeted questions and in-depth conversations; not only at the networking event that followed the group of presentations and speeches, but also post-event as a handful of attendees and I took the conversations to a brasserie downtown Brussels. Then the following days and weeks I had various followups with several attendees.
One gentleman was planning to become a tomato grower in DR Congo, a lady was developing an amazon-type of service in Rwanda. With a public official from Ethiopia, we exchanged views about the new developments at the Addis Ababa airport and at Ethiopian Airlines. Some attendees had tough questions like “When is the best time to quit my job to fully dedicate myself to my business”. Or “I hear this and that about African consumers: will they be there for my product?”. With the ambassador of Botswana, I had the chance to learn more about where the country’s economy is headed: I look forward to exploring Botswana some day!
As I am writing this, I am salivating at a particular couple of meetings due to take place within the GainXperience European Tour. They will have a special flavour as they were born in that no-Q&A Brussels evening.
More info on The GainXperience European Tour 2016 here.
Photos: David Olkarny
Many thanks to Connect Africa
The Triangle d’Or, a shopping district in Casablanca, is becoming the premier destination for luxury in Morocco. Upscale stores are opening one after the other, well-off residents are moving in. But the district’s expansion is also chaotic. For retailers, the challenges that come with a highly-prized presence in the Triangle are becoming more acute every passing day.
If you have been one of the thirty million annual visitors to Paris, then you may have strolled at Le Triangle d’Or, a neighbourhood considered as one of the world’s top destinations for ultimate luxury. Bordered by the Champs Elysées, Avenue Montaigne and Avenue George V, the Triangle d’Or enclave is home to Yves St Laurent, Balenciaga, Dior, Vuitton, Givenchy, Chanel, Gucci among other flagship stores. There, shopping is a journey into haute couture, contemporary art and rich heritage.
Le Triangle d’Or is also the nickname of the Quartier Racine, a district in Casablanca that houses high-end fashion and sophisticated lifestyle brands. Bordered by the grand boulevards Anfa, Zerktouni and Ben Kaddour, the place fosters a cosmopolitan art de vivre thanks to a cluster of elite hoteliers, restaurateurs, art gallerists, beauty specialists and interior designers.
Behind the anchors Yves St Laurent, Cerrutti, Chopard, Bulgari and Cartier, the line-up of tenants is growing and diversifying steadily. American and British brands are moving in, so are A-list real estate agents and international schools.
Here is however where the Casablanca story is different: initially the district was never intended for intensive commercial use. It was expected to develop gradually, in the shadow of existing hubs such as the Badr Market, one of Casablanca’s most popular traditional markets.
But it literally woke up one day with a tight group of big name retailers, a pair of flattering profiles in the press and a reputation for attracting riches. This triggered a rush of retailers and businesses, which in turn generated a high demand for commercial- and residential space. According to a local leading real estate agency, the Triangle d’Or remains the most expensive neighbourhood in Morocco year after year.
Expansion, a rough ride
The Triangle d’Or is now much more than Rue Aïn Harrouda – Casablanca’s most expensive street, and Rond Point des Sports – the square serving as the gate to the district. The territory now extends to several blocks around Avenue Sijilmassi and Boulevard Taoujtate. New upscale buildings are popping up like mushrooms, redefining the district’s frontiers, serving as the catalyst for an inexorable gentrification.
As new, well-off residents are moving in, both the architectural character and the social fabric of the neighbourhood are changing in a frenetic, fragmented, even brutal fashion.
Developers typically acquire a piece of land or an existing apartment building, and move forward with their construction or renovation project. Focused on short term objectives, they operate in an isolated way and are not integrated into a comprehensive development plan.
Apart from Rue Aïn Harrouda and Rond Point des Sports, both featuring modern design and an array of furnishings, there is a sense of piecemeal development in the area. A typical street features modest apartment buildings, low-profile one-storey houses with fading facades on one hand, and newly built commercial and residential properties with glass windows and automatic gates on the other hand.
Among the new residents, a category is particularly affected by the lack of a comprehensive revitalization scheme: retailers. The increased traffic volume that they generate exacerbates the already prevalent, acute, decade-long issue of the lack of parking facilities in Casablanca city centre.
One day I happened to witness first-hand a heated argument between a shopper and a gardien. Gardiens (or gardiana when it’s a woman) are the thousands of independent car valets who park and guard your car across Casablanca. In many areas, they are not optional, as upon your arrival, they aggressively “propose” their services in exchange for a handful of dirhams. In addition, they reserve the vacant space for prospective clients. As a result, in many parts of the city, you cannot park without gardiens.
One day, after shopping, the man had returned to his car only to find that it had suffered severe damages on the front side. He had suspected a hit-and-run driver. But on this particular day, he decided to observe from afar the practices of the gardien operating in the area where he had parked his car. What he saw was not only an awful spectacle at the expense of another car, but also convinced him that that gardien was responsible for his own misfortunes. He confronted him and threatened to call the police. The argument was extremely tense, breaking the discrete atmosphere of the place, colliding with the well-mannerisms of the residents, shoppers and tenants; forcing them to stop their quiet dealings and witness the scene.
For now, retailers, too focused on the short term, too content to be present in the much coveted place where the wealthy and the powerful converge, dine and shop; don’t regard the traffic congestion and parking related issues as specific to the Triangle, let alone as barriers to business. They blame the city council or isolated, unfortunate circumstances.
But being on the frontline, they are the ones who face visitors and shoppers’ exasperation with the growing difficulties to come and stay in the Triangle. They realize they will be the first to face the consequences of the lack of modern amenities from parking facilities, appropriate signing, enhanced walkways to upgraded lighting, outdoor sitting areas.
It will be interesting to see in the coming years if and how they will switch from a wait-and-see attitude centered on capitalizing on the Triangle’s prestigious cachet, to an active role of makers and promoters of an enhanced Triangle experience, based on improvements in the functionality, safety and attractiveness of the district.
A SELECTIVE LIST OF TENANTS
Bella Pelle (Tods, Salvatore Ferragamo, etc.), Cerrutti 1881, Fendi, Frou Frou, Furla, Hackett, Karen Millen, Kooples, La Perla, Lee Cooper, Marina Rinaldi, Max Mara, Missoni, Nadoushka, Sandro, Studio 14 (Balmain, Valentino, Lanvin), Yves Saint Laurent
Beaux Ongles , Bosch, Bulgari, Cartier, Chopard, Descamps, Dolce Caffee, Fit Avenue, Galerie d’art Marsam, Gray Boutique Hotel & Spa, L’Atelier du Sourcil, La Vie Claire, Les Frères Gourmets, Loft Art Gallery, Madurel, Mystère, Richbond, Riva Foncière, Tchaba Tea, Urban Living, Yellow Korner, Zanussi Kitchen
I regularly happen to witness the following scene in clothing stores: a customer asks a sales associate where he/she can find the outfit the sales associate is wearing. The latter replies that it is no longer in stock or that it comes from another brand. “Sorry“ they conclude with an embarrassed smile. A few times I have also witnessed sales staff literally indicating where customers can find the other brand.
In retail, particularly within the store environment, customer-facing staff are the company’s most vital asset and are to fulfil a role beyond mere selling: being both the face of the brand and instrumental in delivering a satisfactory customer experience. Essentially, as they wear the employer brand they become ambassadors at every point of contact with customers. But many sales staff are not up to the task, leaving customers with inadequate answers, unmet needs, and frustration. As they fail to connect with customers, customers don’t engage with the brand.
Clearly, no matter how much, say, Puma spends on sponsoring Usain Bolt, if shoppers are dissatisfied with their experience at Puma stores, they will take their money elsewhere.
The reasons salespeople don’t wear the employer brand are varied. Some don’t feel engaged with the brand and have a purely transactional conception of their role: it’s a pay-bills job. Others don’t want to associate themselves with the brand, if for instance the brand reputation is in shatters. Others just don’t find the brand appealing, choosing to carry on with their own usual style or to personalize their personal appearance. Others have received no guidelines, no guidance from the company, taking it for a license to wear and promote whatever suit them.
From clothing stores and coffee shops to cosmetics stores and supermarkets, most retailers reckon the importance of their employers acting as brand ambassadors, but very few have a precise idea of what it entails, let alone have a system put in place to help staffs carry out the mission. In particular, retailers whose staffs consist of a sizeable number of millennials, fail at seizing the significant opportunity of using their influence, both in the physical and online space.
THE PROFESSIONAL LOOK
An essential tool for creating powerful brand ambassadors is the dress code. It can take the form of a simple shortlist of do’s and don’ts or of a full lookbook. The lookbook presents the advantage of clarifying the company’s positioning and vision vis-à-vis brand ambassadorship: they take it seriously. It serves as a clear statement that the company view staffs as its first and most valuable flag bearers.
Secondly the lookbook offers a clear framework, a catalogue of visuals that kills the risk of a mismatch between what the company expects and what the staff may understand. Staff will show up at work knowing beforehand exactly what they should be wearing, how the dress code will be enforced, who in the company supervises and can assist. Beyond the obvious (“must look professional”), a solid lookbook can go as far as detailing the color palette, material spectrum, references, patterns for hair, clothing, jewellery, footwear. It can present guidelines for tattoos, pins, fragrances.
But in the era of over-supply and hyper-competition where end-users are in the driver’s seat, consumers want to be treated as individuals. They want personalized experiences. And they take this mindset with them in the workplace. We are in the age of the partner. Staff or partners will be more inclined to adhere to a dress code and be true brand ambassadors if the company welcomes personal expression. The dress code becomes an invitation to shine as individuals. The company must trust that partners will make the right aesthetic choices as they observe the dress code.
Ultimately smart companies that convert staff into evangelizers and ambassadors with style, even edginess, for their brand not only generate long-lasting employee engagement, but also sends a positive message about the company culture and solidifies its attractiveness vis-à-vis the clientele and potential new staff.
Ihsani Nkhata is a Nairobi, Kenya based fashion designer whose Ihsani Culture brand is “inspired by a diversity of cultures and trends for the global African woman or man”. She creates a bridal collection, evening gowns and day-to-day easy wear pieces.
At a recent high profile fashion event in Nairobi dedicated to showcase the crème de la crème of young fashion labels, she was wearing pieces from her collection. It was a powerful conversation starter/facilitator with visitors and an ideal booster of customer engagement. At times her pop-up store was so crowded, that she couldn’t deal with each customer. However, Ihsani’s brand ambassadorship did the job as many customers and visitors could just make a decision based on watching her like a live mannequin, enjoying her presentations and envisioning themselves wearing the creations.