On the Rise

mallsAfrica is home to the fastest-growing middle class in the world, and retail business is booming on the continent to keep up with consumer demand.

Jackson Biko looks at Kenya’s shopping habits, while Olive Gachara picks out the season’s best buys.

If you cut to the chase, it’s all about keeping up with the Joneses. That’s the mantra that defines the middle class of Africa, the new phenomenon that has been reported to have tripled over the past 30 years, with one in three people considered living above the poverty line. According to a recent report by Deloitte, The Rise and Rise of Africa’s Middle Class, this

group will reach 1.1 billion in 2060. And as African economies are growing (seven of the ten fastest-growing in the world are African) the wealth is trickling down and Africa is home to the fastest-growing middle class in the world.

In Kenya, the number of people classified as middle class doubled in the last decade to almost a fifth of the population, according to the African Development Bank (AfDB). The middle class, as defined by AfDB, are people with an annual income exceeding Ksh340,000 per year and spending between Ksh500 and Ksh900 a day. This middle class is mostly defined by tertiary-educated people holding salaried jobs or owning small businesses, along with urban residency and ownership of household goods such as refrigerators, phones, flat screen TVs and automobiles.

Although Nairobi has long been considered the emblem of Kenya’s growing consumerism, it’s actually Mombasa that has been wearing this mantle silently. According to a recent ranking of Africa’s cities in a report by the Economist’s Intelligence Unit (EIU), Mombasa was placed second in East Africa, after Kampala. All the same, Nairobi ranks 14 in the index of Africa’s most expensive cities to live in. The consumer spending trends in Africa’s cities place Nairobi and Mombasa as two of Africa’s emerging Top 20 strategic markets in the continent.

As middle class spending power increases, given this background, Western-influenced shopping preferences are beginning to take hold in the country. For Western retailers this is the beginning of a new golden age in Kenya and Africa in general. For the Kenyan middle class this means that the hunger for luxury, and for affluent goods and services, is growing steadily.

Enter the malls. They are the largest represen-tation of the growing consumerism in Kenya. They are flashy and swathed in glass and tiled floors. Every weekend this glorified and much written about middle class meet there either to shoot the breeze in one of the urbane coffee houses selling mochas and cappuccinos (that you would find anywhere in the capital cities of the world) or try on a pair of Levis that flatter the bum. Or – if they are on a school break – they meet to hang out and eat designer yoghurt, as they spot who is wearing what from where.

Weekends are a shoppingfest in most of the major malls in Nairobi and Mombasa. The positioning of major supermarket chains like Nakumatt, Tuskys, Uchumi and Chandarana acts like a pied-piper to consumers, driving in foot traffic to major malls like Galleria, Sarit Centre, Village Market, Capital Centre, Junction Mall and City Mall, Thika Road Mall, Nakumatt Mega and Prestige Plaza, as well as Mombasa’s Premier shopping mall – City Mall, Nyali. A recent report by Consumer Insight, a consumer research company, reported that 66% of consumers now shop at supermarkets because of convenience and pricing margins. The other third are, no doubt, thinking about it.

One of the largest clientele of the malls is Generation Y, who have been reported by Youth Dynamix to be spending Ksh64billion annually on clothes, entertainment and outings. These are the youths that will be seen nipping in and out of the more popular brands in these malls, looking for something to eat, wear or watch.

At the heart of the middle class drive is aspiration. It’s the jet fuel that moves their turbine of ambition. Robert Frank, in his book Luxury Fever, talks about the need of this group to keep up with the rich folks. The luxury boom creates a trickle-down kind of spending where everybody wants to wear, eat, and drive what the rich middle class is sporting. With chains such as KFC and ArtCaffe opening up more shops, it means that everyone is exposed to this upmarket consumerism.

The opening of KFC at the Junction not long ago demonstrated the hunger of a foreign franchise and how well the people validated that hunger. For months after its opening, queues of customers seeking a taste of the chicken ran for tens of metres, winding out the store and down staircases. At night, Mercury Lounge lights up with partygoers and sports fans glued to their big screens.

Recently I attended a glitzy cocktail party for the opening of the Patrick Mavros shop at The Village Market Mall. World-renowned celebrities such as Eric Clapton, Hugh Grant, Sharon Stone, Hillary Clinton and George Bush all sport a piece of the Mavros unique and bespoke silver jewellery. With shops already in London and Mauritius, rumour has it that Mavros was setting up shop at The Village Market because he would like to “share the stories that inform my jewellery with my brothers and sisters in Kenya. After all, as Africans, our stories run in a common thread.” But also, he forgot to mention that Village Market – a lumbering shopping and recreation complex built in the shape of an open-air African market and the home to over 150 stores sitting in an area of 210,000 sq m – is also a prime location to sell his work, like a bracelet that goes for US$1500 a pop. The invited guests that thronged the opening, apart from sipping gaudy cocktails, didn’t seem to bat eyelids at those prices. The Village Market offers that outdoorsy feel, that horticultural touch for shoppers who would like to enjoy the openness of the African sky while they shop or have a meal at the popular open food court in the complex.

Fashion, which hitherto was an almost stagnant industry, is fast establishing a foothold in Kenya, and the retail industry in the recent few years has experienced a major boom. Because of easy and affordable access to cable television by providers like Zuku and DSTV and a middle class who are now better read, travelled and exposed to trends from the west, more people are seeking up-to-date fashion. International brands are elbowing each other for a piece of this pie. Spanish clothing line Zara entered the market recently under a distribution agreement with local retailer Deacons, bringing the high-fashion catwalks of Milan, New York and London right to our doorstep. The shop opened with a leggy fashion show assault at the recently opened Thika Road Mall. Thika Road Mall became the first mega shopping mall along the much-celebrated – and talked-about – eight-laned Thika superhighway. Nakumatt Holdings opened the first Clarks Footwear Concept store in sub-Saharan Africa at the mall. There are also plans to open Disney stores in the near future.

Nakumatt are also planning to launch Bossini, the worldwide garment distributor and retailer label based in Hong Kong, at Yaya Centre and The Village Market. But Thika Mall will not have much time to settle into business before competition arrives in the form of Garden City Mall, a new project that is in development not too far away on the Thika Highway. South African-based retail chains Foschini and Edgars are already said to be interested in setting up shop at the mall when it opens sometime this year.

The Yaya Centre, if you last checked a long time ago, has done some major transformation. Currently the Link Road– Kilimani Ring Road is undergoing major roadworks. The entrances and exits to the mall have also changed a bit. But what hasn’t changed is Dim Sum and Bangkok Chinese restaurant in the Food Hall on the second floor. Apart from their menus, the beauty is that you can select your own ingredients and have a meal prepared by their own chef. Which means what your food eventually tastes like is in your hands. Sort of. Try their Tofu with noodles and bean sprouts served in a Hosin sauce. Let’s see how long you can last before you find your way back. The current record is two weeks.

When all the malls are bragging, Sarit Center brags by calling itself “A city within a city”. Before malls had become what they are today, Sarit had already opened its doors to business. That was way back in 1983. More and glitzier malls have opened all around Nairobi, with their floppy hats and large sunglasses, but that hasn’t reduced the popularity of the Sarit Center. The edge Sarit has over the rest perhaps is their expo space. It’s the home of expos with their 3000 square feet of expo space.

Eventually the question that is left lingering after the last middle class person has bought his final tequila at Mercury’s ABC Mall, eaten his last morsel of authentic Indian food from Haveli Restaurant at Capital Center Mall or watched the credits run up the movie screens at Sarit Center, is: “What do malls represent in our society?” Malls of Africa are a metaphor of progress. They are Africa’s largest and latest symbol of the continent’s new-age status. Our progress will be found in our infrastructure, yes, but at the malls it’s represented by the things we drink, admire, talk about, wear and smell.

Malls are more than places where you get your espresso shots as you see the class acts waddle by, they are where you are reminded of the benefits of money. It’s also a reminder to the investors that retail is one of the hottest investments in Africa right now.