Africa: local focus reaches diverse retail markets

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Africa: local focus reaches diverse retail markets

With a growing population and larger middle class, Africa is expected to experience a boom in formal supermarkets over the next decade. More modern retail formats like Fruit & Veg City will mean a new, yet uniquely African shopping experience. CEO Brian Coppin and trading manager Frans van der Colff spoke with about customizing the Fruit and Veg City model across a diverse and expanding continent.

"As Africans, we love to shop in markets so these are just markets. We just put in some air conditioning and make it a bit _MG_0224fancier with a beautiful sign. But it’s the same feel. People can pick up the oranges, smell them, feel them. It’s not little prepacks that we do. Ours is all bulk and in your face," said van der Colff from the Produce Marketing Association's Fresh Connections conference in Cape Town.

Fruit & Veg City began 20 years ago under the direction of Coppin and his brother. The chain now has around 110 Food Lover's markets in South Africa and about 150 shops inside convenience stores.

In addition to the rapidly growing list of stores in South Africa, the company also has presense in seven African countries and counting.

Coppin explained that the core business from early on has been fruits and vegetables.

"The business was built first and foremost on fresh produce. When we started the business, we only sold fresh produce. It’s only in the later years that we’ve developed other fresh departments like butcheries and bakeries, delicatessens and sushi. But fresh produce is still our core business. It’s probably 50% of our turnover now," Coppin said.

"It’s the introduction to our stores. It commands the biggest space and the whole idea is that when you walk into the store you get into this wonderful fresh department with lots of colors and big stacks. It’s really about inviting big displays and good prices."

Although Africa offers vastly different markets, a frequently successful format has been bulk sales over prepackaged produce.

"Our business is based a lot more on lose-selling products. So we don’t do a massive amount of packaging as some of the supermarkets in the U.S. would do. Perhaps the closest to us would be a Whole Food operation in terms of fresh produce, except I think we are a bit more value driven," Coppin said.

"We do a whole lot more bulk sales in South Africa than you would do in the U.S. or Europe."

High hopes across the continent

Three years ago, van der Colff came on to the Fruit & Veg City team to help bring the format to the rest of Africa. Van der Colff's plans for the continent are ambitious. He has a 50-store expansion plan over the next five years.

In the next 18 months alone, new  stores are planned in the Ivory Coast, Ghana, Rwanda, Uganda, Swaziland, Ethiopia, Tanzania and Mozambique.

"We do franchising, which enables us to support with our expertise and knowledge, system and buying power. It enables us to have a local representative in each country," van der Colff said.

"I have to have local expertise. I cannot be an expert on Ghana, Angola, Mozambique. They’re all different. Mozambique is vastly different to Ghana. Ghana is vastly different to Zambia. So I think our strength is the fact that we’re a little bit more nimble than the big players because we’re still smaller. We can move quicker."

Van der Colff emphasized the importance of adaptation to each new market.

"It’s about the different cultures. The most important thing is for you to respect those cultures. It would be a sin for me to do business in a country that’s so rich with culture and heritage and ignore it blatantly. I have to buy into it, become a part of it and become a company from that country. I think that’s going to be our long-term success and sustainability," he said.

Until now, van der Colff said companies have lacked the flexibility to meet Africa's needs. The model established in Nairobi or Johannesburg may look exactly the same as the recreation in Accra or Luanda.

"They can get away with that for now because there is very little competition, but not as competition increases. The same thing happens in South African townships. When there is only one brand in South African townships, people are forced to buy it. As soon the competition comes in, they absolutely ignore that first brand because it never adapted to their needs," he said.

The ability to drive competition across Africa is a key motivator for van der Colff and Fruit & Veg City.

"For me, it’s where we can make a difference. It’s no use for me to go to the Australian market or the U.S. Those markets have it. It’s not that I don’t want to be the best – I do. But there I go head on with the best in the world. In Africa, I can really change the environment. That’s really what I want to do," he said.

"I don’t care whether they’re rich or poor. That’s got nothing to do with the equation. They all eat. If I give them what they want, they’ll buy if from me."

Reaching the local corner store

On a continent where prices remain high and options low, van der Colff and Coppin both pointed out the value of offering greater convenience and affordability.

Coppin highlighted expansion into gas stations, a quick format previously unknown in much of the continent. Beginning with their shops in South Africa, Coppin described a growing tendency toward easy, localized stores.

"Fresh produce wasn’t ever in fuel courts before. Five years ago it was smokes, cokes and chips. Fresh is getting more and more prominent in them. In our FreshStops in Caltex – which is a Chevron group – you would walk into a fresh produce department as the introduction to the store and that’s new," Coppin said.

"People are shopping closer and closer to home, so convenience shopping is becoming more of a driver. So you’ll see smaller format stores opening all over South Africa. You’ll have big supermarkets getting down into convenience stores, either in fuel courts or in smaller formats with their full range and all of their expertise on distribution and logistics."

Van der Colff described a similar desire to become the neighborhood, go-to shop across the region.

"In Accra, Ghana, for example, about 80% of the people still shop in the central fruit and veg market in the center. But with traffic problems, it takes you three hours from one end to get there," he said.

"If I were to put stores in the neighborhoods, people are going to see me as the local market. And I can give them better quality and prices because there is a cold chain in place."

Photo: Frans van der Colff, left, and Brian Coppin, by Steven LeRoux Photography

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