“People still talk about Africa as if it is some sort of homogenous entity – it really is not,” warns Kembi Ebi, the co-founder of Versus Africa, a market research platform that specialises in helping businesses capitalise on the region’s potential. “Brands make the same mistake over and again, whether you’re talking about the multi-national consumer giants or local businesses expanding from one part of the region to another.”
That mistake, Ebi insists, is to grossly underestimate the importance of understanding local markets – how a product launch in one region of Nigeria, say, might require completely different pricing and marketing to the identical launch in another part of the country, let alone in Egypt or South Africa.
Versus’s role, then, is to provide the kind of detailed insight that consumer brands require to put that lack of understanding right. “We provide a simple way for brands to access very pure research on markets across Africa,” Ebi explains.
To do that, Versus mines social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, as well as local news sources, blogs and other online resources, to build complex pictures of consumer sentiment. Crucially, Versus is armed with an understanding of languages and slang from across the continent, enabling it to capture what consumers are really thinking far more accurately than newcomers to the region, who may lack this expertise.
In addition, Versus is able to work directly with brands to deliver specific pieces of research. It reaches out to panels of consumers from across the continent, who are paid to take part in surveys conducted on behalf of brands.
No-one is denying the potential of Africa as an economic powerhouse. In his book Unlocking Africa’s Business Potential, Landry Signé, a senior fellow in the Global Economy and Development Program and the Africa Growth Initiative at the Brookings Institution, points to the region’s positive demographics. By 2030, Africa will have 1.7 billion people and combined consumer and business spending of $6.7 trillion, he points out.
However, that potential is concentrated in pockets. Around half of the African population will live in just seven countries: Nigeria, Egypt, Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Tanzania, Kenya and South Africa. More than half of combined business and consumer spending will take place in just three of those countries, South Africa, Nigeria and Egypt.
In that landscape, any business that blunders in without a granular understanding of the African market is likely to run into trouble very quickly, says Ebi. Many businesses already have, he points out, with both multi-national and local companies often forced to pull back from ambitious plans in African markets after discovering they had missed the subtleties of operating in the region.
“We have purposely built our tools to help businesses listen and ask the African consumer to get true engagement and actionable insights,” says Ebi. “We are helping them make sense of the thoughts and opinions of African consumers from varying backgrounds. With real-time market research and unique patented tools that translate the complexity of local languages and cultures, Versus offers actionable insights to businesses that want to make their African market entry or continuing existence a success.”
It is a pitch that appears to resonate with customers and investors alike. Launched in 2019 with the support of the Techstars accelerator, Versus attracted some big names, including Pizza Hut and Vodacom, as it piloted its tools and technologies. The company has also just completed an $850,000 pre-seed fund-raise with capital from Techstars, Dan Ventures and other private investors; that support has enabled it to roll out a second iteration of its platform, drawing on the lessons of its pilots, and to launch commercially.
The company’s business model is to operate as a software-as-a-service provider, with brands paying monthly fees for access to its service and tools. Bespoke market research can then be commissioned on a pay-as-you-go basis.
Consumer businesses the world over are waking up to the power of data, Ebi points out, particularly when it comes to assessing consumer sentiment. “The problem for brands targeting African markets, whether multinationals or local businesses, is that securing that data on African consumers is very difficult,” he says.
Ebi believes Versus’s ability to address that shortfall will prove to be its key point of competitive advantage. “Africa deserves a local intelligence research edge born from within,” he says. “There have been international research agencies and insights tools that have tried to explore Africa but only from a distant and macro lens; now, for the first time, businesses will get true local insights to help them enter key markets across the continent.”