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Ethical Consumption Is a Growing Market for Africa

 6 min read / 

2017’s instalment of the World Travel Market Africa (WTMA) Expo – the continent’s annual shake-up of inbound and outbound tourism industries – was delivered in Cape Town last month. And, as the dust settles ahead of peak visitor season in the south, African B2B sectors are reflecting on a future in which ethical and ecological considerations are punching with more weight than ever before.

Discussion of UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) numbers 8, 12 and 14 – the three that most directly address tourism – has featured heavily at various world B2B conferences this year. Given that 2017 is the International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development, that is unsurprising. In truth, though, WTMA 2017 was just the latest in a series of high-profile recent events highlighting dramatically increased awareness of sustainability concerns among Africa’s modern businesses and customers.

That a major shift is evolving across the continent seems beyond doubt. A 2016 report from PricewaterhouseCoopers African network revealed 91% of citizens felt it was ‘important for businesses to sign up to the SGDs’ – and moreover, that 87% of businesses were aware of this, with 64% of survey respondents planning or implementing plans to address them. Fittingly, the list of Responsible Tourism Award winners at last month’s WTMA expo featured such ethically driven enterprises as Swaziland’s MTN Bushfire festival, Mozambique’s Ilha Blue Island Safaris, and the renowned Damaraland Camp in Namibia.

Increased African sensitivity to issues of sustainable consumerism has blossomed in recent years from the concerted efforts of numerous grassroots initiatives. The ongoing Beautiful Country, Beautiful Fruit campaign is a prime example; initially organised by the HORTGRO growers’ association in 2009, it has since gained impressive traction in its UK buyer target markets, working with British schools and chefs to alert both retailers and shoppers to the ethical values of Fairtrade fresh fruit from South Africa. The campaign reports that previously disadvantaged growers now account for 12% of total fruit exports, a figure that was close to 0% a decade ago.

Managing to exert an influence over major UK supply chains like Tesco is what grabs the campaign PR headlines. But, as impressive a feat as that has been, it would count for little if appetites for sustainable consumption were not also growing among African citizens. Happily, they are doing: within a short walk of the Cape Town International Convention Centre, last month’s WTMA delegates were able to mingle with busy local crowds in venues like Origin Coffee Roasting (‘the best coffee in the world, poured by African baristas, using beans roasted with pride in Africa’), Brownies & downieS (a locally sourced café and training centre led by young people with intellectual disabilities), and the Dear Me all-day vegan and wheat-free brasserie.

In fact, eco-friendly consumer culture is becoming downright fashionable in certain quarters: last month also saw the launch of Africa’s first dedicated vegan lifestyle magazine, The Vegan Life. A new 68-page glossy from South Africa’s Media24 label, the monthly title is a slickly produced collection of recipes, features and tips that rejoices in the strapline ‘ethical eating for plant-nourished people’. Speaking to online resource Plant Based News on the eve of the first issue, publisher Marianne Erasmus suggested that the magazine’s very existence was evidence of ‘a huge shift towards veganism’ in South Africa and beyond.

The inclusion of ‘and beyond’ there is important. South Africa has long tended to be among the vanguard of sustainable consumer practices, but evidence of similar trends spreading to the rest of the continent with any real momentum had previously been scarce. Today, however, institutions such as Greyton Transition Town’s Pure Café (the Overberg’s first dedicated vegan eaterie) and locally-sourced Stellenbosch hotel restaurant Spier are just two of many high-end and highly popular examples from further afield.

Perhaps most tellingly of all from a market perspective, these sorts of concerns are now having a visible impact in African homes. Nielsen Company data confirms that, after launching in South Africa in 2010, Fairtrade labelled revenue grew from 18m ZAR (around £1m) to 287m ZAR (over £17m) in just three years. Between then and now, a snowball effect has taken hold – Fairtrade data released last year showed a particularly large spike in domestic sales for 2014, based on an 18% increase in Fairtrade wine revenue, 23% in coffee, and 65% in rooibos tea over 2013 levels.

And, according to sales and survey data from the Fairtrade movement’s ongoing LABELWISE initiative, concern for social and environmental issues among African consumers remains on the rise: campaign press highlights that discerning shoppers are currently paying close attention to issues ranging from ‘challenges related to deforestation, climate change and overfishing, to unethical labour practices and sharing of benefits’. Even Africa’s less fully immersed customers are increasingly embracing simple swaps to achieve a more ethical and sustainable grocery basket by opting for Fairtrade branded goods, free range eggs and recycled packaging.

Crucially, these statistics and trends are being backed by market reports from many of Africa’s biggest corporations: Cape Town’s 2016 Sustainable Brands conference saw Tetra Pak, South African Airways (SAA) and the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) join forces to discuss ‘the importance of building market demand from environmentally conscious consumers’ after a Tetra Pak survey revealed 63% of South Africans believe people pay attention to ecolabels, ‘placing South Africans ahead of consumers in India, China, the UK, and Turkey’.

Supporting this, several major Tetra Pak customers in South Africa – including Woodlands Dairy, Pioneer Foods and Rhodes Foods – all reported market boosts from fully certifying their products, bolstering the keynote claim that ‘[African] society’s growing sense of responsibility for the environment opens up doors to consumer-focused companies across all industries to incorporate sustainability within their products and policies’.

Registrations of interest are already being welcomed from both attendees and potential exhibitors for WTMA 2018. If current trends continue apace, it looks like having the potential to be a landmark event – and certainly one that will help give an even clearer view of just how far and how fast ethical consumerism is progressing as an African market force to be reckoned with.

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