To take off, African luxury must choose a local positioning

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Despite its many assets, the luxury sector is struggling to take off on the continent. However, some great success stories prove that all is not lost, provided that the international criteria in force are respected, that the profiles are better trained and that the abstract « made in Africa » is not used.

While the 2018 Football World Cup had Louis Vuitton as its official partner, private banks and Hublot watches were associated with regattas, Rolex with golf and Hermès with horse riding, no luxury brand appeared among the sponsors of the last African Cup of Nations in Cameroon, whether Western, African or even Cameroonian. At a time when luxury and sport are closely associated, this absence raises the question of the place of luxury in Africa, of the interest of this sector for the continent, and of the existence of a truly African luxury industry.

Uniqueness
The statistics are clear: a 2021 New World Health study notes the strong development of the luxury sector in Africa, particularly in Egypt, Kenya, Morocco, Nigeria and South Africa, which together account for more than 50% of the total wealth held by individuals on the continent. Yet none of the brands favoured by these High Net Worth Individuals (HNWIs, with a fortune of $1 million or more) are from Africa. What’s more, the majority of their purchases are made abroad: this is the case for 90% of luxury purchases made by the richest Nigerians, leaving little room for the emergence of local luxury brands. Does this mean that an African luxury sector is impossible?

Read Manifesto for a luxury industry « made in Africa

To ask the question in these terms would be to forget the immense cultural diversity of 54 countries, bringing together a multitude of peoples with different artistic and aesthetic traditions. Luxury does not spring from nowhere, it draws its inspiration from age-old craft skills, and the African continent is full of them. Just think of the immense heritage of Mansa Moussa of the Mali Empire, whose splendid treasure was widely commented on by the chroniclers of his time, of Ashanti gold, of the splendours of the Songhaï Empire.

What is missing for the emergence of a luxury sector with African roots is the availability of highly skilled workers and infrastructure

However, despite the emergence of talent, no brand is yet able to symbolise African luxury made on the continent in the eyes of the world. And this is not only true of the haute couture sector. Luxury represents a particular mode of production and consumption. It is not just about aesthetics, but an exceptional experience that goes beyond the price paid to access it. What distinguishes it is the uniqueness of a product or experience created specifically for an individual and intended only for that individual. This means impeccable craftsmanship, finishing, organisation and service.

To date, it is neither inspiration, nor cultural wealth, nor raw materials that are lacking in the emergence of a luxury sector with African roots, but the availability of highly qualified workers, the positioning and the infrastructures to serve the demanding level of these industries.

Winning strategies
Some countries have been able to rely on a national strategy to create a luxury sector specific to their territory. Côte d’Ivoire promotes its know-how and cultural heritage. Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya, Seychelles, Tanzania and Sao Tome and Principe have been able to capitalise on these assets and adopt an advanced internationalisation strategy, which has made them one of the regional centres where designers from all over the continent gather and exhibit.

Rwanda has been able to position itself as a luxury tourist destination by leveraging the assets of Lake Kivu

And among the most striking successes, Rwanda has managed to position itself as a luxury tourist destination by banking on the assets of Lake Kivu, and by meeting the international criteria of very high-end luxury to attract a clientele from all over the world, in hotels that are fully booked all year round.

Read Ecotourism: Rwanda bets on the ultra-rich

All these winning strategies have in common that they do not rely on an abstract reference to « made in Africa », but rather on a locally anchored positioning. Just as there is French or Italian luxury, but no European luxury, African luxury is a contradiction in terms, and authenticity is only found in national and local cultural references.

Authenticity does not sit well with labels that want to be everything to everyone, which is radically contrary to the spirit of luxury.

Can all African countries follow the same model? Yes, provided that international quality standards are put in place and that they do not hesitate to learn from experts around the world. In the tourism sector, too often luxury hotels are far from living up to their stars: very rough service, poorly finished rooms, these elements that are not details project a deplorable image to a clientele accustomed to excellence everywhere in the world. For luxury sectors to emerge, we need more than designers and hotels. We need real brands, meeting precise specifications, and committees to identify the talents of tomorrow beyond the fashionable effects of the moment.

Image and « soft power
Luxury is as much about consumption as it is about international image and « soft power ». Despite its economic slowdown and domestic problems, France remains abroad the country of haute couture, prestige perfumery, exceptional jewellery, and an art of living that makes it the world’s leading tourist destination and a country whose voice counts. The countries mentioned above have understood the importance of this, and Rwanda today projects a radically more optimistic and confident image than it did thirty years ago, partly thanks to its positioning, which demonstrates a prosperity acquired in a few years.

It is up to each country to draw on its own wealth to invent its conception of luxury

The luxury industry does not only benefit the economic elites: its galaxies of subcontractors make this industry a formidable creator of jobs and a guardian of know-how. There is no such thing as « African » luxury, and that is fortunate, because authenticity does not sit well with labels that want to be everything to everyone, which is radically contrary to the spirit of luxury. It is therefore up to each country to draw on its own wealth to invent its own conception of luxury, by finding the ideal marriage between local and foreign inspirations, and by integrating traditional symbolism into forms adapted to the demands of modern and contemporary life.