OPINION21 January 2015

Out of Africa: taking inspiration from new markets


A fresher, less cynical view of research in developing countries means established methods can be adapted to great effect says Firefish’s Bob Cook.

I recently had the pleasure of presenting at the South African Market Research Association (SAMRA) qualitative conference in Johannesburg and Cape Town. It was fascinating to hear about the issues facing the industry in another country and continent in the context of a local conference – rather than as part of a broader global agenda dominated by more established research markets.

One of the themes was the sense of a ‘scramble for Africa’ both in terms of brands vying for presence and dominance in the fast-emerging economies of the continent – and the need for insight that this will generate.  Whereas the economic outlook had a distinctly MINT-y flavour at the beginning of 2014, at the beginning of 2015 this is acquiring increasing African notes, with the economies of Kenya, Tanzania, Zambia and South Africa generating considerable interest among others.

So, what does this mean for the global research industry in what for many is seen as something of a new frontier?

During the conference itself, and subsequent conversations considering other African nations, it became clear that many needs and issues are similar to other emerging research markets. Quality and consistency must be sought out not assumed, expectations must be set according to local cultural norms – ‘Africa time’ is very real. 

However, alongside these practical watch-outs there is a sense of freshness that pervades and also a lack of the weary cynicism that can creep into research in developed markets from both a practitioner and respondent level. This state of mind is manifest in the spirit of innovation and experimentation that is alive and well in Africa – partly because there is no established modus operandi at this point in time. The research that succeeds will evolve established best practice from elsewhere in the context of the reality on the ground in different countries.

This point was wonderfully highlighted in the SAMRA conference by an excellent presentation by Jack Hlongwane that explained the many benefits of conducting group discussions in taxis (shared mini-bus transportation taking people from townships to areas of work). People are recruited as they wait to catch a ride home – with the incentive of getting on the road earlier if they take part in research along the way. 

What the approach does is to tap into relevant target audiences at a time when they are in effect a ‘captive audience’ with time to kill – and in a situation where social interaction and discussion are natural. This offers a low cost and higher convenience alternative to more traditional recruitment to viewing studios and has the advantage of creating a natural dialogue in a neutral ‘third space’ the approach encourages. This candour of response is also promoted by the seating arrangement that exists in the taxis as challenging eye contact is reduced.

The paper deservedly won the best presentation gong at the SAMRA conference and should inspire us all when planning projects. Research can all too easily serve the agenda and convenience of the client and the researcher, rather than being driven by the goals of a project and the need to get the most out of the subjects of the study.  Sometimes, looking at a less established and regimented world can serve as an apt reminder of what we might have forgotten to be important.

Dr Bob Cook is director of innovation and inspiration at Firefish