OPINION7 September 2020

What the MEA’s digital changes mean for insights

Covid-19 Middle East and Africa Opinion

As Africa and the Middle East accelerate their adoption of digital, there are opportunities for insights companies, writes Richard Thornton. 


There is no question that the global pandemic and societal disruptions are driving insistent change, including surrounding how we do business in the market research industry. Digital transformation is accelerating, and nowhere is this more apparent than in developing regions in the Middle East and Africa. Already, the need for better infrastructure and connectivity was clear in these areas, and recent events have shone a spotlight on these needs.

What should we do to prepare and plan ahead for a significantly different ecosystem?

Over the past few years, global CPG brands have been making concerted efforts to expand their presence in markets such as the Middle East and Africa (MEA). In turn, we are seeing a demand for market research companies to provide insights from these regions. Gaining robust local insights from these diverse areas, which are often full of “surprise and uncertainty,” is key when considering brand awareness studies or new product launches. In the past, this has been a tricky proposition.

However, this is changing, as Covid-19 pushes digital transformation and while many countries in the region are experiencing the highest economic growth in the world.

It’s impossible to talk about this region without addressing the widening gap between those with digital access and those without – something that’s taken centre stage during the need for increased connectivity during the pandemic. This trend is shining a spotlight on the extreme need for technology infrastructure in the region. It is worth keeping an eye on what is being done to bridge the divide by both private and public programmes, such as the 2Africa project.

Despite ingrained challenges, the number of people overall who are digitally connected has been increasing at a rapid pace during the past few months, with internet traffic in the region jumping by 42%. The Middle East is one of the fastest growing eCommerce markets in the world, and online shoppers are buying in a wider array of products, becoming savvier when it comes to price and brands. Consumer insights are becoming more critical.

Increased connectivity means that the movement from face-to-face (F2F) and computer assisted telephone interviewing (CATI) offline research to online has started in earnest. Among other obvious benefits, this online movement facilitates market research in gated communities, something which traditionally has been a challenge to include when using other methodologies, like F2F.

However, the transformation to online is looking different in the Middle East and Africa. We have become accustomed to a certain path to online research in Western Europe, for example. Many companies move through a model of adoption that starts with managed services for online research, transitioning to a DIY model and then becoming increasingly automated. But Africa and the Middle East are skipping steps as they recognise an immediate need for digital methods, jumping straight into programmatic approaches for insights.

In Africa, for example, even before the pandemic we were seeing a “digital boom” as technology infrastructure struggled to keep up. Yet, as digitisation takes a sharp upward turn, it will become easier to do business in the region.

Connectivity gives us the opportunity to do basic tasks such as register businesses, handle accounting and conduct sales, alongside the adoption of digital channels for obtaining insights. It also provides the potential for digital job growth, with on-the-ground access to key talent, like developers. This makes for a healthier business environment.

From a market research standpoint, the privatisation of services, such as telecoms, will provide increased demand for consumer data. Businesses will need insights to help them sharpen their offer and diversify from competitors in markets currently being handled by only one provider.

Covid-19 is acting as a catalyst in speeding up the digital transformation in the MEA. For market researchers, a maturation of tech-enabled and digitised businesses, plus better overall network connectivity for consumers, are also helping to close the gap between offline research methodologies and a fast-growing online segment.

Global businesses are looking to invest more in emerging regions, conducting research prior to investing in infrastructure and putting people on the ground to drive growth. They will increasingly seek insights from these regions, and online access to targeted audiences for comprehensive studies will prove invaluable.

Richard Thornton is chief commercial officer for Cint.