CAPE TOWN: A leading Unilever executive has attacked the "soft tyranny of low expectations" that brands adopt when considering the continent of Africa and called for new business models to drive growth.

"I believe the African consumer has been underestimated and under-served for far too long," said Frank Braeken, executive vice president of Unilever Africa, writing in How We Made It In Africa. And he called for marketers to "break the perception of Africa as a single, unsophisticated, market best served by basic products".

"I can accept that many Africans don't have much money," he added. "I can't accept they are any less intelligent or sophisticated consumers than the rest of us."

He argued that businesses often made "blunt assumptions" about what people needed, while "well meaning but unsustainable business models … simply do not take the African people seriously as consumers".

If a business is serious about Africa, he said, it "needs to become part of efforts to drive equitable and sustainable growth".

He referenced his own work which had, he stated, "underscored to me time and again the enormous energy that can be released by sustainable business models".

He cited the example of black hair care products, which a few years ago had been more easily available in London or New York than in Abidjan or Nairobi.

"And the concept was of 'black' hair as though Africans were all physically and culturally identical," he remarked, noting that this attitude applied in many categories "with few companies bothering to tailor brands to different African tastes or develop better, safer and more nutritious products".

Not many people, he pointed out, had anticipated the mobile phone boom across the continent, which had created a whole new economy because they met people's needs.

"I want to drive the same kind of revolution in retail trade," he declared. Unilever's ambitions, he said were to "double our business sustainably, increase local sourcing and production, and accelerate the development of products tailored to different African markets and aspirations".

"Modern business thinking can drive economies of scale, consumer understanding and product development to provide what poor people want and, by so doing, create new markets," he concluded.

Data sourced from How We Made It In Africa; additional content by Warc staff