IF IT was easy everyone would be doing it,” a friend involved in African retail property development often says. He also says “the best development is the one that happens”, referring to the many plans of developers, funders and others who see the opportunity to build shopping malls in Africa frustrated by the myriad challenges involved.
Many targeted sites have remained pins on a map for years. But there has been a ramping up of interest in the sector lately, particularly from South African developers who are eager to supply world-class centres to retailers looking for early-mover advantage in growing markets outside SA.
The city centre of Lusaka is already overtraded, with three big shopping centres within a 5km radius. At least one more is planned on the city’s outskirts and others in mining towns.
But in other, larger markets, there is little critical mass. For example, in Lagos, a city of anything between 9-and 15-million people, depending on who you ask, there are only three retail malls. In Accra, up to 3-million people are served by one western-style mall.
There are high expectations for retail property development in Africa. In Ghana, about four malls are in the pipeline for the next two to three years and six in Nigeria — two of Africa’s fastest growing countries. Several are planned in countries such as Kenya, Mozambique and others, some as standalone malls and others as part of mixed-use developments.
Most of SA’s big retailers have ambitious expansion plans in African markets outside SA for anything between several dozen stores to more than 100 over the next few years.
Overseas brands such as Adidas and KFC are already in African shopping centres to the north and a few others are testing the waters with franchises. But a global survey of retailers by South African property management company Broll indicates relatively few are ready to take the plunge yet. Out of 326 companies interviewed, only a handful were looking at African markets at all and they had an interest in SA and North African countries but showed no appetite for the markets the South Africans favour — such as Kenya, Nigeria, Zambia, Mozambique and others. South African-based companies have moved into this space, beating a path for companies from other regions to follow when their appetite for risk increases.
But developers are not finding it easy, particularly in Nigeria, a key target for African expansion plans. As one old Africa hand says: “It’s not twice as difficult to develop a shopping mall in countries such as Nigeria as it is in SA; it is three to four times more difficult.” Problem-free land title is one of the challenges. Litigation from multiple claimants remains an ever-present threat. High costs of land and availability of large tracts of it in congested cities is also an issue.
The limited availability of long-term debt and a relatively low level of interest by international institutions in African property funds are among the challenges. Imported professional skills and inputs, power shortages and a range of other factors in the supply chain ramp up costs, so high rentals are needed to yield a decent return.
Ad hoc government policy is another issue. While Nigeria’s removal of clothing from a list of banned imports has opened up big opportunities for retailers, shoes — a big seller for fashion retailers — remain on the list in a vain attempt to protect the country’s ailing leather industry.
In Zambia, a recent government decision to prevent foreign currency being used for local transactions is a big concern for property companies, which index rentals to the US dollar. One expert says $500m of investment in Zambia’s property market has been put on hold as a result.
There is also the question of whether the emerging African middle class is as big as the experts maintain it is. Rapid urbanisation rates are pushing up potential consumer numbers but not necessarily incomes. These factors, among many others, are a brake on the desire of developers and retailers to build critical mass quickly in African markets. It may still be a while before their high expectations match the reality on the ground.
• Games is CEO of Africa At Work, an African business consultancy.