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In Defense of “African” Research

I was very excited to read across my timeline that L’Oreal South Africa was increasing its focus on new products for the Sub-Saharan African woman. To read even further that this was part of a larger strategy which saw the beauty products giant open a new Research & Innovations centre in Johannesburg, South Africa only served to pique my interest even more. However, my heart begin to sink almost immediately I passed the first paragraph of the article/press release. Full disclosure here – I’m a researcher who has been working in the Nigerian market for almost 12 years now and this experience has made me a little bit sensitive about the Nigerian and African consumer. It seems to me no other consumer anywhere else in the world is so readily misunderstood, brushed aside, and painted over. I get it – it is a tough terrain and it’s hard to understand what’s what sometimes, especially in the bustling, hustling heart of megacities like Lagos, but because it seems chaotic doesn’t mean that there aren’t valid insights or patterns to behaviour that can be analysed. Just like anywhere else. Most importantly though, with Africa, with Nigeria, you have to be here – right in the middle of things – to fully understand its complexity.

The first sentence that had me wiggling in my seat uncomfortably was a statement attributed to a L’Oreal senior executive that “African consumers don’t have today a great freedom to do what they want with their hair without pain, money and effort.” Hair is probably one of the most important part of an African woman’s identity, even the lack of importance placed on it can be a statement in itself. Most of us have childhood memories tied to the rituals of getting your hair done and in adulthood the idea that your hair is some sort of a crown is one that resonates very deeply. Would African woman describe the ritual of “getting your hair done” as one that exemplifies a lack of freedom wrought with pain? Our hair is a thing of pride and not a thing of bondage! The article goes on to declare,

“African hair comes with a unique set of challenges: it’s more fragile than Caucasian hair, it grows more slowly and it’s more difficult to manage.”

Well yes, if the benchmark is Caucasian hair I suppose. But to truly understand the African hair consumer would it not be more helpful to think of our hair, not in comparison to a Caucasian ideal, but as a thing of its own? The number one trend in African hair (or black hair globally) is an embracing of its beauty and natural texture, and the realisation that it is incredibly flexible. Following on from this is a totally seemingly contradictory trend of a full embrace of wigs. African women love switching it up – different styles, textures, colours, etc., while still keeping a keen eye on what grows underneath.

I started to wonder, did research not throw up any of this? Did L’Oreal somehow miss African women’s complex relationship with their hair? Is South Africa with its population of 53 million truly boast of a hair care market of $450m, over $150m more than Africa’s most population nation (and the most populous black country in the world), Nigeria? As a global giant in the hair and beauty industry, I am entirely sure that L’Oreal has access to the best researchers and data but this then truly illuminates a pertinent gap. The giant in the room in the world of African consumer data is that the likes of Euromonitor and Mintel must begin to work with local researchers who have a better understanding of the context of consumption. It is nearly impossible to understand what is happening in this market from a London or Johannesburg office. It is no longer enough to say there’s no data on the African consumer, but to start to insist that local researchers are part of, if not taking a lead role, in studies that directly affect their market. To be fair, African research organizations have been doing this for years but much of this work is ignored or glossed over because it is not catalogued in an international journal or highlighted at an international trade fair with a multinational logo emblazoned all over its pages.

African consumer data does exist, and manufacturers who are committed to exploring this market must also be committed to listening to voice of its consumers, even if it is coming via a makeshift salon by the side of a dirt road.