Five Strategies for Spotting and Reinventing Africa’s Retail Talents

Retail investors, entrepreneurs and channel partners of retailers in Africa often wonder how to spot and manage the right talent for their retail businesses. They establish “competencies” and search for people who possess them. Sadly, they often find a shortage of retail talent who possess the stipulated competencies. Worse still, some find that people qualified for positions fail miserably, while others who lack relevant competencies succeed in productivity and performance. We have developed five strategies to help anyone spot, manage, and reinvent retail talent in Africa based on our case writing, observations, interviews, and consulting engagements.

Identify the Right Career Trajectory and Focus on Potential

Stakeholders often assume that retail career trajectories in Africa are like those of careers in other industries. Our findings reveal the reverse. Retail career paths in Africa are unpredictable, complex, volatile and multifaceted. Here are some stories we found that touch the heart and the trajectories we identified to explain them.

Amara was a surviving hustler who grew up in Congo Kinshasa. She started her retail career by selling fruits at six. Her parents died at her early age and she had no money to go to school. At ten, she served as an apprentice, learning to make dresses which she sold in open air markets. Her survival instinct, hard work and optimism paid off. At 20, she started her fashion retail business. Hustlers like Amara occupy a significant place in Africa’s retail space. However, they are radically different from the likes of Joy.

Joy Musunga is now 21 years old and a fresh graduate who studied history in the University of Nairobi. She works in a supermarket as a merchandiser. Joy is one of the few university graduates in the outlet and joined the supermarket because she couldn’t find a job. Joy never takes ownership of the job and believes there is no future for her in retail. She will move to another company as soon as she gets a job. We called Joy an accidental entrant. The average career span of accidental entrants on the continent is 5 years before they exit the retail business, and where they do not, they rise to management positions without the prerequisite skills. Whereas, surviving hustlers tend to continue in business until they become self-made entrepreneurs or “retail professionals” in the African context.

As the careers progress, self-made entrepreneurs become complacent achievers or restless opportunists. Complacent achievers have taught themselves retailing through trial and error. They know the tricks of the trade and do not believe that formal training is relevant or necessary. Chike’s story is a good example. He earns an average of $1,500 per month in his street hawking business in Lagos, Nigeria. He is a secondary school drop-out who served under the Igbo apprenticeship system to learn retail. He has spent the last 37 years in the business. Chike is now the proud owner of one house in Lagos and another in Abia state. With a bible in one hand, he sells and manages a network of street sellers displaying fast moving consumer goods in traffic. Retailers in this category have limited education but control close to 70% of trade activities in each industry they serve. They have developed indigenous sales and retail tactics to guide their operations.

Complacent achievers like Chike have built new industries in Nigeria. Examples include the Balogun Business Association of the Trade Fair Complex of Lagos, with about 14,000 lock-up shops, 45 product clusters and 150 private plazas. The total worth of complex is estimated at 300 million dollars and shoppers purchase from Benin Republic, Togo, Ghana, Ivory Coast and Nigeria. Other examples include Aspamda Market, Computer village, Aba trade cluster, etc. In Kenya, large supermarket chains have also grown on the same path, such as Uchumi, Nakumatt and Tuskys growing across the East African region.

Restless opportunists are humbler about their achievements. They continuously search for new retail trends but adapt them to local necessities. They are open to formal education in retailing but have no access to local training. These opportunists adopt a mix of formal retail systems and informal practices. For instance, South Africa has networks of individual retailers that place cash in the hands of informal retail associations to enable bulk buying and empowerment. An example is the Somali Traders Association in South Africa. Restless opportunists are also present at local supermarket chains, low-end restaurants, fashion design outfits, etc. 

There is also a handful of retail managers and executives formally trained in retail who occupy positions across industries. These are sophisticated seniors. Most sophisticated seniors are expatriates occupying positions in upper-level management of organizations. These are highly skilled managers who often find it difficult to transfer their skills to subordinates. An example is the upper-level management teams of Shoprite stores operating in countries outside South Africa.

These are not all the career trajectories that exist in Africa’s retail space, but stakeholders who recognize them can have a significant advantage over others who do not. Having identified the universe of trajectories, it is up to the stakeholder to spot talent whose potential fits with the career trajectory that is close to the organization’s retail strategy. Career potential matters more than competencies in Africa’s retail business. 

Co-create Retail Training Opportunities that Matter

There is a tremendous opportunity for stakeholders to professionalize and reskill retail careers in Africa. Stakeholders can partner with business schools on the continent, training institutions and industry associations to develop customized training for retail talent. The curricula for customized training must be based on the understanding that Africa’s retail landscape differs from that of other continents in some respects. For example, studies show that retailers in informal economies of Africa place a premium on family, friendship or guarantor relationships when making pricing, contracting and selling decisions. These retailers view the relationships as a strategic opportunity to grow social capital at the communal level. Consequently, retail development curricula for informal sector practitioners must be tailored to accommodate the cultural and societal practices in local business opportunities. Africa has a mix of informal, hybrid and modern retailing formats which propel diverse career trajectories. Training curricular should also include sessions on ethics, sustainability and responsible management. The recent collapse of Nakumatt and other supermarket chains in Kenya resulting from financial mismanagement underscores the importance of ethics and responsible management. It is up to stakeholders to do the painstaking work of developing career development packages for diverse audiences within Africa’s retail landscape.


Be Decisive about Building Relevant Capabilities 

It is foolhardy for stakeholders to expect complacent achievers and accidental entrants to embrace formal training in retail career development. A more meaningful approach may be to organize career transformation initiatives for reskilling at scale. These activities may include practicing new skills on current roles, online courses, informal mentorship and formal coaching programmes. Stakeholders can leverage networks within retail trade associations and business schools to develop these activities. 


Develop Strategic Regional Partnerships

There are literarily hundreds of retail associations on the continent working on laudable initiatives including policy advocacy, opportunity enablement and facilitation of learning. The problem is that these associations are fragmented and tend to focus narrowly on goals that support their registered members. These associations can become more powerful and impactful if they partner with retail associations within and across African countries to promote retail career professionalization. Retail investors, entrepreneurs and channel partners of retailers on the continent can play a critical role in strengthening regional partnerships for businesses.


Actively Engage the Public Sector 


Stakeholders recognize that retail without adequate support from the government is like having a human body functioning with one lung. It is important for stakeholders to advocate for national retail policies on the continent to guide retail operations. The policy should cover labor norms, business operations, taxation, access to capital and upskilling. Retail employees suffer long work hours, burnout, and maltreatment. National retail policies can address these problems, increase the ease of doing business, reduce the cost to serve and make it easier to modernize store operations.


It is impossible to predict how retail careers will evolve in Africa. However, joint efforts to upscale and reskill retail talent can transform the retail landscape. There are no simple solutions, but the strategies discussed above can help manage the present and prepare the future.

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Uchenna Uzo. Wambui Mbarire. Haresh Keswani. Tracy-Anne Mooney

Uchenna Uzo. Wambui Mbarire. Haresh Keswani. Tracy-Anne Mooney

Uchenna Uzo, Faculty Director, Senior Lecturer in Marketing, Retail Expert, Lagos Business School. Wambui Mbarire, Chief Executive Officer at Retail Trade Association of Kenya. Haresh Keswani, Founder- Retail Council of Nigeria, Owner- Artee Group. Tracy-Anne Mooney, Head of Retail at IRI South Africa

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Get To Know Uchenna Uzo

Uchenna Uzo

Dr Uchenna Uzo joined LBS in February 2002. He received his B.Sc and M.Sc in Sociology from the University of Lagos, and his Masters of Research in Management as well as Ph.D. in Management from the IESE Business School, Barcelona.

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