A good advert for Africa

Paul Rodgers looks at the marketing company whose knowledge of black cultures is winning Western clients
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Mike Boon, a white, was on the mean streets of Soweto photographing anti-apartheid graffiti when he was caught by the mob. About 1,000 supporters of the Pan African Congress - motto: one settler, one bullet - had beaten him, doused him with petrol and were preparing to burn him alive in a horrific spectacle known as necklacing.

"They had the tyre, although they never put it around my neck, and they were shouting for matches," he says. Mr Boon only escaped a hideous death because he speaks fluent Zulu, and was able to persuade his captors that he was there to promote their cause.

It was a bit of an extrapolation. Mr Boon did oppose apartheid, and often got into trouble with the security forces for defying their segregation policies. But his main reason for taking photographs and videos of Soweto in 1988 was to warn his clients - mostly multinational companies - of the difficulties they would face doing business with South Africa's 40 million blacks.

In short, Mr Boon is a market researcher and ad man, although an unusual one. His company, Group Africa of Amavulandlela, has grown by an average of 60 per cent year-on-year for the past decade. Recently it has expanded into a host of neighbouring countries, with operations stretching from Zimbabwe to Kenya. Its client list, 75 companies long, includes Lever Brothers, Cadbury and Lipton.

The company's success is founded on its understanding of black culture, or rather, cultures. Although most black South Africans are part of the Bantu ethnic group, they are divided into nine nations by language, each of which is subdivided into a dozen or so tribes. Even within individual tribes there can be a sharp contrast between those who live in the townships and those who are rural.

Group Africa consists of several smaller marketing companies founded by Mr Boon. Food Fair was a mobile kitchen in the townships which incidentally pushed particular brands. RTN brought sponsored programmes on video tape to general stores in rural areas that did not receive broadcast television. Ladies Clubs worked a bit like a Tupperware party.

"Our approach is to operate from the roots up," says Mr Boon. Group Africa has adopted the philosophy of ubuntu - a concept which places community first. "A bank advertisement that offered savers tailored plans for each individual would not strike home here," he says.

Discipline within the group is dispensed not by managers, but by elected elders. "They could even fire me as chairman," says Mr Boon. Contacts with tribes are conducted on the ground by a network of hundreds of field workers. Part of the company's name, Amavulandlela, was given to it by tribesmen. In Nguni it means, "the people that open the way".

To understand Group Africa one has to go to the Lesedi Cultural Village outside Johannesburg. At first glance it looks like a tourist attraction. Zulu warriors dance around a campfire, spears slashing the night sky. Further down a narrow trail, a Xhosa family is singing.

The village is visited by tourists, but it was not established for them. It has more in common with boardroom flip charts and slide shows than it does with guided tours of stately homes. It is where Group Africa makes its pitch to foreign businessmen, persuading them that only it can guide them through Africa's cultural diversity.

The risk of getting it wrong in Africa is high. For instance, one firm advertised a brand of yeast for baking, not realising most rural people used it - illegally - for brewing sorghum beer.

Group Africa's biggest venture is the Roadshow, a touring stage presentation that attracts thousands of people. Typically, each 30-minute performance in the show is sponsored by a different company or brand, and tailored to fit with traditional culture while promoting the product. One laundry soap sponsored a choral contest, playing on the blacks' love of music.

Mr Boon admits that Western advertising methods, such as newspapers and television, reach more people at a lower cost. "But what is the quality of those contacts? If community is all-important in black culture you need to be part of that community. It's all about sharing."