Female Consumers in Sub-Saharan Africa: Spotlighting Buying Habits and Lifestyle Trends

The historical roles of modern African women are changing as their buying power grows. They are controlling more household spending decisions, while breaking the traditional mould of social stereotype. In line with this, convenience, price and fashion are key drivers of the female consumer in Sub-Saharan Africa. Online shopping is also a growing trend in the region and the group buying phenomenon is gaining prominence.

Key trends

  • The young female African consumer;
  • Mobile payment services drive rural money transfers;
  • International retail chains and the rising middle class female consumer;
  • Mall culture feeds into the need for convenience;
  • The social buying phenomenon;
  • The quest for beauty.

Commercial opportunities

  • In the light of limited access to traditional banking in rural parts of many African countries, there is a bigger potential for the mobile payments market, while it offers a practical tool which women in remote areas have become reliant on;
  • With the buying power of the female consumer becoming ever more powerful and with women making more of the household decisions, it’s important that potential investors orient their advertising towards this demographic. Advertising should focus on the modern African woman who is a working woman, rather than the traditional roles of mother, wife or caregiver;
  • Online shopping, though in its infancy in Africa, is another activity gaining popularity in the region, especially among female consumers, and potential investors need to tap into this phenomenon if they want to promote their products on a larger scale;
  • In line with the above point, the online group buying phenomenon is a growing trend across Africa, with female consumers becoming ever more attracted to it. Potential investors have an opportunity to tap into this and promote female-focused products via such websites.


The modern African women is becoming increasingly more powerful and controlling more household spending decisions, while breaking the traditional mould of social stereotype and historical roles. The desire to assert her independence, get a decent education and earn her own money has gained prominence. Nevertheless, the income gap between men and women in Africa remains noticeable; according to Euromonitor International statistics, men in Africa still have almost double the disposable income that women have.

The rising middle class has meant that convenience has become important for modern time-stripped consumers, with women in Africa enjoying the mall culture, while wanting instant access to information and technology and staying connected via social networking and mobile phone technology. As one 30-year-old consumer living in Johannesburg, South Africa, stated: “I never leave home without my cell phone and lip gloss”. Two examples of what have become important to South African women: being connected and looking good.

The young female African consumer

The traditional roles and responsibilities of women in Africa are becoming blurred. In many countries there is a trend towards working women choosing to postpone having children, or choosing to have fewer children, in order to advance their career. This has been seen in countries such as Nigeria where birth and fertility rates have declined in recent years. The traditional roles of the male being the sole breadwinner and the woman staying home to look after the household and children have been changing, with more women becoming educated and entering the workplace. Nevertheless, although African women are earning more, many of them are either living with or have family members who are financially dependent on them. This is often the case with women going into the city to seek employment, but still having parents or children living with their parents in rural areas who are reliant on the monthly income they send to them.

A study conducted by research agency Carat SA during autumn 2011 found that affluent, single women, which it dubbed “bachelorettes,” have become a significant consumer segment in South Africa. 73% of women aged between 18 and 44 years were found to be single, with 66% of them working. Among the singletons, 51% agreed with the contention that career was more important than starting a family. “These women are independent, mostly unwilling to compromise on their lifestyles, and are responsible for a substantial portion of the purchasing decisions made in South Africa,” according to Delia van Staden, head of Carat SA’s Insights unit. She added that they “are focused on success and realise the importance of planning for the future, rather than waiting for frogs to turn into princes or knights in shining armour. She works hard now so that she can enjoy success later.”

Mobile payment services drive rural money transfers

The proliferation of mobile phones in rural parts of Africa has given rise to the popularity of mobile payment services for many women who would otherwise not have access to banking and finance services. Mobile phones have become a popular means of staying in touch and doing business for many rural African women. In fact, this type of service first originated in Africa, with the creation of M-Pesa in Kenya. Mobile payment services have since enjoyed success across the region; M-Pesa alone has over 14 million users and is currently one of the world’s most successful mobile payments systems. In Zimbabwe and Tanzania, the use of such technology has also increased, allowing many women in rural areas who do not have bank accounts to transfer money. According to the Technology blog of the CGAP, women are the drivers of mobile transfer services and mostly use their accounts to send money to children studying or living in other towns, receive money from relatives living far away, to load airtime for themselves and other family members, and in some cases, receive payments from customers who make telephone orders for their goods and services. Nevertheless, the costs of such services remain relatively high.

International retail chains and the rising middle class female consumer

Price and fashion are key drivers for female African consumers as they try to maintain trendy lifestyles at the lowest costs possible, but still want quality products. Women tend to shop at the more mainstream shopping outlets, rather than expensive custom boutiques. Nevertheless, luxury brands are becoming more popular and sellers are targeting the small but increasingly visible young affluent professionals who have increasing disposable incomes; this has especially been seen in South Africa with the rise of the young black middle class which some retailers have dubbed the ”black diamonds”.

Spanish fashion retailer Zara, owned by Inditex, has taken advantage of this backdrop with its expansion into Africa; the retailer opened its first store in Sub-Saharan Africa in Johannesburg in 2011. Woolworths in South Africa, known for its high quality fashion, is also rapidly expanding its retail presence on the continent. The company aims to double the number of its African stores beyond South Africa by 2014, with target countries including Nigeria, Uganda, Mozambique and Kenya. The Foschini Group, another South African women’s fashion retailer, has also said it would embark on an aggressive expansion into the rest of Africa, adding 57 new stores over the next three years in countries like Nigeria and Mozambique

Mall culture feeds into the need for convenience

The convenience factor has grown in prominence for the modern Africa woman and mall culture is gaining popularity across Africa, with large commercial shopping centres featuring department stores, restaurants and international brand outlets cropping up in many cities and towns. This has been seen in South Africa, in particular, where many shopping centres have developed in the previously disadvantaged township areas, focusing on supplying the needs of the “black diamonds” mentioned above. Shopping malls offer the modern African woman convenience and have shops that cater for all income brackets, with various products under one roof.

The social buying phenomenon

Online culture in Africa is still in its infancy but is steadily growing, with many women turning to online shopping for convenience, especially when it comes to purchasing airline tickets, books and music. With the woman in Africa becoming increasingly responsible for the majority of household decisions, it is important that potential investors specifically target the female population as her buying power is becoming ever more obvious. In line with this, the online group buying phenomenon is a growing trend across Africa, with female consumers becoming ever more attracted to this. The basic methodology of online group buying sees users offered products and services at significantly reduced prices on condition that a minimum number of buyers make the same purchase. The majority of consumers of group buying are women and products tend to be focused towards female consumers.

Online Shopping Sales in South Africa: 2006-2011

Source: Euromonitor International from trade sources/national statistics
Note: Market sizes based on retail value RSP

This model has been successful in the marketing of mostly middle- to high-end discretionary commodities such as concert ticket, dinners at restaurants and spa and beauty treatments. Users register with a website where they receive regular updates on the deals available through email and other social media sites. In Kenya, a number of companies have emerged, including Rupu, Mocality and Setu. The trend for these sites has seen overwhelming interest in clothing items, entertainment and dinner packages. Marketing manager for Rupu, Martin Muli, recently told Businessdailyafrica.com: “The growth in online shopping has been very impressive”.

The quest for beauty

There are many perceptions as to what constitutes beauty to African women. Increasingly competitive business and social lifestyles and the high premium that society places on outward appearances have driven up demand for cosmetic adjustments on the continent. According to a Kenyan sociologist, Dr Pius Mutie, quoted on www.globalpressinsitute.org, the growth in the number of women undergoing cosmetic surgery has to do with attaining Western standards of beauty and reflects a fusion of both Western and Kenyan standards of beauty. Traditionally, African perceptions of beauty have included voluptuous figures and hips, while Western perceptions have included tall, lean bodies. With better education and jobs, African women can now afford to undergo more cosmetic procedures.


The power of the female consumer is likely to grow in the near to long term. As more women become educated, and continue to make more of their own decisions as well as those of their household, the importance of appealing to this demographic is paramount. Advertising from brands should appeal to the modern African woman, who is a working woman, rather than solely to the traditional roles of mother, wife or caregiver. Investors who understand women will be better led and closer to their customers.