They knew it wouldn’t be easy. Being the first U.S. quick serve to enter a foreign country always comes with a share of challenges.

But for Cinnabon’s executives, becoming the first U.S. franchise to open in Libya didn’t just include dealing with training and supply-chain difficulties. The brand also faced political instability that eventually resulted in a revolution.

“It took us some time to get comfortable doing business there, and then, just about the time we were ready to start, that is when the revolution broke out,” says Mike Shattuck, president of Focus Brands International, Cinnabon’s parent company.

Despite the complications, Cinnabon opened its doors in Libya in July 2012. Since then, the brand has enjoyed success in the African nation, and has several additional Libyan locations planned for the coming years.

But Cinnabon isn’t stopping with Libya. With plans to develop throughout Africa—Kenya, Uganda, and Botswana are next on the list—Cinnabon hopes to grow in a continent that has largely been avoided by Western brands.

Until now, that is. While the Middle East and BRIC nations (Brazil, Russia, India, China) have long been the hot spots for international quick-service development, many experts believe Africa could become the next desired market.

Just ask Tapan Vaidya, a native African and head of Jawad Business Group, a Middle Eastern and Asian restaurant business group that includes brands such as Papa John’s, Dairy Queen, and Burger King in its portfolio.

“I believe the Middle Eastern market will soon see a saturation point, with all major brands already having entered markets over the last 30-plus years,” Vaidya writes in an e-mail interview. “It is time American brands start to conquer Africa, which is truly proving to be the next economic powerhouse globally.”

Jaco Maritz, publisher of the online pan-African business publication How We Made It in Africa, also says Africa is the new place to be.

“Africa is the last frontier, and therefore, it is a natural region to invest in,” Maritz writes in an e-mail to QSR.

There are numbers to back up their claims. The International Monetary Fund stated in May that output in sub-Saharan Africa grew 5 percent in 2011, and that it was projected to grow 5.5 percent in 2012. Global management consulting firm
McKinsey & Company projected in its October report that African consumer-facing industries will grow by more than $400 billion by 2020.

McKinsey also projected that more than half of African households will have discretionary income by 2020, rising to 130 million households from 85 million today. Some 84 percent of Africans, the firm’s report states, believe they will be better off economically in two years than today.

Cinnabon’s Shattuck says Africa’s abundance of natural resources and young population make it “one of the leading, emerging market opportunities.” But outside South Africa, Egypt, and Morocco, which have some of the highest nominal GDP rates in the continent, most U.S. brands have steered clear of Africa.

Vaidya and Maritz believe this can be attributed to a number of barriers.

“Inadequate incentives from stable political leaderships are not helping major brands move in,” Vaidya says. “Lack of quality infrastructure—this is a major reason for big brands not making major commitments. [With] lack of adequate and consistent supply of electricity, gas, and other utilities, it is rather difficult to run successful restaurants.”

Maritz adds, “Markets such as China and India have provided enough growth opportunities that there was no need to invest in a perceived risky environment such as sub-Saharan Africa.”

The two also say Africa faces a perception problem. American brands, they say, perceive Africa to be rife with political risk and instability and a lack of spending power. “Lower per capita disposable income in most African markets has made Africa not exactly a low-hanging fruit,” Vaidya says.

Despite these limitations, he says, Africa offers plenty of growth potential for quick-service restaurants. He points out that the large population centers available in Africa are just as big as those in the Middle East, if not bigger; cities like Johannesburg, Cairo, and Lagos have more than 5 million residents.
While those cities are already inhabited by quick-serve brands, the ability to stake a claim early in other large cities can be hugely beneficial for a brand.

Shattuck says that because Cinnabon is the first U.S. franchise in Libya, it has earned a loyal following, which gives it an edge over other brands that enter the market. “We are seeing that allegiance develop that happens when you can come in and be a pioneer brand,” he says.

Along with Cinnabon, KFC is one U.S. brand that understands Africa’s potential. With nearly 900 individual outlets throughout Egypt, South Africa, Swaziland, Nigeria, Lesotho, Morocco, Mauritius, Mozambique, Kenya, Ghana, Angola, Botswana, Namibia, Malawi, and Zambia, as well as plans for restaurants in Zimbabwe, Uganda, and Tanzania by the end of this year and long-term development plans for the Democratic Republic of Congo, Senegal, and Ethiopia, KFC is easily the biggest U.S. quick-serve chain in the region.

“KFC has been active in the Southern African Development Community for over 20 years and has had a presence in Egypt and Morocco for some time, too,” says Bruce Layzell, general manager of New African Markets for Yum! Restaurants International. “We have had our eye on the rest of the continent for many years, but in 2008, we realized that we needed to push the boat out so that we could get in at the ground floor of Africa’s imminent boom.”

Chicken is the most significant source of protein on the continent, Vaidya says, which might help explain KFC’s success. But Layzell believes its achievements can be attributed to its efficient growth strategy.

“Our experiences in many other developing economies have taught us many valuable lessons that we have been able to apply on this continent,” Layzell says.

Of course, developing in Africa still comes with a handful of challenges, he says. “We have had to find and develop suppliers willing to invest ahead of our growth and apply world-class standards to businesses that have not previously had to meet such rigor,” Layzell says. “Real estate and construction costs are significantly more expensive [in less developed countries] than in South Africa, for example, and we have had to put generators and water-treatment facilities in most restaurants.”


Brand awareness is another major challenge in Africa. Though KFC is ubiquitous in the U.S. and has locations in many African countries, only a very small percentage of the population has seen or heard of it, Layzell says.

“You quickly learn that the brand equity you carry in many parts of the world does not necessarily carry you in Africa,” he says. “As a result, you need to establish all your brand credentials from scratch, which is both challenging and extremely rewarding.”

For Cinnabon, challenges to doing business in African countries—aside from political strife—have included the need to adjust operating procedures, build the brand to each market’s local personality, and conduct more vigorous training procedures.

“There are some aspects of our hygiene and cleanliness standards that are part of our concept that require some more in-depth training. … We have to teach that a little bit more thoroughly there,” Shattuck says.

The good news for brands looking to grow in Africa is there is mutual interest from residents in launching businesses. A 2011 Gallup study showed that 20 percent of 15–24-year-olds and 29 percent of 25–35-year-olds said they planned on starting a business, with the most intent expressed by Africans from low-income countries.

Layzell says Africans have expressed great interest in KFC’s business opportunities. “It has been encouraging to see many of the African Diaspora contacting us for jobs and franchise opportunities as they look to return to their countries of birth,” he says, referring to people who emigrated from Africa. KFC also tries to promote from within, enabling employees to work their way up and learn skills they will be able to apply to their own business some day, Layzell says.

But Maritz believes financing and lack of business skills are still major restraints for Africans looking to own a business.

“On the one hand, the African market is less saturated, so in that sense it is probably easier to start a business because there is less competition,” he says. “On the other hand, a lack of financing makes it more difficult.”

He adds: “Things are, however, changing.”

One thing U.S. brands should be careful to remember, Maritz says, is that businesses will not immediately be profitable in Africa. He says it could take 10 years before any brand starts to see substantial profits.

But Shattuck says growth in Africa can depend on how well established the brand is. “I think that the window for the opportunity where you start seeing much greater expansion will probably depend on the brand, because well-established brands can go in earlier, typically,” he says.

Two African nations have already proved to be successful markets for quick-service development: Egypt and South Africa. Burger King announced plans in November to roll out its first South African location this year. The company has 25 locations in Egypt and Morocco.

Baskin-Robbins has 29 locations in Egypt and has been in the country since 1993. Cinnabon has 17 locations in South Africa, as well as 20 locations in Egypt.

With so many brands already in South Africa, the most advanced economy on the continent, Maritz says the market has become saturated.

“It is, however, important to note that most of these brands are expanding into Africa through their South African operations,” he says. “I think it is easier for South Africans to do business in the rest of the continent, since they understand the environment a bit better.”

Layzell and Vaidya have practical advice for brands ready to jump feet-first into Africa. “The road to success in Africa can be challenging, and you need strong belief, a clear vision, a long-term view, and support from the very top to take the first steps,” Layzell says. “Nigerian businessman Aliko Dangote once said you can’t operate in Africa from the boardrooms of the U.S. and Europe. This is a fundamental truth—you need to be on the ground to understand the complexities of each country in Africa.”

Vaidya adds that in order to be successful in Africa, franchisors need to be flexible in creating a local-friendly version of the brand. “There is no point parachuting an American brand into Africa just as it is in California,” he says. “Every global brand must act local without losing any core essence of the brand.”

Vaidya also stresses that regardless of the market, a brand cannot survive without strong franchisees who possess unchanging loyalty to the brand.

“I believe the most important quality any franchisee should have, and I seriously mean this, is to have unflappable integrity to stay true to the brand he or she has franchised,” he says. “Often, we see franchisees cutting corners outside the knowledge of the franchisors and, gradually but surely, the brand equity starts getting eroded, steadily losing customers.”

If franchisees can prove to be successful brand ambassadors in Africa, the continent’s business future will be bright. But while Layzell believes KFC will eventually set up locations in every African country, he’s uncertain what the timetable for doing so would be.

“Our vision is to be the defining restaurant company in Africa, and as such, we see no country as being out of bounds—it is just the timing of our entry that will differ,” Layzell says. “We need to ensure we can build sustainable businesses, which means we look at elements such as affordability, disposable income, supply-chain availability, and of course, political and economic stability.”

Quick-service restaurants should act soon on an Africa strategy, Vaidya says, and be aware of the shifting market.

“It is important that major chains realize the potential of this emerging economy and make serious inroads to come out stronger in about 10 years’ time, when Africa will very likely be a strong economic block in the world,” he says.

Denise Lee Yohn: QSR's Marketing Guru, Growth, Story, Cinnabon, Kentucky Fried Chicken, McDonald's