How big supermarket chains in southern Africa keep out small suppliers.

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Supermarkets are a key route to market for many suppliers of food and household consumable products. The growth of supermarket chains in southern Africa presents important opportunities for suppliers, as it potentially opens up much larger regional markets for them. Supermarkets can therefore be a strong catalyst to stimulate suppliers in food processing and light manufacturing industries in southern Africa.

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But even the most efficient suppliers with competitively priced, high-quality products are unlikely to succeed if they can't get their products to consumers. Here, large supermarkets play a key role. Onerous requirements and exertion of buyer power by large supermarket chains can result in small- and medium-sized suppliers and entrepreneurs failing to enter and participate in the economy.

We examined the obstacles to accessing shelf space in supermarkets in Botswana, South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe. The research revealed a range of costs that suppliers incur even before a single unit of their product is sold off supermarket shelves in each country.

Supplier development initiatives have been put in place by supermarkets and governments. But these have had limited success because they are restricted in scale and scope, are largely ad hoc, and don't have a regional development perspective in mind.

There is a need for more co-ordinated, sustainable and regionally focused interventions to increase the participation of suppliers in supermarket supply chains. These should aim to reduce barriers to entry by, for example, curbing supermarket buyer power and building capabilities of suppliers.

Supermarket buyer power

The formal South African supermarket industry is concentrated, with only a handful of large chains holding more than 70% of the national market share. South African supermarket chains also have a strong and growing presence in each of the other countries assessed, although recent years have seen the emergence of other African and global chains too.

Large supermarket chains therefore have considerable buyer power, and are often able to control pricing and trading terms with suppliers. This can include a range of fees such as listing or support fees paid by suppliers to get their products listed in supermarket books.

These fees can be prohibitive for small suppliers. Estimates of listing fees in South Africa range from US$350 to $3,500 per year for a single product line of a basic food item on the shelf. They...

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