The print industry in Africa: Wide open opportunity or fraught with challenges?
For many years, Africa wasn’t seen as a region of opportunity, but in the past decade the GDP of the continent’s 54 countries has expanded more quickly than the global average
Today six of the world’s ten fastest growing economies are in Africa, and at the end of 2013 both The Economist and Harvard Business Review said that we should look to Africa for economic growth in 2014.
For wide format print providers in the region, this healthy economic environment presents a good opportunity to grow their businesses, but it doesn’t automatically translate into profit. Success, it seems, comes from taking an innovative approach to the solutions that they offer customers, as well as the ability to identify opportunities in market segments where they’ve not previously operated.
According to Robert Franco, Managing Director of Graphix Supply World (GSW), a leading supplier of digital technology for the signage, graphics, textile, print and packaging industries in Africa, there are twelve main countries in Africa that are developing the African Digital Print industry – the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Kenya, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia, Nigeria, Senegal, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe.
“In the past, even screen printing would have been done in South Africa and then shipped north, but as run lengths are declining and people are printing more digitally, this is changing. These countries too have started buying their own grand format printers so that they can print locally, particularly where the technology has become ‘plug and play’ and is increasingly reliable.
Even soft signage is starting to be made in these countries – we’ve installed 22 dye sublimation large format printers outside South Africa in the last two years alone. While other African countries tend to still be small markets, they will grow over time as technology becomes more affordable and more reliable.”
Reliability is a factor that is vital for print operators in Africa, where long distances and high transport costs make service and support difficult for manufacturers to provide, particularly when few have local support suppliers. “We are the leading distributor of technology and media into Africa, but we too have had many challenges from crime and poor transport infrastructure when it comes to getting our goods to clients in good condition,” adds Franco.
Bumps in the road
Other challenges facing print businesses in Africa, according to Franco, range from the lack of finance to invest in new technology and high import duties through to unreliable power supplies in some countries, lack of availability of certain substrates and media in others, slow or non-payment by customers and government corruption.
Another of the challenges mentioned by Franco is a lack of skills and education, something that Charnia Yapp, Publisher of SignAfrica and joint organiser of FESPA Africa (2-4 July 2014), agrees is something faced by many of the print businesses she speaks to. “Despite the high unemployment rate in South Africa, finding people who have the right skills can actually be a real challenge. As a result many print businesses rely on their suppliers to provide training. Of course learning from best practice by attending international exhibitions helps a great deal too, and those businesses who take those opportunities are certainly reaping the benefits.”
Michael Ryan, FESPA's Group Exhibition Manager, points to FESPA Africa as an opportunity to develop the market further; "In terms of pricing, skilled workforce and finding new business opportunities, printers in Africa are experiencing the same issues as every printer around the world ..they are then further challenged by a weak infrastructure and fluctuating, unstable economies."
Some organisations are stepping in to try to close the skills gap, particularly in the area of education. The Printing Industries Federation of South Africa for example, has partnered with the University of the Witwatersrand, one of Africa’s leading universities, to offer academic courses that cater specifically for the print and packaging industry. This is in addition to the Printing & Packaging Technical Trade Theory courses that it offers.
“You can’t just be a printer who does one thing,” says Orlando de Abreu, Managing Director of Johannesburg-based wide format print provider Tali Digital Branding Solutions. “When customers come to us, they are looking for a print provider who can offer them a one-stop service. Not only that, but they are also looking for someone who will say to them ‘Have you thought of this?’ and actually suggest things they haven’t thought of. So you can’t just set up and then sit and wait for business to come to you.”
SignAfrica’s Yapp says that it is this entrepreneurial spirit that is helping drive innovation across the market as print providers look for opportunities beyond their usual customer base. “We’re seeing a lot of convergence, with people investing in kit that can serve different markets with different applications.”
“For example, a number of businesses that have invested in digital wide format printing equipment are expanding into offering digital packaging printing. Others are investing in new equipment so that they can expand their service offerings – this is particularly noticeable in the area of cutting as more and more wide format printers expand into printing on substrates such as rigid boards.
Diversifying and looking for ways to increase profit margins are both things that Franco says that GSW’s customers are looking to do. As a leading supplier of digital technology to wide format printers and the exclusive Mimaki distributor in sub-Saharan Africa, the company is frequently asked for advice by customers. “Diversification is a big trend and is something customers often ask us for advice on. For example, if a customer was previously only printing solvent billboards and posters, they may now be starting to expand into textile applications such as banners, flags or any other large format application with sublimation on polyester.”
“They are also looking for ways to increase the margins they make on print by offering more than just printed wallpaper or PVC banners or prints on board,” continues Franco. “They increasingly seem to be bringing finishing in-house so that they can sell finished products. So they will supply the frame or the tension system – any item that is easy to convert to make a print three dimensional.”
“We believe that real success will come from diversifying into new areas, so flatbed UV printing and flatbed digital cutting with UV printers and high speed cutters are going to be big news.”
Opportunities in digital
The success of Tali Digital Branding Solutions certainly demonstrates the effectiveness of the entrepreneurial approach described by de Abreu. The company has gone from strength to strength in the 10 years since it was established, something that he says mirrors the evolution of the South African wide format market. “We’ve seen major developments in the industry, in everything from resolutions and speeds to the quality of the inks available. Flatbed digital printers have become increasingly prevalent, as well as techniques such as automated cutting.”
De Abreu agrees with Yapp that textile printing is a big growth area in South Africa. “There’s been major growth in digital wide format printing here. Two of the biggest growth areas for us at the moment are textile printing for soft signage and direct-to-substrate printing of materials that we then cut into bespoke shapes for applications such as point of sale.”
Outside of South Africa, according to GSW’s Franco, solvent technology still dominates the African wide format market, followed by latex and sublimation. “We’ve sold 70% of the digital textile printing machines operating in Africa and there is no doubt that we will see growth of textile sublimation and flatbed UV printing as medium-sized companies start to offer local customers products printed on fabric or flat substrates that can be easily converted within days. Just as in the rest of the world, lead times in Africa are becoming shorter and customers want goods within two weeks, not two months anymore."
Register at www.fespaafrica.com for your place at FESPA Africa, 2-4 July 2014.
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