South African retailer Shoprite Thursday opened its first outlet in northern Nigeria, as part of an aggressive expansion drive and defying wider concerns about security in the region.
The store in Kano - the north's largest city and main commercial hub - is situated in the new $110-million (80-million-euro) Ado Bayero Mall that has taken three years to construct and claims to be Nigeria's biggest.
Hundreds of upper and middle class Nigerians thronged the mall as it opened its doors. Private security guards searched vehicles for weapons and explosives and armed police kept watch on shoppers.
The new venture, at a cost of $20 million, brings to eight the number of Shoprite stores in Nigeria. A further four of the shops, which sell food, goods and clothes, are slated to open before the end of the year. "We decided to expand our reach to Kano as part of our commitment to widen our presence in the Nigerian mega cities," store manager Adulhakeem Abdulganiyu told AFP.
"Kano, as a commercial city with its huge population, provides ample business opportunities which we want to exploit." Kano's economy has suffered in recent decades, even before the start of the Islamist insurgency, which has claimed thousands of lives in a wave of deadly shootings and bomb attacks.
Hundreds of factories have closed because of power supply problems and competition from cheaper Asian goods, putting many people out of work and leaving them unable to provide for their families.
Unemployment rates in Kano, which was famous for its textiles and tanneries, are the highest in Nigeria, according to the government. In 2011, the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) said as many as two-thirds of the population (67 per cent) were out of work. Businesses, including foreign firms, have also relocated or shut because of the Boko Haram threat. But Abdulganiyu said the unrest was not a reason not to set up in the city.
"If we continue saying we will not come due to the prevailing security situation, we will not move forward. All we need to do is make adequate provisions to overcome such challenges," he added.
Kano is already home to several shopping malls owned by Nigerians and Lebanese as well as Indian nationals, but they are now dwarfed by the new 24,000 square metre (258,000 sq ft) centre.
Abdulganiyu insisted that "the market is big enough for all of us" while others said the new venture would be good for competition. "With a huge retailer of Shoprite's status, other retailers will have to sit up and compete in terms of prices, efficiency, customer satisfaction, product guarantees, security of environment and other customer-related needs," said economist Badayi Sani. "It is a good development for consumers and the Kano economy," said Sani, from Kano's Bayero University. Shoprite has 1,800 outlets worldwide and its expansion in Nigeria is a sign of growing foreign interest in Africa's second-biggest economy.
"Nigeria is a big country with a great market, which is why South Africa and other countries are investing here," said Mohammed Hayatudden, a former bank executive and one of the mall owners.