A world watch tour

African retailers and the exodus of capital


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April 2024

African retailers and the exodus of capital

Deremi Ajidahun is often congratulated by Swiss CEOs on the appetite for watches of Nigerians vacationing in Paris, London or New York. The African retailer responds by expressing regret that they are not purchasing the watches at home, in Lagos or Abuja. The system is going round in circles, and Africa, despite its demographic potential (180 million inhabitants in Nigeria alone) and the eternal promises of development, today accounts for scarcely 2% to 3% of luxury purchases worldwide.


n the subject of Africa, many CEOs talk of a continent in transformation, a young, fast-developing land, sometimes even a future El Dorado of luxury. But when it comes to action, investing to build a luxury distribution network on the continent, it is another matter.

Why indeed build a boutique in Lagos in Nigeria when the richest residents spend most of their time in the major European capitals, where they do not skimp when it comes to buying luxury watches? The local African retailers are the good-natured muffins who promote the watchmaking industry and companies while often missing out – along with the entire local economy – on actual sales.

Deremi Ajidahun, one of the largest watch manufacturers in sub-Saharan Africa, with seven boutiques in Nigeria and a group that sells far more than just watches, has still not found a solution to this problem. So he listens attentively, without falling for it, to the enthusiastic talk of the watch company CEOs, waiting to throw it back at them at the negotiating table...

An interview with Deremi Ajidahun, the founder of Hole19 ©Igor Laski
An interview with Deremi Ajidahun, the founder of Hole19 ©Igor Laski

An African-style Chinese crisis

Last year was a very difficult year for purchasing watches in Nigeria. This was because of an African-style “Chinese crisis”: a new government set up a “clean hands” policy and an anti-corruption campaign which, as in China, severely restricts gifting. Up to that time, these favours between good friends from the worlds of politics and business, often in the form of luxury watches, represented a huge 60% of the retailer’s turnover from watch sales.

Also, in 2016 Nigeria entered the deepest recession of recent decades owing to the drop in the price of oil, of which the country is a major producer.

View of Lagos, the largest city in Nigeria... and Africa
View of Lagos, the largest city in Nigeria... and Africa

Luckily for him, Deremi Ajidahun has more than one string to his bow, since the business on which his group Hole19 (founded in 1987) was built – BtoB marketing in the golfing sector – continues to bolster his sales figures. As does the sale of luxury property, in a group with very diverse assets. He himself has launched his own clothing line.

But the blow to his watch boutiques was tough. He has two multibrand boutiques, in Abuja and Lagos, where he is an agent for brands of the LVMH Group, as well as for independent brands such as Louis Moinet, Louis Erard and Seven Friday. The retailer also runs two Hublot boutiques, two TAG Heuer boutiques and one Ulysse Nardin boutique.

“Richemont is a group with African origins. They could do more for the continent!”

“Nearly ten years ago, my wife had the idea of expanding into the luxury market. Since I love watches as much as golf, watches were a natural choice,” explains Deremi Ajidahun. The retailer has even created a magazine devoted to the subject to raise the profile of luxury watches in the country: “There isn’t really any specialist press here – and as a general rule, Africa is always under-represented in the big luxury magazines.”

Ulysse Nardin store, Abuja
Ulysse Nardin store, Abuja

Hublot store, Abuja
Hublot store, Abuja

TAG Heuer store, Abuja
TAG Heuer store, Abuja

Keen buyers of luxury watches… in Europe

Until last year, growth was steady. The customer base of the Zakaa chain – the name of the group’s luxury watch arm – is largely local. Since there is no real middle class in this country where inequality is high, the aficionados are mainly HNIs (high-net-worth individuals) or UHNIs (ultra-high-net-worth individuals), to use the financial jargon. While brands like Hublot met with immediate success in the country, Deremi Ajidahun explains that by contrast, “selling an affordable, less well-known luxury brand such as Louis Erard was not easy at the beginning”. It was the elegant women’s watches offered by this independent Swiss brand that eventually saved the day.

Faced with the crisis that broke out last year, the retailer was forced to offer huge promotions in his stores, “of around 50% to 60%”. But, he emphasises: “On the other hand, we were determined to keep all our staff. We didn’t introduce any new brands and we held multiple local events. We used to hold big events in the past, but we realised that the return on investment wasn’t as high as for more targeted public events.”

The retailer cannot count on any kind of economic patriotism from his fellow citizens to get back on track. Although Nigerians “adore” watches, some “80% of their watch purchases” are made abroad. “We’re trying to shift purchasing back to the domestic market. If we had a critical mass of models and brands here, it would be much easier to consolidate the market. In that respect, I have to pay tribute to LVMH, who were pioneers for the watch industry in Africa.”

Deremi Ajidahun ©Igor Laski
Deremi Ajidahun ©Igor Laski

Counterfeits and lack of cash

Because the retailer is categoric: there definitely exists potential for growth – and not solely by expanding into South Africa, the continent’s strongest economy, for example. “We’ve got enough scope for development in Nigeria, a country of 180 million inhabitants! I believe we haven’t even attained 20% of our potential.” That is on condition that the watchmakers play fair and begin to flesh out their distribution networks in Africa. “Richemont is a group with African origins. They could do more on the continent!”

But there are two major stumbling blocks on the path to watch sales growth in Africa. Firstly, the weak banking system obliges local retailers to develop almost solely on the strength of their own equity, which restricts their growth. “We haven’t borrowed a single penny,” underscores Deremi Ajidahun. “The number one obstacle to business in Nigeria, as on most of the continent, is the banking system. They won’t give you a loan to let you develop.”

“We’ve got enough scope for development in Nigeria, a country of 180 million inhabitants! I believe we haven’t even attained 20% of our potential.”

Another huge problem is counterfeiting, which is deeply rooted in society and the local economy. “You can see three-star hotels in Nigeria where counterfeit watches are on display… There is no law that effectively combats the problem and the market is flooded with counterfeit Chinese watches. It’s rife in all sectors: I even see counterfeit golf balls!”

As for e-commerce, it too is flooded with counterfeit watches... “That is why we do not invest in online sales,” says Deremi Ajidahun. “We’re prioritising education first of all, so that people don’t imagine they can pick up a Patek Philippe for less than 2,500 dollars.”

In the space of a decade, the retailer has already traced out a possible pathway for luxury watches on the continent. But he has no intention of stopping there: “I think, for example, that it might be possible to double the number of boutiques of a brand like Hublot in Nigeria in the next few years!” Africa is probably not the El Dorado some people talk of, but a more realistic vision of its potential could allow it to gain a few percent real growth – on the continent itself.

The Gulf of Guinea and Nigeria
The Gulf of Guinea and Nigeria