Global Speak: African Dawn

Massive and diverse, the continent of Africa houses many regions that are primed for spa business development.



Africa is our second-largest and second-most populated continent, yet not a part of the world that necessarily comes to mind when discussing the spa industry. That will be changing over the next 10 years, however, as the political, cultural and business climate in Africa continues to evolve.
Comprised of 55 internationally recognized states and home to approximately 1 billion people who collectively speak close to 2,000 languages, Africa is generally thought of as two entities: 1) North Africa, which are the countries along the Northern tip of the continent considered part of the Arab world; and 2) sub-Saharan Africa, the other countries.

News stories about Africa tend to lean toward the negative, but the business world is looking to the diverse continent as the next big growth area in many industries over the next 15 to 20 years. (For more information read Jonathan Berman’s article in the October 2013 issue of Harvard Business Review.) Although doing business in Africa is still a challenging venture, there are many positives. For instance:

  • Africa is home to 52 cities with a population of more than a million people.
  • One-third of all African countries are seeing GDP (gross domestic product) growth of about 6%—double the global average.
  • Twenty percent of government spending is allotted to education—nearly double the rate of many developed countries.

A 2013 study estimated that at least 29 hotel groups representing 59 brands were operating 90,000 hotel rooms on the continent. However, the current development pipeline would add another 40,000 rooms, or nearly 50%, to that total. Increased intra-country travel is one reason, but tourism is certainly a major contributor: sub-Saharan Africa alone saw 33.8 million visitors in 2012, representing revenues of $36 billion.

Fertile Ground

The aforementioned numbers represent an attractive opportunity for spa entrepreneurs, some of whom have already begun creating spa chains and product companies in different regions of Africa. The continent provides a perfect setting, with abundant and well-documented natural resources, ranging from desert to rainforest, and from mountains to beach. The earth here provides a rich source of indigenous herbs and plants that lend themselves to spa and wellness experiences. Popular African-sourced ingredients include marula, honey, argan oil, rooibos, vanilla, sandalwood, lime, African ginger, and a variety of muds and clays, many of which can be found in African-developed product lines such as Healing Earth , Kalahari, MatsiMela and Africology.

One of the most compelling building blocks for spas on the continent lies in a wealth of African healing traditions and rituals. The oldest-known written medical literature dates back to the time of Imhotep (circa 2600 B.C.), an Egyptian often acknowledged as one of the world’s first physicians. The documents attributed to him advise on utilizing the natural forces of nature, including herbal pharmacology, to cure illnesses and ailments. As might be expected in an under-developed region, many of these traditions and customs are still in use today—nearly half of the plants once central to Pharaonic medicine are used now, by both Western-trained doctors and traditional African healers.

The Egyptians introduced the use of essential oils and created sanitariums where citizens could receive dream therapy and treatments using healing waters. Even today, the timeless wisdom of traditional healers is widely revered in Africa, and many people consult both a medical doctor and a traditional healer when faced with sickness. This seems an inevitable outcome on a continent where body and soul are regarded as one entity, and linked to nature and the spirits of others.

It’s difficult to estimate the number of spas operating in Africa, and there are great regional differences in types and density of spas. Conde Nast’s top-rated African spa and resort this past year was Bushmans Kloof in the Western Cape of South Africa; other highly regarded spa and wellness destinations include The Hydro at Stellenbosch and Sabi Sabi Game Reserve in South Africa, and Chenot Spa at Selman Hotel in Marrakech.

In general, South Africa has a highly developed spa and hospitality market, featuring numerous day spas. West Africa, including the fast-growing economies of Ghana and Nigeria, is experiencing an expanding middle class and increasing demand for personal services and products. And North African countries, especially Morocco and Egypt, have long been strong tourist destinations, and therefore have some lovely spas, though they’re mostly based in hotels.
To help us gain some understanding of what it means to run a spa in these regions, we asked spa operators doing business in Africa to share their insights.

Morocco and Egypt (North Africa)

Anna Bjurstam is vice-president of Spa & Wellness for Six Senses, and owner of spa consulting firm Raison d’Etre. Bjurstam has opened multiple spas in the North Africa region, and she has some clear observations about running spas there:

Morocco is a magical country that touches your heart, and is full of treasures—including argan oil, rose oil, orange blossom water, olives, almonds and the very exclusive Figue de Barbarie (Barbary Fig). The Moroccan hammam is, in my view, the ultimate spa treatment, and has more steps and rituals than a Turkish hammam. There are many Moroccan brands, but few are ‘natural’, and you must read the ingredient lists carefully.

The ability to speak French is vital, as English is limited, and finding qualified staff is a challenge, although there are many gifted therapists. Opening a spa in Morocco will require operators to provide a great deal of training covering skills as well as behavioral and culture-based topics.

Women are generally safe in Morocco, and the country is focused on becoming a leader in wellness tourism by 2020. However, one must still be sensitive to cultural issues; it is important to not be forceful, but to smile and slowly find a way to accomplish your goals. (Note: Morocco is the chosen location for this year’s annual Global Spa & Wellness Summit being held in Africa for the first time.)

Egypt is an amazing country when it comes to local and indigenous therapies, with endless possibilities for creating concepts and treatments. The main challenge is staffing: male Egyptian therapists are in general excellent and quite easy to find, but there are very few Egyptian female therapists except for beauticians. Therefore, hiring foreign female therapists is a must, and this can create big visa challenges that take months to resolve. Because Egypt is a Muslim country, strict policies and protocols for providing treatments for women is recommended.

Another major challenge is skincare products; it’s very difficult as well as costly to import products and almost no large brands are legally registered in Egypt. There is, however, a wealth of excellent local and natural products.

Ghana (West Africa)

Spa and business entrepreneur Dzigbordi K. Dosoo is the owner and operator of Allure Africa, based in Accra, Ghana. Dosoo currently runs a day spa and men’s grooming center, along with a product distribution company called Kanshi, co-created with Lydia Sarfati, founder of U.S.-based Repêchage. Here’s what Dosoo had to say about doing business in Ghana:

The spa industry in Ghana—and indeed West Africa—can be described as ‘developing’ for the simple reason that, although African culture has always honored the concept of preventive therapy through the use of traditional herbs as food and medicine, the idea of ‘spa’ as a place to go for wellness therapies is very new, and most people are still being educated on that concept. So, most spa clients are expats or upper- or middle-class Ghanaians who’ve been exposed to spa services in the developed world. Clients visiting the spa are focused on massages and body therapies.

When my spa was established as Ghana’s first day spa, the concept of regulating beauty facilities was non-existent. To help create awareness of this thriving industry and its potential, I and some of my colleagues in the beauty industry took to heavy advocacy, and there’s now a Legislative Instrument (L.I.) developed by our Ghana Tourist Board to present to parliament to consider regulating spas. We also had to develop our own training institute, which should be fully operational later in 2014. I bring in trainers from all over the world to train my existing and new staff on international standards of every spa service and protocol.

South Africa

The most well-developed spa market in Africa is in South Africa, which, according to the South African Spa Association , has more than 700 spas. Ronleigh Gordon, founder and CEO of the 16-unit spa chain Amani Africa (see photo, page 56), comments on her experience in building her company over the last eight years:

The South African economy had a challenging year in 2013, but we’re now starting to see increases in sales from both the private and corporate sectors. Numerous new hotels are being constructed and others renovated, many with spas. This has increased competition in the hospitality and spa industries.

Today’s South African spa-goers are generally savvy—they know what to expect and what they want—but it’s time to up the game a little and make our spa offerings more inspiring. If you were to compare South African spa menus you would find few differences, which is sad because we need to embrace change!
We need to listen closely to the ‘conscious’ consumers, who not only demand quality and results but want to feel at ease with the values and morals we use to make our business decisions, product choices, treatment offerings, staff selections, and training and development methods.

South Africa has Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) laws, which require businesses to provide opportunities in skills development, ownership, management, socioeconomic development, and employment preferences to citizens. It’s very important that businesses receive a good rating under BEE law, so Amani Africa has created a staff trust fund that allots a portion of company ownership to the staff. We intend to continue along the path of growth by embracing ethical practices of empowerment and fair trade.

Amani’s key focus now is corporate wellness growth, in which we provide tailor-made offerings designed to facilitate corporate objectives such as staff motivation, performance optimization, executive and employee well-being, and lifestyle and wellness experiences. This may include anything from day spa packages to mobile spas to wellness getaways. We receive multiple franchise requests each week from countries across Africa, and have recently sold our first two franchise units, so we hope to grow that portion of our business as well.

Should you consider doing spa business in Africa? The African spa market is not without risks, but the rewards of operating in such a diverse and growing environment can be enormous. Historic innovation, healing tradition, scenic beauty, natural resources and indigenous ingredients combine to make the African spa experience unique and unforgettable.—Lisa Starr

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