The new Cosmos Yopougon mall in Côte d'Ivoire.

Late last year, a new shopping mall was unveiled in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire’s major urban center. Spread out over 7.4 acres of land, the $30 million Cosmos Yopougon project, of which 92 percent has already been leased, sends a clear signal to the rest of Africa and the world about Côte d’Ivoire’s economic recovery after decades of strife.

The West African nation, a former French colony, was beset by civil wars from 2002 to 2011. After regaining political stability in 2011, it embarked on a path of economic recovery. Today, under the rule of President Alassane Ouattara, now on his second term, Côte d’Ivoire is one of the continent’s success stories; it was the fourth fastest-growing economy in the world in 2018, with real GDP growth forecast at 7.2 percent by the World Bank. A 2014 report by market research provider Euromonitor International notes that “consumer expenditure is on the rise with an expected nominal growth rate of 9 to 10 percent in the coming five years.”

Despite the gains in spending power, the African Development Bank noted that 46 percent of the population lives below the poverty line. In fact, Yopougon, the most populous municipality in Abidjan — housing 25 percent of the city’s four to five million inhabitants — might seem a curious choice of location for the inaugural asset of the Cosmos brand, as it is not the city’s most affluent neighborhood. Rather, it is solidly working class, and this is where the developer and lead local investor of Cosmos Yopougon, the London- and Abidjan-based HC Capital, saw opportunity.

“We saw a relatively underserved market,” Hafeez Giwa, the Nigerian-born founder of HC Capital, said in a phone interview. “In our analysis of the retail landscape, no one was looking to invest the way we were, and they didn’t understand the income potential levels in Yopougon. In fact, the spending potential is quite strong. FMCG (fast-moving consumer goods) spend is actually comparable to the upper classes. Yopougon’s is 440 million euros per year.”

Recognizing the neighborhood’s priorities, HC Capital built Cosmos Yopougon, with “50 percent in leverage and 50 percent in equity,” Giwa explained. For this market, “the focus is on basic necessities, then we layer on entertainment — this year will see our grand cinema opening which features the 700-seat Majestic cinema complex, as well as a kids’ play area. And then there’s the food and beverage offering. This is a mall anchored by groceries, rather than fashion.”

Indeed, Carrefour is the mall’s anchor tenant, while Burger King is also a tenant. There are a sprinkling of fashion stores among the 60 stores and 30 kiosks, but the global fast-fashion giants like Zara and H&M have yet to plant a foothold in Côte d’Ivoire.

“We do have brands like Numero Uno and Celio from France present at the mall,” Giwa acknowledged. “We are more focused on value-for-money fashion brands rather than designer labels, which are present in the more upmarket areas of Abidjan. While Ivorians, men and women, have a vibrant sense of fashion, not to mention an interesting sense of combining local fashion with current trends.” Cosmos, he added, addresses the consumer that doesn’t go to Milan but shops locally, with an eye to value purchases.

While the likes of Zara and H&M are not in the Ivorian market yet, “we are trying to create a retail environment that would be attractive to them. Tastes in Côte d’Ivoire are evolving quickly. It’s just a matter of years before bigger players come in,” Giwa said.

Since its soft opening in October 2018, followed by the formal opening in December, Cosmos Yopougon has experienced foot traffic of over 800,000 shoppers. The reaction of the community has been very positive, said Giwa, and “tenants report doing better than expectations.”

Mindful that shopping centers have taken on the mantle of community centers, Cosmos Yopougon was determined to “create a destination for people to gather” and focused on the mall’s “high leisure component.” Over the Christmas season, said Giwa, “we wanted to create a special experience for the consumer, while also remaining true to the Cosmos retail brand, which offers infinite possibilities. We created our own innovative Santa grotto, with Santa’s elves transformed into cosmonauts. This was very well-received by shoppers.”

As a de facto community center, there were concerns during construction that the mall would negatively impact the many informal retailers who plied their trade all over the neighborhood. “We could see that the market was maturing, and that the taste of the local population was discerning,” Giwa noted.

Together with his partner at HC Capital, native Ivorian Cheick Sanankoua — they met while studying at Harvard Business School — Giwa said they “spent time looking at what people were spending on,” and decided “to bring the open bazaars into the formal setting.” They also brought scattered establishments — the supermarket, the pharmacy, the food court — into the center. “Local informal retailers want to upgrade. We needed to innovate the kiosk and bazaar concept in order to give these retailers the opportunity to upscale their businesses. The mall is a way for them to expand commercial activity in the municipality.”

According to him, the new mall has created 2,300 new formal and informal jobs.

Both Giwa and Sanakoua agree that the Francophone market throughout West and Central Africa is underserved, and there is very little retail infrastructure investment there. They are focusing their attention toward Senegal, Cameroon, Ghana and Nigeria in particular; their next mall project is in the Ghanaian capital, Accra. They point out that they are from these countries and therefore bring their local knowledge of the market to the table, together with their global perspective. While it may still be early days, it would seem that in the case of Cosmos Yopougon, their insights into and instincts about their target consumer are on the money.