Founded in 1902, 3M, formerly the Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company, is a science-based technology company that expanded from beginnings in the US to become a multinational giant. Essential Business Africa spoke to Debasish Gupta, 3M Africa’s general manager and director of East and West Africa, and Dr Feben Gobena, general manager of government relations, to find out more about the company’s progress on the continent.
In 2015 3M established its African headquarters in Nairobi, having been present in the city since 1978. The company sells a huge variety of products in dozens of different fields, helping fuel the region’s rapid growth. But why was Kenya chosen as a regional base?
“3M wanted to increase its presence in Africa and made a strategic decision to invest in Kenya,” says Gupta. “We went from three people to what we have today, about 20 people, expanding and staffing new departments like sales distribution, our supply chain, government affairs and so on.”
“Kenya is the largest economy in the region and it’s got a fairly stable political system,” he continues. “It’s like the Dubai of sub-Saharan Africa. The financial sector is very strong, the banking structure is organised well, and of course it’s a good place to live. The IT infrastructure and the schooling are great, living conditions are very good, it’s easy to travel and work in other areas. All of these reasons made it the number one choice when 3M was expanding into Africa.”
Services and training
3M’s primary business in Africa is selling solutions from seven of its prioritized divisions (3M’s divisions span from healthcare, to automotive, to mining, oil and gas) to various markets, but the company also offers support services including technical training to customers. These programmes are designed to build 3M’s brand identity within Africa and promote sales of its products, as is standard procedure for 3M subsidiaries around the world. 3M training staff work with medical, industrial and commercial workers and personnel, ensuring that its products are being used correctly and making sure customers get value for money.
“3M has been in business a long time and one of the reasons for that is that we invest in R&D across 46 technology platforms. We are able to share this vast knowledge with our partners because we see ourselves as a partner to our customers. In this scenario we also work with our customers to educate, and try to raise the bar when it comes to professional service, personal safety, road safety, and health care. We provide extensive professional training when it comes to that as well,” Gobena explains.
Analysing the market
Since becoming established in Africa 3M has had to adapt to the market, with its inevitable differences from the rest of the world as well as those from region to region.
“One thing that we’ve noticed is that the East and West African markets are very price-conscious but consumers are also looking for quality,” says Gupta. “If you look at products in the healthcare market, you look at industrial products, you will find a lot come from the UK or Europe, while many are sourced from the US.
“There is a difference in the market but structurally East Africa is similar, so if you take our consumer products like Scotchbrite scouring pads, you’ll find them on sale in stores, whether it is in Uganda, Tanzania or Kenya. Where industrial products are concerned, I think there’s a lot more scrutiny of value, but with consumer products it’s more look and feel.”
“The other thing that’s different from the rest of the world is that distribution plays a very important part in sub-Saharan Africa. It completes the product ordering and availability cycle. It’s very important to have the product in the market, because there’s no use of our professional services talking about education when we don’t have the product available. Some of these distribution companies in East Africa have become very professional, and they share with us point of sale data. All of this makes this market a little different from the other regions of the continent.”
While it is a well-established company in a number of countries, 3M is still expanding into sub-Saharan Africa. Gupta explains what the company’s plans are for the near future:
“In 2017 I think we will continue our focus on customer intimacy. 3M products are known for quality and we need to show the customer the value of the product. For this reason, we have a programme called Customer First, which we have deployed for our three primary markets: healthcare, heavy industry and consumer. The second thing is customer engagement through specific training programmes. Then the other thing which we are all focusing on in 2017 is building our reach to distribute our products in Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Nigeria and Ghana.”
With Africa becoming a key presence on the global science and technology stages, it’s no surprise that companies like 3M are looking to expand their African operations.