Researchers’ Voice Series – Qualitative Adventures in Africa

The Focus Vision Researchers’ Voice blog series highlights first-person stories from researchers from around the globe. Each account offers unique perspectives on collecting insights across disparate environments.

Qualitative Adventures in Africa

By Jurie Smit, Founder and Adventurer in Chief of Cross Cultural Insights

Hey it’s Africa, What Can One Do?

Venturing across the African continent as a qualitative researcher can be fun and eye-opening, especially if you enjoy unpredictability and occasional chaos in your life. The expression “don’t sweat the small stuff” becomes crystal clear once you experience all of the truly “big stuff” you often have to sweat on each adventure.

When deployed for the cause of research, I choose to use the word “adventures” rather than projects. This allows for added moral and ethical flexibility when situations just don’t make sense. As someone who has historically preferred a distinct state of organisation, I have certainly become amazingly flexible over the years.

Tete International airport – hub for domestic flights middle of Mozambique

So many things are fascinating and unusual in Africa, and it’s difficult to know where to start. So, we’ll begin with a “disclaimer”. In Africa, when things go south, they really go south. Everything from travel plans to transportation to credit card usage to translators…and more…can, and will, go wrong. When things inevitably do head south, the common response is “Hey it’s Africa, what can one do?”…this has become a foundational mantra in research as well.

Focus Groups in Mozambique

Entrance to venue in Nampula

While surrounded by English speaking countries, the people of Mozambique primarily speak Portuguese. This poses a unique challenge from a marketing perspective. Mozambique’s distance from most other countries and lack of infrastructure has left it isolated and out of the evolving global market. Being one of a handful of Portuguese speaking countries has also contributed to marketing isolation. This has meant virtually no advertising or introduction to products other than bare necessities. Television arrived in 1981, but only broadcasted on Sundays to start. The entire country got television in 2001 when satellite broadcasting was introduced.

This perfect storm of marketing isolation led to two of the most startling research findings I have come across in 25 years. The first related to an exercise to identify the cultural pecking order of brands. I was astounded to find that out of twelve focus groups, not one group could identify five brands in any category, much less five cigarette brands. They knew the brand they smoked and maybe one or two others.

Advertising in Beira

The other eye-opener was a noted lack of visio-spatial interpretation during a packaging test. During this exercise, we tested cigarette pack design, name, taste, etc. Respondents were presented with two types of packaging designs: a traditional rectangular pack and an octagonal pack, with flattened, bevelled edges. None of the respondents in any of the twelve groups could tell the difference between the two packs. The graphics were exactly the same, only the shape was different. Not one noticed the difference in shape. Some even started making up differences (slide shading of the copy etc.).

Despite an extreme lack of branding and advertising/promotional exposure, the respondents were delightful and so un-jaded with their interpretations. I had no choice but to simply go with the flow and enjoy the experience. After all…it’s Africa, what can one do?

Locals are so friendly and welcoming

About the Author

Jurie Smit is the founder and Adventurer in Chief of Cross Cultural Insights (CCI), a boutique qualitative agency based in the Winelands outside of Cape Town, South Africa. CCI helps clients understand and communicate within a complex array of emerging cultures and countries in various stages of development. This often calls for non-traditional and creative ways of making the qualitative research process happen. Jurie has 25 years’ experience in market research, and was a recipient of the 2013 QRCA Senior Scholarship award. He holds degrees in Psychology and Communications from the University of Missouri in the United States. For more information, please visit or email

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