It’s time to think small when it comes to identifying growth areas in the global economy.
For the past 15 years, since the BRIC acronym was coined for Brazil, Russia, India and China, the world’s biggest emerging economies have been the focus for discussion on growth opportunities outside of western developed markets. But with a slowdown in China and a credit downgrade for Brazil, it is getting harder to view the BRICs story as a simple, grand narrative of gilded opportunity for investors and businesses alike.
But these nations are not a busted flush; we just have to adjust our thinking. Real growth can be found in fast-expanding markets within those countries. It is a subject we have examined recently in a paper published in the Thunderbird International Business Review, seeking to understand these markets which transcend sectors as well as nations, and sometimes even confound conventional wisdom.
While BRICs was useful shorthand for showing that a few populous countries would reshape the global economy this century, this macroeconomic lure has in fact been a microeconomic disappointment for some big companies. Home Depot had an emblematic experience, entering China in 2006 and pulling out completely in 2012. It didn’t anticipate that the do-it-yourself culture of the US wouldn’t translate into a country with abundant and relatively cheap labourers.
It is a story that illustrates the difficulty in using a top-down approach when operating in emerging markets. So rather than only taking a bird’s-eye view of such populous countries, it is useful to also take a ground-up look at where highly specific opportunities lie in BRIC countries and beyond.
In China, one of these fast-expanding markets is milk production and consumption. More people have been paying close attention to their health and to the role that milk can play in their basic diet. Other factors have included an upgrade to the supply chain, a relaxation of the country’s one-child policy and the continued westernisation of China as companies such as Starbucks grow popular.
From 2000 to 2006 alone, China’s raw milk consumption nearly quadrupled, and the country is now the world’s third-largest producer behind the US and India as agricultural infrastructure has improved.
In India, fast-expanding markets include Western-style cheese, which saw sales growth of nearly 200% from 2008-2013; solar water heaters, with the area in square metres of instalments almost doubling between 2009 and 2011; and the chocolate industry may treble this year to more than $2 billion, as a rise in sugar prices has made traditional sweets more expensive.
Beyond BRICs, fast-expanding markets include mobile money transfers in Kenya and video game production in Turkey, developing games which conform to Islamic values.
And we can even branch out beyond the developing world too. There are opportunities for entrepreneurs, investors and businesses in the Vitamin D testing market in Italy, benefitting from an increasing lack of direct sun exposure; in organic food production in Spain, linked to a downturn in the property market; in food trucks in the US, which have grown at a double-digit annual rate in recent years; and ceramic teeth in Liechtenstein, an industry which expanded in the past five years at a compound annual growth rate of 9.5%.
While overall growth is useful to know, an unquestioned loyalty to macroeconomic data misses much of the equation and loses most of the intelligence that can drive astute investment decisions. That’s partly because macroeconomic analysis often takes a linear look at the future, and this can often prove wrong. If you were to look at the US population statistics in the early 1900s, one could reach the conclusion that the country would have been 80% Italian and Polish by 1930 if trends had followed a linear progression.
Pocketing the wealth
The central idea is that wealth can be found everywhere, even in countries that share gloomy macroeconomic data or prospects, like Bolivia, which is the country that has driven the quinoa revolution into the “ready to eat” industry in the US. With an annual growth rate of 26.5%, Bolivia has exploded its production of quinoa, to the benefits of the new dietary aspirations of Americans, who have integrated the super grain into the daily use of soups, salads and energy bars. This is a great example of an agricultural fast-expanding market, which stems from what many consider as the poorest economy in Latin America.
Sometimes, fast-emerging markets develop in unlikely settings. Italy has long had a reputation for high-quality food products and delicious wines, but in the midst of that, microbreweries are gaining a foothold. This is partly because the lack of a traditional beer culture in Italy means microbreweries can more readily experiment with flavours and ingredients. Another surprising expanding market in Italy: American-style bakery products such as chocolate chip cookies, cupcakes and donuts.
Some may scoff that craft beer in Italy or quinoa in Bolivia are pretty insignificant compared to major global industries such as automobiles or machine tools. But such a reaction risks blinding us to fresh insights that can lead to new pockets of excellence that, taken together, make a real difference to the world economy.