When it comes to business strategy, pioneers can, if they get it right, acquire significant first mover advantages – a powerful asset that can seal their dominance and loom large over the rest of the industry. In the early 1990s, a group of African companies began breaking beyond national borders, to become the continent’s pioneer multinationals. Almost three decades on, analysts and scholars at Konfidants have ploughed the data to answer the crucial question: Did Africa’s pioneer multinationals sustain their first mover advantage – in terms of footprint leadership?

Assessing first-mover advantage is a composite of several variables, primarily a company’s industry market share, and leadership in key areas like technology, capabilities, brand and financial stature.

In the context of multinational expansion, we will zero in on a much narrower question: are the first companies to start expanding across the continent currently the largest or among the largest multinationals by pan-African footprint? Did the late-comers upend them?


Among the largest African multinationals (those making more than a billion dollars in annual revenue), the following three main findings become clear, based on the above Konfidants chart.

  • Many first movers have sustained their footprint leadership: As far as footprint is concerned, being an early mover seems to overall translate into current footprint leadership. Ecobank (36 countries), MTN (16 countries) Shoprite (15 countries), Massmart (16 countries), are all companies that began cross-border expansions in the 1990s or earlier. Indeed Ecobank which reached its third country milestone in 1989, is also the footprint leader of the pack.

  • There are two latecomer outliers: Dangote Cement which attained its third country milestone as recently as 2013, is currently in 13 countries. It has expanded at the extraordinary rate of 3 countries a year on average in the last 4 years. UBA, another Nigerian company, is the second best performing late-comer: it attained its third country milestone in 2007, but operates in 20 countries presently.

  • Some early movers have fallen behind: Early movers that failed to translate first-mover advantages into footprint leadership, include GT Bank, Pick n Pay, First Rand Bank, and AECI.

What do these findings tell us about deeper dynamics of cross-border expansion by African multinationals on the continent? Look out for further analysis of these and more in Konfidants’s forthcoming AfroChampions Report, our flagship analysis of Africa’s largest multinational companies with a combined 554 footprint across 54 economies.