Revenues of the biggest retail companies in Africa and the Middle East grew by 19.1% in financial year 2015–16, with an average 5.8% net profit, according to Deloitte’s Global Powers of Retailing survey.

The Deloitte report said: “The rising middle class in Africa has contributed to the modernisation of the retailing sector, and many African economies are transitioning toward consumption-driven markets.”

Low commodity prices have had a negative effect on African mall retailing but could have a positive impact on African manufacturing. The economic slowdown has caused currency depreciation in most countries, which has driven up the price of imported goods.

A review of the retail sector by one of the continent's leading magazines African Business said: "New mall projects are being completed but fewer are being planned; some cross-border ventures have failed to take root; and outlets in mining areas have been particularly hard hit. There are always likely to be some setbacks but investment will continue to increase as a result of the growing markets on offer."

Only five retailers in sub-Saharan Africa make it into the world’s 250 biggest by retail revenue and all are South African. Steinhoff International, which sells household goods through its JD Group and Pepkor brands in South Africa, was the top-ranked African company in 72nd position, up from 101st in the 2016 survey.

It generated retail revenue of $13.1bn in financial year 2015–16 across the 29 markets in which it operates. The other four were Shoprite, Spar Group, Pick n Pay and Woolworths.

Steinhoff was also ranked as the sixth fastest-growing retailer in the world, with average annual revenue growth of 44.5% over the five-year period 2010–15. The Deloitte survey also served to underline the sheer scale of the global retail industry, with the 250 biggest retailers worldwide generating $4.3 trillion in revenue in financial year 2015–16.

Some of the world’s biggest retailer are involved in Africa but perhaps not to quite the same extent as many predicted in 2011 when Walmart bought a controlling stake for $2.4bn in South Africa’s Massmart, says the African Business story. It also owns Makro, Game and Builders Warehouse.

Massmart now has 39 stores outside the country but other South African firms have expanded their operations more quickly without the financial muscle and buying power of the US giant.

Given the benefits of scale, retail trends emerge first in Africa’s biggest and most developed markets. For investors, the two key trends are demographics and economic growth.

As the population of Africa grows quickly, it is becoming ever more urbanised and therefore better placed for retail developments. At the same time, although figures on the disposable income of the continent’s middle classes are often confused and exaggerated, there is little doubt that incomes are rising. The big question is the pace of this growth.

Retailers are scared about missing out on early entry to the continent’s key markets but committing themselves too soon and not appreciating the differences between different markets can lead to burnt fingers. There is plenty of anecdotal evidence of retail units in shopping malls in Accra, Lagos and Nairobi standing empty but overprovision of retail space is a challenge in any market.

The ambition of the past five years is entirely understandable, particularly when shopping malls were a relatively new phenomenon in many areas. South African companies have had a particularly difficult time in Nigeria.