JOHANNESBURG — From fish-shaped coffins to slaughtered bulls, funerals in Africa are lavish affairs, providing a lucrative opportunity for insurance companies looking for business in some of the world's fastest growing economies.
Many of the insurance industry's big money-spinners in developed markets, like motor insurance and cover for household goods, are irrelevant to the majority of Africans who cannot afford a range of expensive personal possessions.
But high death rates and low savings levels mean funeral insurance is proving an easier sell among people daunted by the cost of ceremonies that can stretch to several months of income.
“That's the whole problem with it. People think that if you want a small intimate funeral, you don't have money,” said Emily Chauke, a 43-year-old cosmetics consultant from Johannesburg who pays 570 rand ($64) a month for family funeral cover.
“They have that thing of proving people wrong, that 'I can afford to give my father or mother a big funeral',” she said.
Africans are by no means alone in spending heavily on honoring their dead. But funerals on the continent are more frequent per head of population than elsewhere in the world.
In South Africa, the continent's biggest economy, the death rate is more than 17 per 1,000 people a year, nearly double the global average. And six of the 10 countries with the highest death rate are in Africa, according to the CIA World Factbook.
While mortality rates are high, though, they are also falling - an attractive combination for insurers which raises the prospect of customers paying into their policies for longer.
High unemployment and above-average birth rates across much of Africa also mean employees can have many dependents, making it more likely they will seek funeral insurance.
“There's a big demand for it because of the cultural behavior that we need to have these big dignified funerals,” said Jacky Huma, head of micro-insurance at the South Africa's Financial Services Board (FSB), which estimates funeral premiums in the country totaled 4.9 billion rand ($494 million) in 2011.
While that's just under two percent of all long-term insurance in the comparatively developed South African market, she said demand was growing rapidly, a point echoed by global bank Standard Chartered, which said burial cover was also a crucial way of winning new customers in less developed markets.
“Funeral insurance cover, specifically, remains a leading product in most of our markets, and currently contributes to more than 60 percent of the bank's individual life insurance sales [in Africa],” said Gautam Duggal, the bank's head of bancassurance for Africa, the Middle East and South Asia.
Standard Chartered's bancassurance business is seeing double-digit percentage growth in annual insurance premiums in five African markets and believes personal insurance on the continent, excluding South Africa, is less than five percent of its market potential.
While global financial services firms see funeral cover as a way of gaining a foothold in many African markets, they will find plenty of local competition.
For example, Uganda's A-Plus Funeral, a funeral director that offers insurance, has grown from just one director 10 years ago to 13 now, and reckons the 5 billion shilling ($2 million) local funeral insurance industry is growing 25 percent a year.
Meanwhile, Sizo Funeral Directors in Soweto, South Africa's biggest township, offers funeral cover for 14 people under one principal member for as little as 120 rand a month buying the cheapest funeral package of 5,000 rand.
In most cases, though, the costs will be far higher, given the cultural and social pressure for lavish ceremonies and an “after tears” party that continues long after the burial.
“We Africans will tell you to slaughter a cow to feed people. And a proper cow is 6,000-8,000 rand. Food can cost you an average of 3,000-5,000 excluding the cow. So you need insurance,” Sizo managing director Brian Mazibuko told Reuters in a shop lined with about a dozen shiny brown caskets.
An average funeral will set a family back 30,000 rand ($3,300), according to South African insurer Hollard, compared with a non-farm worker's monthly salary of 14,000 rand.
The sums involved have also attracted interest from outside the traditional financial services sector.
South Africa's FSB has licensed 39 insurers to offer funeral products, including mobile phone operator Vodacom.
Its bigger rival MTN is working with Hollard to sell funeral products by phone in Ghana, where burial ceremonies can last for three days and the deceased is often laid to rest in a custom-made coffin matching his or her profession - a fisherman in a fish, a market trader in a banana.
Hollard is also in partnership with South African soccer club Kaizer Chiefs to sell funeral insurance to its 14-million-strong fan base, with payouts of up to 50,000 rand.
Entrepreneurs are finding other ways of turning the cost of African funerals into business opportunities too.
Kyai Mullei, a 36-year-old whizz-kid in Kenya's mobile technology industry, has taken the local tradition of the “harambee” - in which communities and families come together to raise money for funerals - and given it a 21st century twist.
The cost of holding a harambee can eat up as much as a third of the money raised, particularly when many families are spread across the east African country. So Mullei has created a virtual harambee platform called M-Changa, from the Swahili word for contribution, where fundraisers can meet in a mobile community in exchange for a commission of 1.5 percent on all funds raised.
“Many people still live in rural areas so the chances that the committee all live in the same place are unlikely,” he told Reuters, adding the number of M-Changa harambees being set up is doubling every month.
($1 = 9.9138 South African rand)
($1 = 2570.0000 Ugandan shillings)