WARRI, Nigeria — Groups of children wandered inside, wide-eyed at the plenty. Teenagers and adults took selfies and group photos, raving about the convenience, the security, the leisure and, not least, the air-conditioning, so silent, omnipresent and soothing.
Some had stepped inside places like this during trips to the United States, Europe or even Nigeria’s biggest city, Lagos, which got its first one just a couple of years ago.
Others were “Johnny-Just-Come” first-time visitors, standing confused before sensor-activated doors. They drew smiles from veterans who had already been once or twice to the newest and biggest attraction in this Nigerian city in recent memory: a gleaming shopping mall.
“I’m very, very, very excited,” said John Monday, who had traveled nearly 200 miles to visit the mall here on a recent Saturday afternoon, as a friend took a photo of him posing in front of a supermarket. “A middle-class person can come into this mall and feel a sense of belonging.”
Delta Mall opened here last spring, bringing to about a dozen the number of Western-style shopping malls catering to 180 million people in Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation. Many enclosed malls, anchored by supermarkets and big box stores, with other tenants lining long hallways, may be struggling in the United States. But in Nigeria, which has Africa’s biggest economy and is projected to overtake the United States as the world’s third-most populous nation by 2050, malls are just taking off.
The emergence of malls — and mall culture — in Nigeria reflects broad trends on the continent, including a growing middle class with spending power and the rapid expansion of cities like Warri that are little known outside the region.
As in America, malls in Nigeria have quickly become hangouts for the young and destinations for families. Their rarity also imbue a sense of exclusivity.
Pushing a shopping cart full of food and the latest Chinese smartphone, Wealth Mark, 22, strolled through Delta Mall with his younger sister, Confidence, and her friend, Franca, all with wide smiles. Mr. Mark stopped to take photos of the two young women with the smartphone, then a selfie of all three.
“When I am meeting my friends here or in Lagos, we always go to the mall,” said Mr. Mark, who does marketing for a bar-code company owned by an older sister. “We can just spend a few hours at the mall and relax.”
Even older Nigerians who were skeptical about paying premium prices over traditional markets saw the mall’s value as a family outing.
“My kids enjoyed it,” said Victor Omunu, 53, adding that he would never shop for himself at the mall. “I bought them ice cream. It’s not bad at all, the mall. I was happy because I was with my family. I even met some old friends.”
The malls, like the new cars that have replaced the beat-up tokunbos (roughly, used cars) on Nigerian roads, provide visible confirmation that, despite the country’s many problems, life has become materially better for many in recent years. Besides shops, the malls have brought leisure activities, like going to the movies and dining at food courts.
“These are things we are used to seeing outside Nigeria,” said Mr. Monday, 28, a gas turbine operator, who first experienced mall culture when he visited an aunt living in Scotland in his early 20s. Now, a mall is scheduled to open in his hometown, Uyo, late this year. “I will be going there frequently,” he said.
One of the main cities in Nigeria’s oil-producing region, Warri has grown rapidly in recent years, like many other medium-size cities in the country. New housing developments are clustered on the outskirts.
Nigeria’s population, which is growing and urbanizing at one of the fastest rates in the world, is expected to increase to 400 million from 180 million by 2050, according toprojections by the United Nations. That would place Nigeria behind only India and China.
The size of Nigeria’s middle class, as well as Africa’s, varies according to the definitions used. But many experts agree that Nigeria’s size and population growth will drive the expansion of Africa’s middle class.
Standard Bank, a South African bank with branches across the continent, estimated that Nigeria’s middle class grew by 600 percent from 2000 to 2014. While 4.1 million Nigerian households are now considered middle class, or 11 percent of the total population, an additional 7.6 million households would make it into that category by 2030, according to the bank’s projections.
Resilient Africa, a South African joint venture that includes Shoprite, the continent’s biggest food retailer, built the mall here. It is working on five other malls in other cities and looking to secure four more sites, said Eddie McDonald, who heads Resilient’s Nigerian operations.
“The retail trade in Nigeria is still in its infancy stage, but growing,” he said.
Informal shops, individually run, are still thriving. Street hawkers sell food, clothes and home appliances on sidewalks, or wherever they can find a captive audience, like Nigeria’s epic traffic jams, known as go-slows. The hawkers often compete directly with the malls, selling their wares to people driving into parking lots next to retailers like Game, a discount superstore owned by Walmart.
“The informal Nigerian economic sector is very strong,” said Chimaraoke Izugbara, a Nigerian researcher at the African Population and Health Research Center in Nairobi, Kenya. “Even with these big shopping malls and the complicated Walmart economy that has come to Nigeria, you see that some upper-class people still go to the market and buy their fish from the old woman on the road.”
Here in Warri, people have traditionally bought clothes at the hundreds of tiny shops in Igbo Market, named after the ethnic group that dominates the business. Once a year, shop owners travel to southern China where, with the help of locally based Nigerian middlemen, they buy goods and ship them here.
Ebere Chukwu, 38, a shop owner since 1999, said he had been to Delta Mall with his family, but only “to feed my eyes.”
“That place looked like abroad, it looked like America,” he said.
But Mr. Chukwu was confident that longtime customers would not desert Igbo Market for the mall. The market’s prices are cheaper.
Esther Ogbolu, who was shopping for shoes at Igbo Market, said she had found the mall unaffordable, though she spoke approvingly of its air-conditioning, smiling at the memory.
But to other businessmen, like Matthew Asegiemhe, the future lies in the mall. Since opening a clothing store, Button Up, in the city five years ago, he has seen sales rise 15 percent to 20 percent each year, and decided to open a branch in the mall.
“Middle-class customers are increasing — that’s why,” Mr. Asegiemhe said.
Anderson Williams, 25, an employee at a road construction company, was on his fourth trip to the mall — shopping for pants and arranging to buy a leather sofa set on installment. He did not mind paying more.
“I love the mall, the whole environment entirely,” he said. “I love the AC especially.”
There were future consumers, too, like the seven young brothers and sisters wandering through the supermarket aisles, often releasing squeals of surprise and delight.
“There’s anything you want,” said Fatima Mohammed, 10. “There are shoes, medicine, there is cake, everything you want.”
At a ribbon-cutting ceremony at Aroma Foodland, the first restaurant to open in the food court, the mall’s manager, Olushola Oni, led the group in prayer, standing before a counter with meat pies, sandwiches, egusi soup and pounded yam.
“This eatery will go to places in the name of Jesus,” he said to a resounding “amen.”
Godwin Isemede and his son, Emmanuel, 7, were among the restaurant’s first customers. An engineer at a cellphone company, Mr. Isemede said he would now buy his clothes here, not in the United States during his yearly visits. He would no longer have to drive to Enugu, about 200 miles east of here, to visit the mall there to please his son.
“People now have somewhere to go to in Warri,” Mr. Isemede said. “There was no life here before.”