E-commerce opportunity

Here in Africa we are the beginning of a third revolution in technology-enabled growth. Twice before we have gone from nothing to … something amazing. First in GSM telephony when, as predicted, the ability to converse more freely stimulated GDP growth and made so much more possible. Not for nothing did we launch Kenya’s first truly commercial mobile network with the advertising slogan ‘The answer is Yes!’.

Then came mobile money: the ability to pass cash ‘through the ether’ to astonished recipients. As with mobile telephony the most enthusiastic users came from the bottom of the pyramid. They had most to gain in getting more done and reducing the risk of losing money.

Now, with the burgeoning growth of the PSP sector, providing secure online payments channels intra-Africa, the SME universe has the potential to pay and be paid in the currencies and channels of its choice, safely and securely.

Then came the pandemic, and millions of small businesses found their customer relationships dislocated. Either because customers couldn’t physically reach them, or because the enormous economic impact of lockdowns and other restrictions flattened purchase intent and ability.

Throughout this period I have been looking for, and finding, what I call ‘COVID Dividends’. Some are large, some are small. Some are temporary, while others will last and transform our lives and commercial activities for good.

So it is with e-commerce. In the petri dish of business innovation, something small is stirring. With our young African populations and our entrepreneurial spirit, the SME sector is trying something new. Driven by economic need and access to technology. Small salons, vegetable stalls, cafe and restaurant businesses, bicycle shops, boutiques and tailors are beginning to reach out to customers instead of waiting for them to cross the threshold. Holding their customers close and adjusting the relevance of their services. Expanding customer bases beyond the immediate neighbourhood.

But make no mistake, this is no wildfire. It’s more of an evolution than a revolution. As with all digital transformation, we have learned that it’s not the technology that matters most, it’s the behaviour. This evolution requires significant changes in the way we buy and sell things. How we address customer disappointment and satisfaction. How we return and refund. How we reward loyalty. And, as with everything to do with technology, we will have to do this faster than ever before. If we don’t, the transient buyer-seller relationship will pass seamlessly on to someone else. Social media will bludgeon businesses that fail to deliver and simultaneously offer up tempting alternatives. If e-commerce was a bicycle, my advice would be ‘get on and start pedalling quickly.’