Story of an African E-ntrepreneur
Amazon, eBay, AliExpress, Shopify and Etsy are some of the big names in e-commerce. What if I told you none of these exist in Africa? You might say I am wrong, and you could be right. Some yes, do have a sort of blueprint in Africa but not much. Amazon does deliveries in eleven countries in Africa according to CNBC.
There is a partnership between eBay and MallForAfrica (MFA) in Kenya and Nigeria, eBay too faces the same fate as Amazon — Non-existent. As for AliExpress and Etsy, the less said the better. AliExpress boasts an average of two months of delivery time to South Africa and other African countries it ships to, fourteen in total. Yes, that is in short, the landscape of e-commerce in Africa.
This harsh reality is not only limited to e-commerce, no, that is just the beginning of the story. Peel deeper and there are juicier but bitter realities faced by Africans when trying their luck with the 2020 popularized “work from home” ventures. Many apps, websites and opportunities online are only limited to Americans and their European counterparts.
Take for instance, Fiverr. Fiverr is a great way to make money online freelancing, even in 2021.
I have been using Fiverr for a while now and have made a respectable amount of money, with an average selling price of more than $40.
It is safe to say that Fiverr does work for Africans in Africa. Before I close on this, there is a catch. There are a lot more gigs on Fiverr in which an African would not even dream of doing. These include some of the most lucrative gigs on the site like product photography for Amazon or Shopify.
To first try product photography, one need to have your product delivered from Amazon or AliExpress. What did I say earlier about the former and the latter? It becomes virtually impossible for a customer to send a product from AliExpress and wait for 2 months before it gets delivered, just because you bought the latest Canon camera.
Whilst still on Fiverr, it will be good practice to mention that Africans have an advantage when it comes to earnings. This is because African currencies have a low exchange value when compared to the dollar, euro, and pound. This allows them to lowball on their gigs and kick their American counterparts off the field. Now that is what I call “unfair advantage”.
Another venture I find American youtubers selling dreams about is Shopify. Shopify is an e-commerce site which makes it easier for entrepreneurs to start their drop shipping businesses. It acts as a middleman between the supplier and the customer while the seller is disguised in all of this.
Drop shipping is essentially a method of getting products from a wholesaler and selling them to customers at a higher price than what they sell for at the wholesaler. This means that one must advertise their products and clothe them in a better way than how they are at the wholesaler. But why would someone pay for something that costs less somewhere for a higher price? There are several reasons why.
The first being than many people do not know of AliExpress or the wholesaler the seller might be using. Again, buyers do not want to burrow through tons of products to find the one they are looking for and wholesale stores are not appealing, so a customer would rather purchase from an enticing site.
Wholesalers do not advertise each product, only the brand of the business. Independent drop shippers on the other hand only sell a handful of products, making sure they advertise all of them in an appealing way.
Some drop shippers go the extra mile of ordering their products in bulk to reduce shipping times, which in this fast world could be a headache at times. We are just used to instantaneous things. No one likes waiting, the quicker the better. Even so, some re-brand those Chinese products and give them better and catchy names.
The issue of location
In these days of globalization and the internet, little is said about how the internet can be discriminative in the name of patriotism and sovereignty. Devices are capable enough to get the country you reside in, even your exact location.
One would want to register on a certain site, be it for work or pleasure, only to see the pop-up message before you even enter,
“Unfortunately this site is not available in your region, enter you email to get notified when it will be available”.
Enter the email you do; years pass they do. To circumvent this, I usually use an VPN. A VPN is a connection that routes your connection through an encrypted tunnel, thus disguising your real location. Most VPN services has the option to choose a server of the country you want your connection to be routed to. Most VPNs have a subscription fee, but I have been using a free one called Psiphon. Even though it slows down the internet speed, it still does get the job done for me.
There now, come across the issue of privilege, being born in a certain country or region. While all of us may posses the dignity of being human, not all of us are equal in the face of this bordered world.
A person could be born for example in Zimbabwe on the border with South Africa, but still be denied any of the privileges South Africans have. These may include simple things like water, food, and welfare. On the subject of online business, these may come up to internet connection and speed, cost of internet connection, internet infrastructures and devices to connect to the internet. Worse yet, is highly regulated and censored internet, which is in place in a lot of African countries.
I have a recent story of my I really need to tell. A few days ago I was trying to establish my brand on TikTok by posting a few videos, five that is. I have seen these American youtubers getting tens of thousands of views and a bunch of followers for posting simple silly videos.
I said to myself, le me try this. I posted videos expecting tens of thousands of views and followers. I was surprised days later my most viewed video only had 110 views and 2 followers to add to that. I thought to myself, “are my videos poor quality or what?”. No, they were not.
The problem is that I was using a South African server and my content was posted to the South African demographic. The big issue is that South Africans do not binge watch TikTok like Americans do. The amount of TikTok users is estimated at about 6 million while America has close to 100 million active users. Data is expensive in south Africa and most people live under a dollar.
That was not even my greatest concern. My biggest concern was that South Africans have a low purchasing power. My shoplifty store was aimed at Americans with a higher purchasing power, faster delivery times and everything in between. When you register for Tik Tok, it uses either your phone number or Google/Facebook account to figure out your location. Myself I had a South African phone number and Google account, so I was assigned to the South African server.
Policies and politics
I assume that many of us am sure want to separate ourselves from politics anytime we get a chance, but the truth is that they shape all of us. Who we become, and how we become. One may despise even the sound of the word “politics”, but hey, hang tight and listen.
Online businesses like any other forms of business are regulated by individual countries, organizations, and unions. That is where things get tricky. Countries have allies and enemies. For their allies within an organization, rules and laws are laid out there for cooperation. If your country is not privileged enough to be part of NATO, EU, BRICS, ASEAN or G20 or any powerful organization, it becomes difficult to obtain a lot of opportunities.
I have some privilege of being South African, which is part of BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) and G20 which includes countries like the United States and the European union. Even with such associations, it is still difficult to get hands on some opportunities, which are limited to the US and the European union. That is some privilege at least, I am not complaining.
There are several African countries which have active sanctions from the US and the UN, which render them not fit to have certain privileges.
It is not idyllic, this world we live in. We must accept that politics play a major role in our lives and be appreciative if we are on a better end of the continuum.
Take for example China and the US. US and China are not on very good terms and the US and some of its allies like India have banned certain products and services citing security risks. China then responded by placing harsh tariffs on the US. Thing is, both China and the US are giants in their own way, unlike African countries. One cannot toss another around like they do with African countries. It depends on what you have, who you know and what you know. Yes, politics define all of us.
Elon Musk left South Africa in 1988 to Canada because he did not support the Apartheid movement. If Elon had stayed in South Africa, he could have been wealthy but not as he is now. His Zip2 business venture would have not taken off and it might not have sold for millions of dollars as it did. South African online space was not as advanced as Americas. That reads true even to this day.
Final word on online business in Africa.
Online business is possible and doable in Africa. There are movers and shakers who are doing well in Africa. Do not get me wrong it is still difficult to do that work from home. Most individuals in Africa still do not have access to electricity and internet connection.
Even for African heavyweight like South Africa and Nigeria, blackouts are still very common. Internet access is still expensive and only for a few fortunate individuals.
Road infrastructure is not conducive for deliveries everywhere. People still do not understand and trust online businesses. The purchasing power is low, people barely have enough to survive. Africans are still discriminated as a people and are divided within themselves. The reality is that Africa still has a long path to walk, but I am confident one day this young population will get where it wants to be.