The technocratic world raises moral issues for which past ethics, geared to dealings amongst people within narrow geographical and temporal ranges, are no longer adequate in the digital age. No previous society has had such powerful tools for good and ill. And if digital purveyors think at all about the moral and ethical implications of their business models — and most don’t — they are more likely to rationalize their panoptic ambitions while hiding behind over-long privacy policies or hidden powers written in impenetrable legalese that no one reads. Tech titans Marc Zuckerberg and Elon Musk are embroiled in a clash over the expansive and responsible role of information technology in our lives: do we rule technology, or does it rule us? It seems the Orwellian dystopia has come to pass in the digital realm — the community of Facebook and the myriad social media that surveil our every move, monetize our private lives, and control (even own) our personal online content. E-commerce platforms are following suit.
In the e-commerce world, particularly in Africa, Western digital colonizers create a new kind of dependence. While the “trade-not-aid” movement has made headway in Africa, the same enervating force of engineered dependency is quietly at work in Africa’s largest e-commerce platforms, which charge usurious commission rates to indigenous third-party sellers and exploit user data collected by opaque means. The liberal use of incomprehensible language in the Terms and Conditions (T&C) statements of Africa’s largest e-commerce companies raise genuine ethical questions. Moja is following the lead of the American company, Etsy, whose T&Cs are actually readable — and therefore transparent. What is the distinction between an e-commerce company that quietly exploits its clients, through surreptitious data collection and blatantly exorbitant fees, and the old colonial monopolies?
Moja’s ethos is rooted in the notion that people should not be exploited; that they should have control of their own lives and businesses to the fullest extent possible, and be told in plain language what information is collected about their trading practices and how that information is used. Africans are entitled to do business on their own terms in an atmosphere of transparency. What that means in practical terms is that imported Western e-commerce models may or may not serve the interests and cultural practices of Africans. Where did the idea arise that Africans deserve only exploitative, hand-me-down, cookie-cutter platforms? Why not a cutting-edge bespoke platform, with culturally adapted, ethical, and relevant features, developed in partnership with African thought leaders? Why not do good while doing well? The best-served client is a loyal and trusting client.
There is opportunity in Africa to build a values-informed, transparent, communitarian, and trust-building e-commerce platform unlike anything seen in the West. Unmitigated greed, ethnocentrism, and opaque business practices may work in the short run but are ultimately counterproductive. Long-term success is achieved by honest companies in open markets that care about and serve their clients. And in the end, shareholders too are best served by socially conscious policies. Africa provides an opportunity for responsible, forward-thinking companies to do something entirely new. As the continent leapfrogs ahead of the world in fintech and mobile money adoption, the potential for a wholly new kind of e-commerce is unlimited. As African communities expand their reach beyond the local, there is opportunity to build a new business paradigm.