E-commerce platforms bring Africa’s small businesses to the world

Increasingly sophisticated platforms are providing a one-stop shop for small African retailers to target global markets for their wares.

Nearing the end of her presenting contract at a local radio station in Sierra Leone, 32-year-old Adima Kemba went online to find a job so she could financially support her 10-year-old daughter. With a friend’s recommendation she set up an account with ANKA, an e-commerce aggregator of online services for African micro-retailers.

“I’ve spent this year creating a fashion collection, and I’m going to mix in some home and hair accessories that I think will grab people’s attention. It’s going to be a fusion of African and Western designs I’m calling Gbakanda, which means ‘determined’ in my local language,” says Kemba. 

ANKA is the newly launched offspring of Abidjan-based company Afrikrea, an e-commerce exporter of fashion, crafts, and other locally produced goods, which allows merchants to sell via a customised online storefront and receive discounted shipping rates through a new partnership with global delivery firm DHL.

Malian-born Moulaye Tabouré co-founded Afrikrea after realising the growing appetite for African culture and goods during his studies in Europe, and being inspired by the success of e-commerce firms like Etsy, an American company focused on handmade, vintage and craft supplies. 

Afrikrea was launched in 2016, and ANKA – which means “ours” in Bambara and Dioula – has more than 7,000 vendors, 90% of them women, in 47 African countries, facilitating $15m in annual transactions. The platform currently records over 500,000 visits a month with the majority of customers located in Europe and North America.

All-in-one solution

All of Afrikrea’s vendors that make a sale now become ANKA users, and Tabouré tells African Business that ANKA will be an all-in-one software as a service (SaaS) solution for marketing, payments and online shipping services.

SaaS is a model where a cloud provider hosts numerous applications in one place. ANKA will provide website templates and hosting for its clients in a move to draw African customers away from rivals like Canadian multinational Shopify, group all social media platforms in one place and provide a two-click label printing and international shipping service with DHL, who will pick up goods at the seller’s African address and deliver via its international network. 

“If you talk to any seller of e-commerce in the world they will tell you right now that selling online is becoming extremely complicated, having to switch between channels without having the visibility of a single entry point,” says Tabouré. “Customers are losing a lot of time, money and energy to manage all the aspects around selling online. ANKA enables them to sell anywhere as well as get paid, seamlessly, from one place.”

ANKA’s monthly subscription costs €10 ($12) and the firm takes commissions on sales of between 4% and 15%. The platform has partnered with MPesa, Orange and MTN, so customers looking to pay ANKA merchants, and subscribers looking to withdraw cash from their sales, can do so via mobile money, mobile banking, PayPal and international payment cards.

According to Statista, Africa’s e-commerce space is estimated to see revenues of $25bn in 2021, mostly from goods imported into Africa by the likes of Jumia, Chinese-based Alibaba, and DHL’s own African e-shop. Euromonitor has estimated the African fashion and apparel market to be worth $31bn in recent years, and Afrikrea estimates the yearly spend of its major markets to be worth $12.5bn.

DHL Group secured record operating profits globally of $5.8bn in 2020, and with Africa’s population set to double by 2050, the region presents an attractive proposition. Hennie Heymans, CEO of DHL Express Sub Saharan Africa, says DHL is investing heavily in its own DHL African e-Shop, an app that allows Africans to shop online from over 200 US and UK sites including Amazon, Gap and Macy’s, and will continue to ramp up infrastructure investments on the continent.

“DHL remains committed to driving e-commerce growth on the continent for e-tailers, as they work to expose their brands to international markets, so we regard ourselves as a facilitator of global trade, and if we can improve connectivity and accessibility to global markets for local businesses, it goes a long way in helping local designers and other artisans grow, and we’re proud of the work we’re doing.”

An ANKA vendor from Ghana selling a product to the UK weighing 2kg will pay a $14 shipping fee, which includes home pickup by DHL, although costs vary greatly depending on the weights of each shipment and the host’s location.

A 2kg product sold through ANKA’s platform and shipped by DHL from Nigeria to the UK will cost $20, so micro retailers are having to build shipping costs into the prices they offer international buyers.

“The price is worth it if you know the package is going to arrive at the right time, as promised, and that you will have the tracking all the way from door to door. With ANKA we’re saying it doesn’t have to be cheap to save you money, that when you’re an entrepreneur, your time is more valuable than your money, because you can make money with time,” says Tabouré.

Raising the visibility of small producers

While the e-commerce market is developing rapidly, many small producers need to do more to grow their online visibility and grow trust, says Rubab Abdoolla, a beauty and fashion analyst at Euromonitor.

“Africa is seen with contempt due to the prevalence of counterfeit and online scams. It is not unusual for online sellers to post beautiful and professional pictures of their final products and then to send sub-quality items or not send them at all.

“African e-commerce businesses must still promote their stores to drive traffic to their website. A lot of African websites do not even pop up on Google easily and as such miss out on potential clientele.”

Payments on ANKA’s apps will only be taken in full when the customer has received their goods and left a review, and the firm hopes capital from a recent funding round will help raise the brand’s visibility and trustworthiness with consumers through increased marketing. Despite the challenges, Tabouré says that the attractions of Africa’s cultural offering will underpin the developing e-commerce market. 

“Africa is already the resource hub of the world, and most of the things we export comes out of our soil. But I believe that going forward, our culture and things out of our minds and lifestyles are going to be the biggest part of what we export,” he says.