Tim Steel is the CEO of Copia, an e-commerce platform operating in Kenya and Uganda which has raised a total of $83 million in equity funding since its launch in 2013.
Before managing Copia, Steel worked for 18 years for the multinational courier delivery company TNT and participated in its expansion phase across Africa and the Middle East.
For five years now, his mission at Copia has been to replicate his TNT experience but at a start-up level and for widely unserved markets across Africa.
Under his watch, Copia has expanded to the Central, Rift and Western regions of Kenya, entered the Ugandan market in 2021, and won an industry award for the fastest-growing e-commerce company in Africa this year.
“Across Africa, there are 800 million people who currently have no access to e-commerce services. We see them as our primary market,” he says.
But e-commerce usually comes with great challenges on the African continent: low internet bandwidth, limited addresses in rural areas and poor access to payment solutions in some countries are impeding the possibility to replicate an Amazon-style business.
A few companies have already shut down operations in recent years, such as Kalahari, OLX, Efritin.com, Showroom.ng in Nigeria. Even the e-commerce giant Jumia, the first African tech company to be listed on the New York Stock Exchange, has made savings by closing its 60-person Dubai office.
But Copia claims to work differently. With a network of more than 40,000 agent resellers, the platform uses a mix of offline and online tools to deliver to its 400,000 monthly customers.
“We often refer to our agents as our ‘lifeblood’, as they can collect orders on our behalf as well as act as delivery points for our customers,” says Steel.
“By partnering with us, our agents can unlock a world of goods for their customers, and they earn commissions on each sale. We fulfil and offer free delivery of the orders to them within 1-2 days.”
To answer the issue of financial inclusion, the start-up recently layered fintech services into its e-commerce foundation and partnered with mobile money providers to enable its customers to pay for goods in real-time.
“We are also currently working on a framework through which we can digitise our agents and customers by offering credit towards purchases of relevant tools such as smartphones so they can access our e-commerce services,” says Steel.
Last August, Copia opened its second manufacturing line to produce its own branded sugar and rice, two of Copia’s best-selling products.
Currently, the platform offers two types of rice – biriyani and long grain – as well as granulated sugar in packs of 500 grams and 1 kilogram, all sourced from local suppliers in Kenya.
But Copia’s activities go beyond the sale of basic household goods – which still form the biggest categories on the platform.
“We are seeing significant interest and growth in areas like construction and agriculture, as our customers look for more affordable and accessible options for both segments. In line with this demand, we recently launched a Farming Division that builds on the insight that the agricultural sector is currently underserved in the supply of farming inputs and services,” says Steel.
“We also extend advisory services via a free-to-call call line that is manned by over 20 registered vet and agronomy professionals. This service allows us to go beyond simply selling goods to our customers to facilitate their access to advisory extension services on our platform so that they are better empowered to build thriving and sustainable agricultural businesses.”
However, Copia is not rushing it. Steel wants to grow carefully and plans to develop the company’s new activities in Kenya and Uganda before expanding to other markets.
“We are seeing vast growth across both countries and have embarked on an ambitious expansion plan to ensure that our agents get even closer to our customers in the peri-urban and rural areas for both countries,” he says.