The promise of e-commerce over the past decade across Africa’s urban middle class lies in the ease and convenience of making and paying for purchases via an internet-connected mobile phone without human interaction.
Yet, Copia, a six-year-old e-commerce and logistics startup operating in central Kenya, is focused on building a business by doing the exact opposite.
Unlike major players in the space, Copia has focused squarely on catering to low-income consumers who are underserved partly by virtue of living mainly outside urban areas. “We built our business on a mobile platform to bring retail services to low to middle-income African consumers—consumers who are remote, unbanked, unconnected and who may not a valid ID or address,” says Tim Steel, CEO of Copia. “Other e-commerce players are focused on the top of the pyramid with middle-class and elite.”
Copia’s model is hinged on a 5,000-strong agent network comprising mainly of local, small shopkeepers who earn commissions by serving as “points of aggregation of orders and delivery distribution.” Essentially, rather than make purchases online via a website or consumer-facing mobile app, Copia customers walk into stores of partnered agents who place orders on their behalf, take payments and serve as delivery points. Beyond the strategic benefit of solving postal address problems associated with deliveries in some African cities and rural areas, these agents also serve another purpose: “We established relationships with agents in these areas because those agents are trusted members of the community and through them we build a direct relationship with the consumer,” Steel says.
Users can also make orders through USSD codes—the 20-year old mobile technology that’s become widely adopted on the continent as a workaround to boost financial inclusion via simple feature phones. And while Copia also has a website, it’s mainly targeted at people who live in urban centers, allowing them to make purchases and have items delivered to relatives who live outside big cities and in lower-income communities where Copia has agent shops. The overarching goal for Copia, Steel says, is “to make sure that we have technology that’s appropriate to the consumer.”
So far, Copia’s model has proven enough to draw investor attention as it raised $26 million in a Series B round led by LGT Lightstone, with participation from Perivoli Innovations, Endeavor Catalyst, ELEA and Goodwell Investments, the Dutch-based impact investment firm. It follows a $2 million investment in January by Goodwell.
Copia’s raise comes amid increasing questions over the viability of large e-commerce operations across Africa as well as the size of the actual addressable middle-class market with a flurry of high-profile shutdowns and a major seemingly distressed sale. Konga, a pioneer e-commerce player in Nigeria was sold off in 2018 with key investors including Kinnevik and Naspers likely writing off losses. At the time, Naspers’ damning verdict was that the business had “not reached the scale and level of profitability required to fund itself as it currently stands, now or in the medium term.”
While Jumia remains bullish on the prospects of e-commerce on the continent, especially following its landmark IPO on the New York Stock Exchange, a continued streak of big losses suggests its yet to find a working business formula for the sector. This month it abruptly shut down operations in Cameroon. Some of the struggles of e-commerce companies have been attributed to a lack of trust, especially for online payments and the poor logistics infrastructure. In that regard, Copia somewhat weds conventional social behavior to its model by curating its the user experience of its target market according to their existing preferences
But beyond its exclusive focus on lower-income shoppers and communities, Copia’s hybrid online-offline model is not exactly unique. In search of increased orders and revenues, Jumia is also chasing an offline strategy by allowing its users’ place and pick-up orders via gas stations in Kenya, Morocco, Senegal and Ivory Coast. The e-commerce giant is also notably delivering items beyond major cities: half of the deliveries fulfilled in Nigeria last year were made to secondary cities and rural areas, Juliet Anammah, CEO of Jumia Nigeria, told Quartz.
So far, Copia says it has fulfilled more than 3 million orders to 450,000 consumers while operating only in central Kenya. But it’s now eyeing expansion across the entire country and to other countries in East Africa as part of a wider pan-African ambition.
Given the much lower disposable income levels of its target market, the expansion will be crucial to boosting mass adoption and revenues. One simple stat highlights this: While the average value of orders placed on Jumia over the past year stood at $66, Copia records average order values of around $10, Steel says.