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This startup is boosting e-commerce in sub-Saharan Africa by making deliveries work better

Many buildings in Ivory Coast don’t have fixed addresses, which makes package delivery difficult. Mahali—a winner of Fast Company’s 2021 World Changing Ideas Awards—connects buyers and sellers.

This startup is boosting e-commerce in sub-Saharan Africa by making deliveries work better
[Image: courtesy Orange]
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The majority of residents of Ivory Coast, one of the fastest-growing economies in Africa (and the world), don’t have a fixed addresses, with house numbers, streets, and postal codes. In cities like the economic capital, Abidjan, deliveries are often stymied by the lack of a clear destination: half of all ordered packages don’t arrive, which has hindered the growth of e-commerce: Why would you order something delivered that won’t come.

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Most e-commerce merchants in Abidjan are small, mom-and-pop sellers that operate without physical stores, and without the ability to digitize the entire shopping experience, like an Amazon. Instead, independent vendors usually post items for sale on Facebook. Interested buyers will contact them by text, agree on a price, and arrange a delivery—usually to a public place, like the exterior of a pharmacy, rather than their homes, for security’s sake. But, without fixed addresses, and the widespread use of maps, communication of the meeting point can prove tricky.

[Image: courtesy Orange]
Ivorians generally describe their locations based on surroundings: they’ll mention a few specific landmarks or reference points, and their location vis-à-vis those sites. So, Mahli, a startup aiming to solve the problem in order to boost African e-commerce, decided to use this method of descriptive addresses to help facilitate deliveries. “We would like to reinforce the position of the seller,” says Alexis Bafcop, co-founder and CEO of Mahali. “I think it’s very important to give digital tools to small sellers.”

Based in Rennes, France, Mahali—the winner of the Europe, Middle East, and Africa category of Fast Company’s 2021 World Changing Ideas Awards—is backed by Paris-based mobile network, Orange, the biggest operator in France. Orange is also widely used in Africa (10% of the continent’s population are customers, and 54 million use its mobile money service, Orange Money). It’s one of Ivory Coast’s two biggest networks.

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Once a delivery and price is agreed, consumers can open the Mahali software on their phones, without the need to download a memory-devouring app, and choose a delivery location from a list—or upload a new one. The spots are crowdsourced, created by users or merchants, and can be sorted by proximity. Each delivery point is identifiable by a situational description, possibly with a picture of the location of nearby landmarks, the accuracy of which Mahali’s team aims to continue improving using artificial intelligence. The business will then appoint a courier, and share a window of time within which to meet. Abidjan-based sellers now work with Mahali, and pay the company a small fee for the service.

[Image: courtesy Orange]
The service is designed to raise trust between all parties. If consumers are more confident that packages will arrive, and won’t be late, the improved satisfaction is more likely to lead to repeat sales and increased turnover for small businesses. “We want Mahali to be very inclusive, even for the deliverymen,” says Géraud Lacaze, the startup’s business development manager. For couriers, who are often friends or acquaintances of the sellers, delivery efficiency could prove a way to increase income, and transform an informal gig into a profession.

Mahali, which means “place” in Swahili, is currently part of Orange’s Intrapreneur program, an incubation branch for innovative ideas. (The Mahali team is split between France and Abidjan, the county’s largest city, where the employees help to co-develop the tech but can also deploy the testing.) That connection allows the startup to solve another security holdup, payment, by integrating the network’s already trusted mobile money service, Orange Money. Buyers then have the choice, upon delivery, of paying via Orange Money or cash. (Pre-payment is not available yet, to reduce security concerns, though the team hopes it will be incorporated as trust builds.)

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Mahali launched in beta in 2020; it’ll relaunch with the Orange Money integration next. During this testing phase, it’s working with 10 merchant partners, and has 500 users, who have created 2,000 delivery spots. The team hopes that, once the system is proved in Ivory Coast, it could be extended to facilitate in other areas, such as emergency services. And, it hopes to expand to other sub-Saharan countries, including Cameroon, Senegal, and Mali. A recent report noted that four billion people worldwide don’t have fixed addresses, suggesting there’s certainly room for the service all over the developing world.