March 22, 2015
About the author : Edward is one of Africa’s young software entrepreneurs. He is a co-founder of an Internet start-up in Ghana and loves poetry.
After some in-depth surfing, and tireless research on major tech-focused blogs, there seems to be no comprehensive archive of how e-commerce begun in Ghana, or maybe it hasn’t? This has challenged me to go into my somewhat rusty repository to put together what could be a stock others can add to or subtract from, so we get the true picture of the e-commerce situation in Ghana, if there is one.
Feel free to add your views in the comment section, I will include it in an updated post if it corrects a wrong assertion I made or if it adds more to this outline.
Software development and entrepreneurship in Ghana as we know can be traced to the entrance of the pioneer the Internet prefers to call the Bill Gates of Africa, Herman Chinnery-Hesse. Born in Ireland, he returned to Ghana in the early 90s to start his own software company in 1991 with his colleague Joe Jackson. theSoftTribe today is one of Ghana’s biggest software power houses in the country with a series of Government backed contracts worth millions to its name. Though Ghana’s computers then were not connected by the Internet until sometime in August 1995, I would want to loosen the definition of e-commerce to encompass offline and online buying and selling transactions and the processes which foster such transactions. If I may be allowed to make this slight distortion in definition, then theSoftTribe could potentially be the first players in this space. By building Point of Sale (POS) desktop software procured then by many shops and businesses in Ghana at that time, in fact, some entities still run POS software provided by theSoftTribe some years ago. Furthermore, the company is also known to have attempted the production and sales of an Oyster-like service they called the Keba Okong (Bring it back again). By now you already know, the Founder of theSoftribe is very fond of giving his products local names (Remember akatua, hey julor? )
In Aug 1995, Ghana jumped on the Internet bandwagon, opening itself up for online benefits such as emails, websites and research. With this new development other players considered the opportunities the Internet could offer them. At that point we had a boom in the establishment of Internet cafes and with it the yahoo and hotmail era came. It was hip to have an email address with one’s nickname and perhaps a 1999 somewhere in there. Buying and selling however was still done offline, with cash!
In 1998, Herman’s team launched the ShopAfrica53 service together with the African Liberty card under the Black Star Line Label. For Herman’s team, this was supposed to be a complete e-commerce package which covered delivery, fulfillment and inventory, and payment. The service whose offering was similar to Etsy, sought to bring connect African artifact creators and potential buyers mostly those who resided abroad. The service was discontinued at some point. I would guess low patronage was the main reason, I am not fully certain.
MTN takes the lead : In August 2009, MTN surprised its competitors when it launched the very first Mobile Money service in the country in partnership with 9 commercial banks. Airtel and Tigo followed with Airtel Money and Tigo Cash services later on. This was after MTN had taken the lead in enabling browsing on mobile sometime in 2006. The success of these Mobile Money services is still being debated by users and service providers. One thing is clear though. All the three mobile money services fall short of the utility benefit mPesa promises its subscribers in East-Africa. Uptake and levels of transactions haven’t been as projected by the producers. Mobile money, whichever one of the three you choose, has become more or less a remittance tool with which the unbanked send and receive money, falling short of the reason behind their conception – the use of e-money for the payment of goods and services and keeping the money in that form for as long as possible.
i-wallet to the rescue?: iWallet, though officially launched in 2011 by DreamOval, had been in the works for some years prior to that. For me, iWallet was the very first non-mobile Money e-payment solution I had heard of. I came across it as far back as 2009. Stating challenges with regulations and bottlenecks from the Central Bank, the team rode on Airtel Money to get its first merchants and consumers. During that period, Ghana saw a good number of electronic and mobile payment solutions being thrown into the e-commerce game to enhance payment. Some of these solutions include e-tranzact, Ozimbo Pay, iPay, ExpressPay. The major challenges with these payment platforms were/are 1. There weren’t enough merchants for the consumer to hook unto such services and stay, (a phenomenon I call the DStv syndrome – one signs up to find out there are only DStv and just a handful of other merchants). 2. One needed to operate these services with a wallet separate from his/her bank account. What this meant was, one needed to withdraw money from his or her bank account to top up the wallet linked to these services. 3. Top-up centers were not common. Actually after a closer, critical look, one would realize that most of these services were wallets on their own, or aggregators of such e-wallets.
Bank of Ghana steps in : The Central Bank launched its e-zwich service in 2008. Backed by a huge marketing budget, the bank advertised this product in the mass media. Special days were set up to issue special e-zwitch cards to bank account holders for free. This was tipped to be Ghana’s solution to e-payments. It however got crippled along the way. People threw away their e-zwich cards and went back to cash, the norm of the day. In my view e-zwich failed at that point because 1. There weren’t too many e-zwich POS terminals which could accept payment. Thus you could actually have millions on your card, but you would certainly go hungry because no restaurant was willing or able to receive payment from your plastic. 2. Then the e-zwich cards could not be used on available ATMs 3. Banks did not want to absorb the cost of the POS machines which they were to provide in all their branches. (The cost of a typical POS is around $1,000) 4. Ghana still had a very small banked population (less than 4 million out of a population of 22million then). In the end, the Central Bank muted the e-zwich idea to re-strategise. It is out again, with a more step-by-step roll out plan, but will that work?
How much Power does mPower wield? : In 2013, the players in the Ghana tech community voted mPower Payments as the best service in Ghana. The service launched by SMSGh and Encodev Labs had been in development for months prior to that award. They acted as aggregators and allowed one to tie his/her debit card, credit card, mobile money account the the service. This advantage coupled with a longer list of merchants made these new kids on the block payments solutions superior to their predecessors. They however still fell short of the Visa/Paypal/mPesa utility with a limited number of merchants on the services and there have been some complaints from merchants and users about the charges involved with the use of the service. Though I don’t have exact figures, I don’t think I would be far from the truth if I said mPower Payments has many more merchants on its line and perhaps has the most number of users, making it the most popular e-payment service amongst its peers.
Local Banks go Visa : Early 2009, many local banks in Ghana started issuing debit cards to its customers. This is after years of making this service available prestigious credit card holders of the bank. These debit cards enabled the users to pay for goods and services online so far as their bank balance allowed such transactions. Only a handful of banks offered that service at the time. Today, almost every bank has a debit card service which allows online transactions.
Africa Internet Holding Rocketed its way into Ghana : In 2012, AIH/Rocket Internet known for its e-commerce/online startups, established itself it Ghana. Launching Hello Food, Carmudi, Lamudi, Kaymu, Easy Taxi and very recently Jumia. Within this same period, Ringier, a Swiss business, launched in Ghana with Tisu.com, AllSports.com (Acquired locally) and Pulse.com. The group recently pulled back one of the companies in its portfolio. Easy Taxi was closed down after some months in operation. Now with both MTN and Tigo backing the holding, there group seeks to capture as much of the local market as they can capture.
E-Commerce in Ghana, what is its true state?
It is still not clear which e-commerce website came up first (once again, we would need to relax the definition for e-commerce website and assume payment online isn’t the deciding factor), but my research show e-shopAfrica.com might possibly be one of the very early ones, established in 2001. Some of the other early ones I remember include DealEasy.com uGoDeal.com 2011, Afrochiconline.com, Retailtower.com and Yugora.com. Today, there are more than a dozen e-commerce portal chasing the market to grab a piece of the pie.
Google gave Ghanaians an early Christmas in 2010 by launching an online market for its buy-and-sell hungry citizens. Google Trader after its successful launch in Uganda, came to the West to provide buyers and sellers with an online portal to enhance that activity. Google Trader was closed by Google in November 2013, though the company didn’t indicate why that decision was taken, there were a number of complaints about fraud and how weedy the portal had become too.
This account won’t be complete without reminding ourselves of how Swedish owned Tonaton.com grabbed everyone’s attention with their aggressive online and offline marketing in 2012, fighting with the Presidential candidates over media space in the election year. OLX followed the same strategy almost a year later, capturing as much of the print, electronic and digital media as they could get.
In 2013, Google Ghana together with the Ministry of Trade and Innovation put together a group of users and experts to draft Ghana’s very first e-commerce policy. Prior to that, the Internet Giant company had fostered discussions among the many concerned players around topics which entailed e-commece in Ghana. These discussions called in a group which petitioned Paypal to consider allowing Ghana on its list. The proponents of that petition had gotten frustrated with not being able to patronize relevant services which only accepted paypal as a form of payment.
The future of Ghana’s e-commerce, is still not clear. With little recorded growth and a small market of Internet users, it will take a lot more than the industry is seeing now for the country to experience better buying and selling activities online. Electronic and mobile payment services still face what I call the chicken and egg syndrome ; few merchants thus few consumers. The industry also faces challenges with delivery and fulfillment considering the unstructured addressing system in the country. With a small middle class and low Internet penetration, the addressable market is so small it will take a while before e-commerce ventures build the necessary traction to break-even. More people need to be digitally literate, have disposable income, have access to the Internet and know they way around the Internet before e-businesses will begin to see an increase in online patronage. For now a majority of their focus is in Accra, where they are sure to get the market, but this throws away the other parts of the middle-income nation which could have benefitted from these consumers’ pockets. But whose job is it to educate the citizens of Ghana and increase socio-econimic standards?
I once had a candid discussion with an entrepreneur who plays in the e-commerce space, he admitted with the fortune he had invested in marketing, the website only got single digit orders per day. One other problem staring at the e-commerce hurdle is addressing system. It is insanely difficult for a courier to deliver your order without calling you on phone for directions, even after you had indicated your residential address on the package.
Until the above are resolved, the various players in Ghana’s commerce soup will continue to bite bits and pieces of the big pie.
The major players in e-commerce in Ghana include but not limited to;
You may also want to read African E-commerce for some broader continental insight.