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Building an E-Commerce Platform for Africa: The Story of Send Me Founder Emmanuel Lahai

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Estimated reading time: 8 minutes

Emmanuel Lahai is a 21 year old entrepreneur from Sierra Leone. After a year of studying civil engineering in Sierra Leone, Lahai won a scholarship to continue his degree in China where he founded Send Me, a business to help Sierra Leoneans buy Chinese-made products online. Now, Send Me is shifting its focus towards facilitating e-commerce within Africa, with the long term goal of connecting small businesses throughout the continent with consumers from all over the world. 

Empower Africa’s Editor Shira Petrack sat down with Emmanuel to hear about his entrepreneurship journey and insights. Below is an edited transcript of their conversation. 

What inspired you to start your own business? 

While studying in China, I knew that things were tough with my family back home. I knew that I wanted to start my own company to raise income and to help reduce unemployment in Sierra Leone. I saw all these cheap products available online in China that people in Sierra Leone would want to buy, but the logistics were very difficult. I thought that in my own small way, I could solve the problem. 

How did you know what do do? 

I didn’t study business in university, but I have some innate capacity for business. I have also read a lot of business books and blogs. I was very inspired by Robert Kiyosaki’s book Rich Dad Poor Dad, and Benjamin Graham’s The Intelligent Investor, and I also follow blogs and business news.  

How does Send Me work? 

We use social media to communicate with our customers. Very few people here use Instagram or Snapchat, some people use Facebook, and most people use WhatsApp, so we primarily advertise the products in WhatsApp groups. Customers can also send us a picture of a product that they’re looking for, or they can describe it to us and we will send them a sample picture of a product we can deliver.

At first it was difficult to find customers, so I learned how to advertise through WhatsApp. I realized, for example, that pictures are more effective than either videos or long text messages, because it only takes customers 1-2 seconds to look at a picture. Most of our employees go through a one week training course to learn to market on WhatsApp according to the best practices that we have identified. Since most groups are personal groups and not principally for advertisement, we need to be very strategic in terms of the timing, quantity, and content of our advertisements so that we don’t get removed from the groups. 

Some products are locally sourced, but we mostly work with third-party shipping companies in China to ship products to Africa. Once the product arrives, we deliver it to the end customer. In the long term, we would like to move away from China and rely primarily on African suppliers. 

What gave you the idea for Send Me? 

Like I said, at first the goal was just to create a source of income and reduce unemployment in my community. Once I started, I quickly realized that in order to become truly sustainable I would need a bigger goal. I looked at big corporations like Apple, Google, and Amazon, and I noticed that they all have a big goal, so I decided to increase our scope, enlarge our vision, and focus on helping small businesses by establishing a proper logistics system for Africa. 

Right now, very few African consumers are buying products that were made in other African countries because it’s very difficult to move products from one country in Africa to another, and very few international consumers purchase African made products. Our goal is to create a sustainable logistics infrastructure that will allow small businesses to enter international markets in the US, China, and Europe. 

How has Covid affected your business? 

Most of our suppliers were in China, so we were mainly affected in February when China was completely closed. Factories were not operating and airplanes were not flying, so we had to completely change our supply chain. Even now that China has opened again, we are still struggling to receive our international shipments on time. Flights can be delayed or cancelled at any time and countries can suddenly go into lockdown, so we still cannot rely on our international suppliers. 

As a result, we shifted our strategy from sourcing from China alone to sourcing from local African suppliers. We looked at countries near-by, like Guinea and Togo, and tried to get products from there. We also began marketing and selling products that were locally made in Sierra Leone.

We have also stopped taking pre-orders. Before Covid, customers could place an order with us and we would accept the order before looking for that product in China. Now, we are trying to source most of our products locally, and we only accept orders for international products once the product has already arrived in the country. Once we have the funding, we would like to build and stock a local storehouse with a large supply of products to sell to customers in Sierra Leone and other nearby countries. We would also like to continue to build our African supply chain and work with local businesses to reach more customers. 

What do you think of the African Continental Free Trade Agreement? 

I think the African Continental Free Trade Agreement is a very important stepping stone towards creating a more integrated African market. In fact, the AfCFTA, along with Covid, was an important factor in our decision to expand our strategy and work on building an African e-commerce platform. The AfCFTA will make it easier to move products between African countries in terms of the regulation, but we still need the logistical infrastructure to support the trading, and that’s where we want to come in. If the infrastructure is not there, then the AfCFTA will be useless. 

It is very hard to move products between African countries. In fact, it is often easier to send products from Ghana to Europe or the United States than to send the product from Ghana to Sierra Leone. And some services, such as one-day shipping, are currently just not possible in Africa. Our long term goal is to create the infrastructure and provide cheap logistical support for small African businesses to export their products to the international market, and to create a proper e-commerce platform in Africa. 

What are some of the challenges of developing an African e-commerce platform? 

Many homes in Africa don’t have specific addresses, which makes it challenging to deliver to the end consumer. Another challenge is the relative lack of shipping companies and the low frequency of international flights coming in, especially to countries like Sierra Leone. 

Production capacity is also much smaller in Africa. A small Chinese company can produce 100 or 1000 bags a day, but a similar African company might only be able to produce maybe ten bags a day, and then it needs to sell those bags before producing another ten.

But just because a problem is difficult doesn’t mean it can’t be solved. The more difficult the problem, the greater the reward. That’s what entrepreneurs are for – for solving problems. I believe that solving the problems with shipping can help reduce difficulties in other areas. Bringing African customers more affordable products at faster rates can help other businesses and services providers on the African continent. This is what will help Africa move forward. 

Do you have any advice to give to young people who are thinking about starting a business? 

The advice I would give is find a problem to solve and look at the bigger picture. You can easily get a job, work at a firm, and spend thirty to forty years there, maybe even the rest of your life, and only impact the friends and family you have around you. But you can also push forward and actually build a company, build an organization, build a movement, and then impact thousands if not millions of people and solve problems. 

The amenities that we’re enjoying now, the internet that we’re enjoying, the smartphone that we’re using – it’s all because people pushed and continued pushing a step forward into innovation. So if we’re to drive humanity forward, if we’re to drive society forward, we need to think of how we will build a better life for our country mates, and a better life for our family and our children. 

I think more people should be starting companies. It’s not easy to start a company, especially in Africa – if you look at the World Bank Ease of Doing Business Rankings, most countries in Africa are way down the list. 

However, we need to solve these problems. So I would tell young people to think of the future generations and our friends around us, and put in the extra effort to solve these problems to make things better. And you should keep pushing because you’ll feel like giving up, you’ll be tired sometimes, you’ll feel like there is no way out, you’ll be blocked, but you should keep pushing. You should not give up. But you should also be smart and think and find solutions instead of just moving forward without any plan. 

Keep pushing, look at the bigger picture, and you will solve the problems. And I think that there is a necessity for problems to be solved, or else Africa won’t move forward and we will continue to be dependent upon funds. 

Do you have any plans in the short term to expand beyond Sierra Leone? 

Yes, we are planning on expanding to smaller economies first – we’re looking at Guinea and Liberia – before expanding to larger economies. We are a small company and we are still looking for funding, so we don’t feel ready yet to enter the larger economies where there is more competition. 

First, though, we need to build a website. So far we have been using only social media – Whatsapp, Facebook and sometimes Instagram. Now we are building a proper e-commerce platform. Our goal is to launch the website in Sierra Leone, then move to smaller countries around us, and then move to the larger economies. 

Would you like to share any final thoughts? 

Doing business in Africa is quite difficult. However, it is possible, and the rewards are immense. And to whoever is reading this, we are still looking for funding and for ways to expand. If you are interested in investing in Send Me, we would love to hear from you!

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