If you don’t love e-commerce and knowing there will be hurdles and bumps along the way don’t ever start. But know this, once you succeed there is no limit to success.”- Chris Folayan
When you travel internationally, you inevitably have to bring gifts of one sort or another. I remember whenever I would return to the US from London where I was a student, my family would insist that I bring chocolate and records. In the old Soviet Union, I did pretty well out of trading blue jeans for local goods.
When you travel from relatively well-off rich countries to those that aren’t quite in the same economic category, however, it is not uncommon for people to ask for big ticket items, expensive luxury goods and the like that just aren’t available where they live. I have helped friends acquire fax machines, TVs and sound equipment for people in South Asia and Latin America. It is no different in Africa.
Chris Folayan: The Nigerian VisionaryImage Source: New York Times
And it is an African who found a way to address this demand. Chris Folayan. He came to America to attend college, and when he would go back home to visit, he got the same requests we all have had.
In a recent interview, he explained, “Well, I found it difficult to turn people down, and one day I took more than the allowed number of suitcases to the airport and was told I couldn’t board the plane even if I was willing to pay for extra luggage. Bottom line is that the list had become so long that I knew there was a strong demand, and when such demands are not met you have an amazing opportunity to do business.”
Folayan, who graduated from San Jose State with a degree in marketing, realized that the internet and smartphones held the key. He built an app, developed the platform, and now, “Mall for Africa is the largest online shopping platform in Africa with over 8.5 billion items for sale at over 150 US and UK stores.” That’s billion with a “b” – 8,500,000,000.
There were a few challenges. “Getting the Western brands to sign up with us was a major challenge. There was a lot of stereotype thinking we had to break, in particular regarding Nigeria. Now they know that Mall for Africa is taking on all risks for them, and by using us Africa is no longer a region to ignore. With us, companies have seen seven-figure increases in their sales.”
Another important factor is his brother Tope, who studied at Stanford, got an MBA at Northwestern, and returned to Nigeria. Having a family member in the Nigerian market has made it easier to troubleshoot issues there.
Delivery times remain his greatest challenge, “See with the shopping mall that’s local, let’s say The Palms, you go there get what you want and you walk out with it. With online shopping, a concept like ours, you have to wait a few days to get your item. It’s not instant and we don’t offer same day delivery. We don’t have local warehouses with items in them. For example, when you order an item from Ralph Lauren.com, it is coming directly from Ralph Lauren and we can’t deliver that to you the same day or even the next day. So educating our customers to know that we guarantee genuine quality, and they know exactly where the product is coming from but it may take a few days to get, has been the one effort we are working hard to let users know.”
MallforAfrica: A Platform For African EmpowermentImage Source: Tech Suplex
There are competitors, Konga and Jumia to name two, but their business model is different. They have local warehouses and thus, offer 200,000 or so items. MallforAfrica.com ships from the US and the UK, and therefore can offer much more variety while sacrificing same-day delivery.
However, this site is about more than getting luxury items to Africa. “Mall for Africa is also a platform that empowers Africans. For example, we help schools with books, supplies, computers and educational material. We help hospitals order equipment they were not able to get shipped to them before. We have also helped many people start businesses. One day I got an email from a lady who was so grateful for the Mall for Africa platform as she was able to order a sewing machine no one else was ever willing to bring or ship to her. When she received the item she finally started her own small business with the only sewing machine in her small town.”
Does he have any advice for would-be entrepreneurs?
“You can’t succeed if you don’t start. Start your idea with friends and family being your focus group. Also, make sure the market is in need of your product and then push ahead. In Africa, it’s key to have connections in place. Make sure you build them.”
“Have a great marketing plan. The American or British marketing plans will not work in Africa. You need an African marketing plan. Always seek advice and mentorship from those in the country you wish to serve. Take the company as far as you can with your proof of concept, then seek investor start-up capital, as I have done.”
There is one big difference between 21st-century immigrants like Folayan and 19th-century immigrants like my great-grandparents – communications make the new generation of immigrants bridges between cultures. And that can offer business opportunities that never existed before. Like MallforAfrica.com.
Now watch this interview with Chris Folayan:
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