Copia: The firm turning village kiosks into eCommerce hubs

The McKinsey Global Institute projects that eCommerce will be worth $75 billion (Sh7.5 trillion) in Africa’s leading economies by 2025. This potential has seen several entrepreneurs and corporates jump into the eCommerce space. Copia, however, is looking to do things differently and move eCommerce from being a largely urban concept by trickling it down to Kenya’s rural communities.

Tim Steel, the firm’s CEO, shared what makes his business different from the many other players in the industry.

What’s Copia about?

Copia is Latin for ‘abundance’. It’s an eCommerce company founded by Silicon Valley veterans Tracey Turner and Jonathan Lewis. We started operations in Kenya in 2013.

The founders’ vision was to democratise eCommerce in Africa by bringing its potential to the millions of middle and low-income Africans.

Copia envisions an ‘e’ where there is no Internet, commerce where there are no big wallets, deliveries where there are no modern roads or addresses, and empowered people where the world sees none.

Our idea is to make Kenya’s rural communities access the same high-quality goods as their urban counterparts. Copia wants to transform this historically neglected market into an empowered global consumer.

How different is your model from what’s already in the market?

If you look around, most online entities mainly serve the urban population, especially the middle and upper segments of the market. They don’t feel like targeting the lower segment of the market will impact their bottom lines. However, statistics show that the low and middle-income earners form almost half of the world’s population. They’re difficult to reach, most have no Internet or a proper identity. This is a large, unserved and underserved population.

So how do you plan to disrupt this population?

Let’s just say we’re a mobile supermarket that moves from the city to rural areas.

We provide both urban shoppers and their rural family and friends with greater choice, affordability and convenience when shopping for everyday items. We negotiate for the best prices with respected manufactures and importers.

And then, with the help of our 3,900 agents, who are typically small shopkeepers, we take orders electronically. Payments are made through mobile money while all orders are barcoded and scanned at every point in their journey to our customers.

Items are delivered in two to four days, with a money-back guarantee.

At checkout, all we need is the phone number of the friend or family member upcountry. We do the rest – locating the recipient and identifying the nearest delivery agent.

What brought Copia to Kenya?

Kenya is a leader in mobile penetration. This vast network helps us collate orders and locate customers.

We have found out that Kenyans, regardless of their background, are prepared to adopt new technology.

The current, and expanding, road network is another big advantage when shipping out purchased goods.

Why would rural folk buy from your platform rather than just go to the village shopkeeper?

It’s true we deal with everyday household items, from farming tools and electronics to school supplies, personal care products and even shoe polish. Yes, these items can be found in most rural areas.

However, we’re able to negotiate for the best prices with manufacturers and big distributors. We then pass on the accruing discounts to people in rural areas who would otherwise not get the same products at such prices. This model is better than just sending cash to rural areas that could end up being used for unintended purposes.

So your platform can deliver shoe polish to my father in rural Kenya?

Yes. Just give us his contacts and the agent nearest to him will locate him.

How would you make money with such a discounted model?

It is all about economies of scale. We leverage on volume, as well as negotiated commissions from manufacturers. It works well for both of us.

The manufacturer has an elaborate artery for moving goods to the rural areas, thus saving on marketing costs.

If you think about it, the items in our warehouse are items that would otherwise be lying in a factory somewhere. It is to their, and our, advantage if we can get as many people as possible on our platform. Every item that leaves our warehouse has already been paid for.

You talked about institutional partnerships. What would these look like?

Kenya has a number of financial institutions, like chamas and Saccos that members turn to for financial advancement.

Most of these people use the money to buy items that could be used in a farm somewhere. By partnering with such institutions, we can provide a simpler way of sourcing for goods for their members at the best price.

The system also works well for agricultural institutions that need a system for workers to access goods without travelling out of the farms, thus saving time and resources.

Why would an institution choose Copia over other players in this space?

True, there are many eCommerce forums. However, most partner with businesses who then send the items purchased to the buyer without authenticating the quality of goods.

We have a Grade A warehouse. The purpose of this warehouse is to see each item ordered by our customers. If something is faulty, we don’t wait for the customer to return it – we do so ourselves.

What are the successes you’ve had so far with rural communities?

Since setting up, we’ve created more than 450 jobs and increased the income of our 3,900 agents in villages by 35 per cent.

We have so far processed over two million orders for more than 300,000 customers.

We have injected more than Sh600 million into the rural economy through our community suppliers. In our small way, we’re helping rural businesses grow.

What’s the next frontier for Copia?

We’re just scratching the surface as far as eCommerce is concerned. We need to reach more rural communities in different parts of the country.

On the other hand, we don’t want to leave the urban population behind. We recently launched an online platform for people in urban areas to buy personal items or buy items to send to relatives back home.

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