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E-commerce has started take-off in Rwanda. From a niche sector to a necessity in lockdowns, and an indispensable convenience afterward, it is here to stay.

 Picture a world without e-commerce. A world in which every purchase demands physical presence of the buyer; where one sets for the market with only hope that products will be available;  where dear ones from afar cannot cherish us with presents; where parents and caregivers cannot get supplies without compromising on other responsibilities; where the busy have to spare time (and fuel) for shopping despite the activity not requiring their presence. That is a world without e-commerce.

 Fortunately, our world is different. Shopping is faster, cheaper, convenient, and provides more choices to the consumer. How did we get here? Yvette, an e-commerce pioneer in Rwanda and the founder of Murukali, takes us back to the challenges and solutions of the early days, and her business’s partnership with Vanoma.

How did you come to start an e-commerce business?

I had the idea to start Murukali when I couldn’t find any place to order supplies for my family while on maternity leave. Back in 2015, mobile payments weren’t nearly as ubiquitous as they are today, and home delivery as a service was rare.

What was the idea, and what challenges did you face?

The idea was to make shopping possible from anywhere at the touch of a button. We wanted to make sure anyone could sort through quality-controlled products, pay, and have them delivered without leaving their home or workplace. While it might sound like a no-brainer today, this was 2015, and people were skeptical it could be done in Rwanda, to say the least.

Every new business faces challenges, but ours had them twofold. On one hand, we had to build an e-commerce business, but given the state of infrastructure, we also needed to build a logistics arm as well. It was a significant challenge, especially with capital allocation at that point.

What were the problems in delivery?

Delivery companies of the time were unreliable. For instance, one company opened up shop and left after a short time, some other companies would directly compete with us and steal some of our customers, and bureaucracy at the post office wouldn’t allow us enough flexibility and fast response to our clients’ needs. So in the end, the better option was to make delivery an in-house service.

How did the pandemic affect the business, and how did you manage?

The pandemic was a challenging time in many ways. During lockdowns, people turned to e-commerce for almost all shopping, and we saw around a 40% increase in business. That meant more people to serve, and this time they had fewer options and reliability was at a premium.

It was then that I came across Vanoma (Nisawa at the time). They were young people with a focus on delivery and a degree of professionalism I was yet to see in the business. The company had the technology to order a delivery online which significantly sped up our process and reduced room for human error. The drivers were also reliable and communicated problems to help serve our customers better. Vanoma has made the business a lot easier to manage since one can focus all resources on the e-commerce side of the business with added security that delivery is taken care of.

What would you tell sellers still reluctant to embrace e-commerce?

I would say e-commerce makes it much easier to promote and sell products. Many producers sell exclusively through their physical stores and partnerships with supermarkets. These stores can only market so many products, and with many suppliers available, conflicts of interest can arise. Predictably, when producers introduce new products, customers rarely notice. With e-commerce, it is a lot easier to advertise new products with even more control of the brand message. E-commerce also affords you a suite of digital marketing tools to connect directly to people. Through social media and other means, you can easily reach as many people as you like with the news and offers. Moreover, people can see product details and buy instantly from wherever they are.

In terms of sales, e-commerce brings more predictability. Things such as heavy rains and storms can easily cut the customer supply. This can be dreadful, particularly with fresh food sellers and bakeries where a day without sales means a whole inventory wasted. Rush hour traffic jams are also getting worse. If you consider numerous stops people have to make including dropping/picking up kids or going to the gym, it becomes clear that there simply isn’t enough time to shop conveniently. Put simply, sellers are missing out on customers just because of accessibility issues even on regular days. Online sellers can expect the same amount of orders regardless of weather or traffic conditions.

Where do you see the future of e-commerce in Rwanda?

I see a bright future for e-commerce in Rwanda. Some of the hardest challenges have almost completely been solved: mobile payments are ubiquitous and companies like Vanoma ensure a smooth delivery experience. There is untapped potential for youth employment and value creation for people of all levels of wealth. This is something I think businesses and the government can work together to bring to fruition.

Even though the sector has seen dramatic growth, we still need mindset shifts in order to involve as many people as possible. Out of habit, some people are yet to see the benefits in convenience and saving time that e-commerce affords. E-commerce customers through platforms like ours have a much wider selection of goods and prices. Sellers too could gain much from having their products listed online for anyone to see, not just the few that can make it to the physical store.

What advice would you give to aspiring e-commerce entrepreneurs?

As for all entrepreneurship, it is important to give yourself time. Results do not show up on the first day, and, in fact, they usually take years to materialize. When you’re starting a business, mute both the inner and outer critics for about five years and see where the journey takes you. Feedback is important, but a bias towards optimism is crucial, especially in the rough first days. As for e-commerce, a lot of work has been done to ease the business for both sellers and buyers. Experiment with many things, and see how your customers respond. E-commerce also evolves rapidly. It, therefore, pays off to keep an eye out for useful innovation from across the world.



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