The recent announcement of Jumia Food’s exit from Nigeria, its biggest market, has set alarm bells ringing among industry watchers. Dr. Fred Bongani, a former employee, and founding staff, examines the fallouts from this latest misadventure.
Despite its potential as a goldmine, E-commerce remains one of the most challenging business sectors in Nigeria and the African continent.
The obstacles that lie in the path of businesses intent on cracking e-commerce on the continent are well-documented, among which infrastructural deficiencies, logistical hiccups, skepticism for online shopping and predilection for offline retail, and slow adoption of digital payment, among others, figure prominently.
Nevertheless, Africa is widely regarded by experts as the next frontier for bullish e-commerce growth.
Compelling insights from recent research by the International Trade Administration (ITA) shows that Africa represents a smart gamble for interested investors looking to reap the benefits of the wave of growth in e-commerce on the continent. She titled – The Rise of eCommerce in Africa – the study bets on the exponential boost in mobile technology that is expected to jumpstart e-commerce from its current middling status to a multi-trillion-dollar industry in the coming years.
“The logic of growth in this area is pretty much based on technology jumps that do occur within Africa because of historically missing economic infrastructure, such as banks, telecom landlines, etc. Africa is forecast to surpass half a billion e-commerce users by 2025, which will have shown a steady 17% compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of online consumers for the market,’’ the study boldly asserts.
Specifically, the research shows that Africa currently leads the world in mobile device web traffic generation, with 69% of its total web traffic consisting of mobile internet users as of 2021. Further, the continent is forecast to be almost exclusively mobile-based by 2040.
Continuing, the study notes that: ‘‘Compared to other regions, as of 2021 the African continent leads mobile internet usage a full 13% above the global average, and almost 5% more mobile usage than Asian region markets. This should indicate a “mobile-first” approach to any business looking to sell online to the various African markets.’’
The foregoing is backed up by a 2017 Accenture Digital Consumer Survey which discovered that in countries such as South Africa, smartphone acquisition increased from 52% in 2016 and 63% in 2017. Some of the more technologically advanced nations like Kenya and Nigeria boast a smartphone uptake of more than 44% and 30% respectively. Across the continent, the number of smartphone users saw a nearly two-fold increase, reaching more than 226 million. This spike in smartphone penetration, the survey submits, is steering a digital revolution on the continent, exposing users to the endless opportunities the internet provides, the top of which is e-commerce.
Considering these lofty assumptions, it therefore came as a huge shock when Jumia, a multinational African-focused e-commerce company disclosed that it would shut down Jumia Food, its food delivery business in Nigeria, Kenya, Morocco, Ivory Coast, Tunisia, Uganda, and Algeria by the end of 2023 in a new round of cost-cutting.
Jumia CEO, Francis Dufay told Reuters that the food delivery segment has challenging unit economics and big losses, while also attributing the closure of Jumia Food to increasing competition and unsustainable cost of operations.
“There is downward pressure on the commissions that we make and upward pressure on marketing costs because everyone is fighting for customers,’’ Dufay had stated.
The Jumia Food debacle represents another signpost in a seemingly never-ending list of missteps and abrupt exits by the management of Jumia since it set up shop in Africa. This includes the offloading of Jumia Travel, its hotel and flight services vertical in 2019 to a rival brand, Travelstart – a move which came a few weeks after the shutdown of its eCommerce businesses in Tanzania and Cameroon and laying off staff in Kenya. Founded as Jovago in 2013, the hotels and flights marketplace became Jumia Travel after it rebranded in 2016. Earlier in 2017, the company had sold off Jumia House, its real estate subsidiary to ToLet.com.ng, a property startup, after it failed to scale.
To start with, Jumia is a German-headquartered e-commerce platform, with its technology and product team based in Porto, Portugal, and until recently, its senior leadership operated out of Dubai in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Yet, it lays ambitious claims to becoming the African Amazon – a faulty dynamic worsened by a damaging identity crisis and the importation of business principles and strategies fit for the Western world and which the management expected to succeed in Africa, a developing continent with its myriad of teething challenges. Indeed, several critics regard Jumia as an exploitative Western company that conveniently co-opted an African identity to extract as much value as possible and profit off the continent.
As one of the founding employees of Jumia, I had expressed reservations at the ease with which the early-stage founders of the company had been eased out of the business. Every business has its DNA which symbolizes the very essence, cornerstone, or soul of the establishment. This ideal is often reposed by the visionaries of the business and consolidated over time as the business scales. In the case of Jumia, what we had was a wannabe e-commerce behemoth with a major identity crisis. This foundational ambiguity would prove to be one of the catalysts that hurt the business in the long run.
At the height of the Jumia-Konga battle for the dominance of the Nigerian e-commerce sector when both brands launched in 2012, one thing was discernible: Jumia was often quick to arrogantly ridicule or thumb its nose at any innovation or strategy pioneered by a rival brand, even if it was a masterstroke, although the lessons of history showed that it may eventually ape the strategy when it realizes there is a market advantage therein. Those early days of e-commerce, particularly in Nigeria where I was based at the time, were one full of hype and little substance as both giants embarked on a battle of attrition for the leadership position in Africa’s biggest market. It took the coming of Yudala which was founded by a fresh-faced varsity graduate and backed by Nigeria’s biggest technology group to make both rival brands sit up and become more intentional about the substance of their hyped-up efforts (more on this later).
In early 2014, Konga pioneered the marketplace structure that is now a major staple of e-commerce on the continent. In its usual fashion, the management of Jumia derided it as a DOA (dead on arrival) strategy. However, it soon ate its words after advice from some of us in the business who saw how Konga was already stealing a march on us. Five months later, specifically in July 2014, Jumia followed suit with its marketplace.
Then came the entry of Yudala – a landmark development that shook up the e-commerce market in Nigeria. Led by Prince Nnamdi Ekeh who was 22 at the time and just fresh out of school, Yudala pioneered the composite e-commerce model with the fusion of online and offline – a futuristic piece of innovation that has now been adopted by other global players. Yudala’s emergence was a refreshing relief to the chokehold of Jumia and Konga. The brand, though big on hype as its older rivals, matched its words with true substance.
In addition to rolling out eye-catching fuchsia-pink retail stores across major cities in Nigeria, Yudala took on big projects that expanded the scope of the industry. One of these remarkable milestones was the first-ever drone delivery in the e-commerce world – a feat that was achieved in 2015 and predated any other similar efforts.
When in 2018, the management of Zinox, the technology conglomerate backing Yudala, acquired Konga from its previous owners, Naspers and AB Kinnevik, it was obvious to all interested parties that this was a development worth keeping an eye on. In my capacity, I had also advised the management of Jumia, especially considering the renowned capacity and decades of experience and success at the disposal of the new owners of Konga, to keep tabs on their strategy and follow suit or even explore partnerships, if that would guarantee a path to profitability.
The dust had barely settled on the monumental news of the acquisition when the management of Zinox announced an operational merger between Yudala and Konga. Although I had departed Nigeria, I followed with keen interest how the new owners subsequently rebranded the new entity that emerged from this operational merger, slowly transforming it into a dominant e-commerce force.
It is important here to state that while Jumia decided to double down on its poorly conceived pan-African expansion and an ill-advised IPO founded on shady figures and cooked books, Konga chose to continue consolidating its growing dominance in Nigeria:
- KongaPay was repositioned and recalibrated, leading to its rating by Statista in 2021 as the leading provider of digital payment services for e-commerce transactions in Nigeria.
- In 2019, the brand added Konga Travel to its list of growing subsidiaries. A technology-driven, revolutionary online travel booking agency, the new entrant gained prominence and market relevance within a short period.
- From Kxpress, the management of Konga relaunched its delivery arm to Konga Logistics, expanding its fleet of vehicular assets and by extension, its capacity to not only handle Konga’s last-mile deliveries but also cater to external customers.
- Konga Health, a digital healthcare distribution subsidiary joined the fray in June 2021. Today, the brand boasts exclusive distribution agreements with global brands such as L’Oreal and Livful, among others.
- Konga embarked on an expansion of its retail outlets and the set-up of massive warehousing facilities in regions across Nigeria, including what is arguably the biggest warehousing structure in Lagos located at Lekki
Amid all these major strides by its major rival, Jumia endured an embarrassing exposure of its IPO as a worthless sham by the popular US-based short-seller Citron, with its share price, which once traded as high as $60, now going for less than $4 today. The stubborn insistence of management in not borrowing a leaf from the Konga copybook has also seen Jumia continuously lose ground in Nigeria and other less buoyant African markets.
The current exit of Jumia Food leaves a sour taste in the mouth, particularly for those of us who number among ex-employees of this once-grand e-commerce pioneer. In addition to remaining unprofitable over the years, Jumia is still shipping huge losses, as high as $19 million in Q3 2023.
With its share price tumbling down by the day and investors now potentially hedging their bets on the brand, how much longer can Jumia keep its head floating above murky waters in Nigeria before calling it a day for its remaining core physical goods delivery segment and struggling payment service, Jumia Pay?
The jury is out on that.