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Less than a year after ringing the ceremonial bell at the New York Stock Exchange to celebrate the IPO of the first African start-up listed there, Juliet Anammah and her colleagues were devising an emergency action plan to liaise with health ministries in the eleven countries where Jumia operates. The recently promoted executive was used to representing the e-commerce heavyweight at the highest levels of negotiations with governments and global business leaders, but nothing could have prepared her for the agility and diplomatic resolve that she and leaders like her needed during the pandemic.
In more ways than one, 2020 has been a rollercoaster year for “the Amazon of Africa.” But as an e-commerce platform selling everything from luggage to laptops and food to footwear, Jumia remains an attractive channel for brands to access consumers on the continent, and Anammah remains bullish about the firm’s prospects in 2021.
BoF: How much more room is there for Jumia to grow in the year ahead and what role do you now play in the continent’s online acceleration? Is it different from the role you played in the first eight years of growth?
Juliet Anammah: We still have decades of growth ahead of us. If you look at the penetration of e-commerce on the continent, at best, it’s still about two percent, three percent. There is still a whole lot of upside in terms of more transactions that we can bring online, and we are addressing this in multiple dimensions. We’re increasing the variety of products that can be found on Jumia. Today, a consumer can buy virtually anything on Jumia [not just] fashion products and beauty products. They can buy airtime [for mobile phones] and pay bills on Jumia. And within each of the categories where we operate, the assortment is growing every year. All of these are things that are relevant [in terms of our growth trajectory in the context of Africa’s ever-] increasing [e-commerce] penetration rate.
BoF: Some people credit Jumia with “revolutionising” e-commerce in Africa. Others accuse it of being a clone of Amazon, citing the successive roll-out of services like Jumia Prime, Jumia Express and so on. What do you say?
JA: I’d say: one, you don’t reinvent the wheel. It makes no sense to go and start rewriting the rule book on how e-commerce works. Consumers [around the world] are already used to a certain way of interacting with e-commerce platforms. It’s important that you give them something that they’re familiar with — but adapt it. So we said, “How will consumers trust that the item will be delivered to them?” because logistics is a big challenge in Africa. We had to solve the trust question by creating a cash on delivery option with three attempts to make a delivery, a payment solution and all kinds of special [service infrastructure]. I call it adapting the e-commerce model for the African environment and customising it to the African consumer. We couldn’t just take a model from another region, and then implant it in Africa. That wouldn’t have worked. But for people to now say, “Oh, this is the Amazon of Africa,” it means they recognise that what we’re doing for Africa is what Amazon did in the US. So, to the extent that [the “Amazon of Africa” nickname] makes me feel anything, it makes me feel happy.
BoF: Jumia provides a sales platform for consumers in Nigeria, South Africa, Kenya, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Senegal, Uganda, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Egypt. How do you manage to optimise the customer experience for such a hugely diverse group of markets with different regulatory environments and different consumer behaviours across that colossal expanse of the continent?
JA: We didn’t have the luxury of having big, established logistics players that could reach every part of the country who were also willing to take cash on delivery, so we had to create a network of third-party logistics providers. We just built the systems that would allow us to then leverage that and the data systems for it.
BoF: That’s impressive. But how do you localise Jumia’s assortment across African nations with so many different wardrobe preferences — not only between the different markets but also within each market?
JA: Assortment differs [by market] because we operate across 11 countries [but] there are certain brands that we have partnerships with on a global level… But if you take Nigeria, for example, there are small local designer outlets producing affordably priced clothing for work [and] some creating African native fashion for special occasions. We also customise our marketing. In certain markets, YouTube is important and others it is different social media.
BoF: To what extent do you feel that Jumia’s path to profitability has been impacted by Covid-19? How do things look now in the run-up to 2021?
JA: During the Covid pandemic we didn’t need to spend as much on sales and advertising as we would have done in normal times [so] overall, you’ll find that net losses were reduced between 2019 to 2020. Of course, we had taken some decisions earlier on about staff costs and other operational expenditures that matured by the second quarter of 2020, which held our gross merchandise value (GMV) expenses down further. In terms of the top line, it wasn’t phenomenal growth. Some people expected us to see triple-digit growth over 2020 versus 2019. Their perception was that the whole of Africa was ordering online, which is not the case. You need to understand that it’s a long-term play for e-commerce. It’s not a two-year stint and you march on to profitability. It takes a pretty long time. Where we are right now, we’re very much focused on our account profitability.
It’s a long-term play for e-commerce. It’s not a two-year stint and you march on to profitability.
BoF: You were the CEO of Jumia Nigeria for four years before being appointed chairperson in 2020. How have you led your team to source the right products for the mass market?
JA: We are a platform for everyone. We’re agnostic. So you have top brands from Procter & Gamble, and then you also have the distributors, the small-size wholesalers that bring a lot more variety of brands in their portfolio. Then of course, we have local sellers who bring rich diversity even though they may only have 10 to 50 SKUs in total. You also have to remember, these are countries going through a very difficult period now. [African] consumer purchasing power is increasingly going to be squeezed so we need to bring an assortment that’s relevant to the consumer, in terms of the price-performance ratio. Whether it’s a fast-fashion brand from China, a big brand from Turkey, or an established brand from [Europe or the US], to the extent that they have assortment and product designs that recognise the specific price needs of our consumers at this point in time, then those products will be successful on our platform.
BoF: You’ve said that luxury brands are definitely not a priority for Jumia, but to what extent is Jumia interested in negotiating more deals with global fashion brands from the US or Europe, assuming of course that their assortment is right and their price point hits your sweet spot?
JA: The commercial team are constantly looking at new partnerships. Fashion is one of the top five or six categories where we’re definitely very hungry for new partnerships. Having said that, the sweet spot, if I remember rightly, it used to be between $10 to $20. Of course, you also have consumers who would want higher price points and product designs. But what you may consider a lower price point from a US or a UK perspective, is still relatively pricy on the continent. It’s looking at how brands rework their route to market in such a way that they can make products available within a $20, $25, $30 price point reach. What I think would be difficult is if those brands use their existing route to market, they may not be able to deliver those price points.
BoF: Are you referring to the added margins incurred due to distributors?
JA: I think it’s more than that. It’s really taking a proper look at the entire value chain and asking, okay, where do we source? Where do we produce these items and using fabrics at what price? Who are the middlemen and key channel partners before it gets to Jumia? Fashion brands [that are interested in partnering with us] have to look at it very critically to see where the opportunities are to really drive the price down. Brand executives would need to be assertive about saying, “We are focusing on Africa and Africa is an opportunity for us.” If this is the mindset and objective at corporate level, then you have the corporate backing which means you also have the motivation and incentive to really look at the entire value chain and route to market and figure out how to make sure that products can ultimately be sold on Jumia at $20 and $25. At the end of the day, it’s about the different [and sometimes competing emerging market] priorities that are on the CEO’s table. Apart from Asia, they also have the Latin American market opportunity. So if there is no hunger at corporate headquarters saying, “We want to grow in Africa,” then it’s not going to work.
BoF: Going forward, how much heat will Jumia feel from online competitors like Konga in Nigeria or Takealot in South Africa?
JA: There’s so much to be done on the continent that, if anything, competition is welcome because everybody understands there is huge, huge potential ahead of us.
This interview has been edited and condensed. Additional reporting by Zoe Suen.
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