Despite the much-touted potential of the industry, most e-commerce businesses in Zimbabwe have had an uphill struggle in gaining any significant market share over their physically-based competitors. In fact, considering the performance of these businesses locally, even the word “competitors” may be a stretch. The success stories have been few and far between. It is for this reason that I often approach any story of a new local e-commerce upstart with cautious optimism—a feeling much akin to the kind you get when you witness a toddler trying to take its very first steps on a concrete floor.

However, every once in a while I encounter entrepreneurs with offerings unique and interesting enough to deserve some of our attention. Belonging to this category is the group of gentlemen behind a brand new local e-commerce platform called Kunda Market (it was launched about three weeks prior to this interview). I recently had a chat with Brandon Ribatika, one of the cofounders in order to learn more about their platform and his views on the state of the local e-commerce industry. This following is the conversation between me and Brandon Ribatika.

You can start with a short description of your company/business, Mr Ribatika.

We (Kunda Market) are an e-commerce platform for fashion, beauty and health products. We want to make it easy for the average Zimbabwean to buy or sell online. We want to support local businesses and brands. All the products offered through our platform strictly have to be authentic (trying to sell a knock-off will get you kicked out) whether they are made locally or outside the country. In addition to offering same-day delivery within Harare, Kunda Market also offers packaging solutions for sellers. Ultimately we want to help local brands stand out while also helping customers find original and authentic products easily and affordably.

So you are saying yours is a platform, a space for buyers and sellers to meet.

Correct but the sellers have to be individuals with a brand which sells original or authentic products. Only the people who meet these criteria can sell on our platform.

How much success have you had so far in getting people to sell on your platform? And also, have you had any success with the buyers?

We have signed up about 10 brands since we launched three weeks ago and we are working overtime to get sales going.

Can you share how you got these sellers to sign up? Did you actively pursue them or they just happened to run across your site online…?

Since the kinds of products (fashion and beauty) we want to be sold on our platform are highly visual, many of these sellers have pages on Instagram. So far we have DMed over 50 of these brands with our proposal and we have gotten around 10 to sign up, which is not a bad response rate.

I understand that when it comes to platforms it is hard to get buyers when you don’t have the sellers and vice versa.

It is indeed a catch-22 situation. It’s really difficult to get started but we thought we could start with sellers. Our approach was to share with them what we were trying to build and then convince them to sign up and be patient with us while we grew the platform together and got customers. People got the gist of what we were trying to achieve quicker as most businesses were closing doors due to the pandemic. Those who wanted to keep operating could turn to platforms like ours. For others, our appeal lay simply in the fact that they could avoid the cost and work of creating their own e-commerce websites.

Besides the obvious, like the poor state of the economy, what do you think are the greatest challenges to the success of e-commerce in Zimbabwe?

I think there are four factors that need to be addressed in order for e-commerce to truly take off in the country. The first of these are logistical issues. The country lacks well developed distribution channels. Zimpost doesn’t seem to be very reliable when it should be one of the main driving forces behind e-commerce in the country—it has the distribution network to make e-commerce a reality.

The other issue is internet access. In Zimbabwe, a large percentage of the population does not have access to the internet. E-commerce thrives where people have access to the internet. I think that as entrepreneurs we have to find ways of enabling those with limited internet access to participate in e-commerce.

Lack of trust is also a problem. There are people who have been burnt in the past: they bought items online which either arrived in the wrong condition or didn’t arrive at all. Even worse, a lot of the available e-commerce businesses and platforms are severely lacking in customer service. This severely erodes the public’s confidence in e-commerce.

Finally, there is a lack of cooperation within the industry. Bigger companies are unwilling to partner with startups and vice versa. I think such partnerships are vital to the development of a local e-commerce ecosystem. This lack of a unified front in tackling e-commerce has hampered progress.

We’ve had some companies and individuals create platforms similar to yours in the past with limited success. What do you think they are doing wrong?

The first thing that I have noticed is that some of them are trying to copy successes from other markets e.g. someone sees Amazon, gets inspired then they also want to create a local platform which sells everything. The Zimbabwean market, economy and culture are very different from, say, the American one. I’ve seen people build websites which do not take these differences into account. It’s not enough to just take what is working in other countries and bring it as it is to Zimbabwe.

Many of these companies also have extremely poor customer service. They do not attempt to build a relationship with the customer. In e-commerce, you have to offer post-service customer service. There has to be a clear advantage of buying online rather than in a physical store. The remoteness of the online seller erodes trust which has to be made up for with great customer service.

Partnerships are important. Some businesses in the space try to do everything themselves—they will try to make, sell and deliver their own products. Everything is in-house which results in a lot of overheads. Your operation would be much leaner if you partner up with existing solution providers.

The other problem is that many e-commerce operations do not take the time to build the kinds of relationships (e.g. with influencers) which would lend their operations legitimacy and hence win over those people who are still wary of getting scammed online.

Finally, there are those businesses which appear to simply have no idea what Zimbabweans want to buy online.

…and what do you think will make your platform succeed where others have failed?

We intend to build great relationships with our customers and the brands which sell on our platform. Currently, we make a special effort to send those brands which we have already signed up emails every week which enquire as to how they are, how they are finding the platform and how we can improve the service. We are getting a lot of feedback this way. For buyers, we intend to offer free delivery, keep in touch with them and reward the loyal ones. Quality is so important to us that we leave nothing to chance; we even have our own special (delivery) packaging which those selling on our platform have to use.

Lastly, what is your overall vision and expectations for your company?

We want to empower businesses, especially small ones, to grow their brands by enabling them to sell to the bigger audiences which are available online.  We want to help businesses who want to venture into e-commerce. We also want our customers to be able to access the products they need quickly and more efficiently. Our aim is to be the leading e-commerce platform in the country which is helping businesses to do more and achieve more of their own visions.

The team

Currently, Kunda Market is composed entirely of its four founding members:

Brandon Ribatika (24) who is currently doing a Masters programme in Entrepreneurship in the UK; Paul Kudzai Julius (24) a certified photojournalist; Tafadzwa Nyamhunga (25) and Kevin Kumbirai Mwenge (24), a media practitioner and public relations officer currently based in Russia.

Visit the Kunda Market store and don’t hesitate to share your opinions, experiences and everything in between.