E-commerce is a multi-billion dollar global industry which is dominated by China. Some of the biggest e-commerce brands in the world are Amazon and Alibaba. Jeff Bezos (the owner of Amazon) is the richest person on the planet and that speaks to the limitless potential e-commerce has. E-commerce is a still mostly a fallow ground in Zimbabwe owing to a lot of reasons which I’m discussing herein.
Lack Of Widespread Awareness
E-commerce is a domain characterized by processes that challenge tradition and the status quo. People are used to a particular way of doing commerce and are highly sceptical of new age tech innovations. Think of the example of the Biometric Voter Registration for the 2018 harmonised elections in Zimbabwe had to be rolled out – scepticism was rampant at first. It’s human nature to have a fear of the unknown and a lot of what’s feared is actually perceived and not real. People gradually warm up to something novel or advanced once their eyes are opened to the nitty-gritty of the new things. There is generally a lack of widespread awareness on what e-commerce is all about and as such many have preconceived notions that are opposed to e-commerce.
The idea of making a purchase virtually, without direct physical interaction and believing the goods bought will be delivered is a tall order for many. For some, it’s just paranoia whilst for some, it stems from the many accounts of scams that people hear about. Therefore most people find it hard to embrace e-commerce because they have a hard time trusting people from a distance. The lack of policies or laws that guarantee the protection of consumer rights online makes anyone’s participation in e-commerce transactions a huge risk with much to be lost in cases of fraud or being short-changed.
E-commerce requires that someone have adequate and consistent internet connectivity. Unfortunately, this is a challenge for many due to various reasons. Some don’t have smartphones, some don’t have reliable network coverage and some just aren’t conversant with surfing the internet. So this stifles any meaningful endeavour towards building e-commerce businesses due to fear of low conversions.
Recently ZOL and TelOne increased their internet data charges and this is a huge blow. To get a fulfilling e-commerce experience it needs one to be able to afford data. Even the mobile data packages are out of reach for many. I use NetOne for my internet connectivity; to get the highest amount of data you need to pay RTGS$3 to get a 2 GB data bundle that expires after 24 hours. For you to connect daily you would need RTGS$21 per week. Thus commerce cannot thrive in an environment with data being expensive as this.
Low Mobile App Consumption
Mostly for e-commerce to work seamlessly, it would require mobile apps. However, mobile apps consumption is very low in Zimbabwe; the net neutrality debate rages on. Let me refer to the Fresh In A Box startup as an example (they specialize in deliveries of fresh vegetables). They could have easily developed a mobile app which would have been convenient – but they didn’t initially. Instead, they chose to leverage on WhatsApp and their website. This shows how difficult it is to foster the growth of e-commerce in Zimbabwe due to low apps usage.
Cashless Transactions Still Shunned
The idea of cash transactions was shoved down people’s throats due to economic circumstances. People weren’t quite ready for a cashless society and that’s why many still try to circumvent cashless transactions by all means. The other issue that’s at play is that of steep charges for such transactions which are making people so resentful of such transactions. Then, of course, the issue of unreliable systems that are always down or malfunctioning. Ecocash is a case in point, whilst even bank systems at times also misbehave. This has given rise to a negative public perception of cashless transactions and that short-changes the possibility of an e-commerce boom.
Brick and Mortar Still Rules
This is both a local and global phenomenon which is quite hard to break. People still value the social and physical touch of going into a shop to purchase goods or services. Global statistics even project that e-commerce sales growth is going to slow down by roughly 4% between now and 2021. Currently, brick and mortar sales eclipse e-commerce sales by a convincing 20 trillion USD globally. Projections indicate that by 2021 brick and mortar sales will rake in 65% more sales than e-commerce sales. All this shows the strong preference for brick and mortar that still reigns – which happens to be even stronger locally.
Online Payments Gateways
We are yet as a nation to have online payment gateways that allow anyone to pay from any bank account to any merchant. The biggest global online payment gateway is Paypal and we don’t have such platforms locally. You find that we mostly rely on incorporating Ecocash interoperability to facilitate multi-faceted payments. Fresh In A Box actually relies on Ecocash for local transactions whilst VISA and MasterCard are usable only for the diaspora clients. This is worsened by our currency woes which make us very detached from the rest of the world. This issue of online payment gateways is a huge setback for any possible advances in e-commerce.
The odds against the growth of e-commerce in Zimbabwe are still very high. The increase in fuel prices and other basics seriously dent the distribution and supply chains which are central to effective e-commerce. Despite everything, businesses and consumers alike, stand to benefit from e-commerce since overheads costs are reduced thus leading to affordable pricing. We still have a long way to go in local e-commerce and that spells “opportunity” for those who can come up with innovative ideas.