In the Middle East, gender roles are messing with e-commerce shipping

Shipping works quite differently in the Middle East than in the United States. In countries like Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, cash-on-delivery (COD) is still the norm—around 60% of online purchases region-wide are only paid for once they are delivered to the purchaser, according to a 2013 study by e-commerce giant PayPal (pdf). The Middle East and North Africa region (MENA) is home to the world’s fastest-growing e-commerce market, according to a 2013 report compiled by British online-retail association IMRG.

“Cash on delivery is the biggest challenge for e-commerce players in the region,” said Abdul Malik Jaber, chairman of Middle East Payment Services (MEPS), in an interview with the UAE’s The National newspaper. “There are high return rates, a big lag time between order and payment and the need for delivery people to carry cash is a major risk.”

Fetchr, a Dubai-based app startup, seeks to remedy these obstacles unique to “last-mile logistics” in places like Saudi Arabia, where COD, in combination with other cultural factors—such as restrictions on interactions between unrelated men and women—complicate delivery.

“The way that packages get delivered in the Middle East, they actually call the customer and ask for directions to their house,” Joy Ajlouny, Fetchr’s co-founder and creative director, told Quartz. “They literally call the customer and ask, ‘Hi, where do you live?’ And the customer gets anywhere between one and five phone calls.” Because, in the countries where Fetchr operates, many communities lack house-numbering systems, customers are “directing the driver by landmarks. Turn right at the square, and so on,” Ajlouny said.

That’s where Fetchr proves its primary utility, being an app “very much like Uber,” Ajlouny said, allowing a driver to track package recipients via GPS to their exact location.

Add to the mix the region’s complicated and delicate gender roles, and the result is a tough market for e-commerce growth. In Saudi Arabia, for example, most women will not answer the door to men unknown to them—making it difficult for male delivery drivers to complete COD transactions. Fetchr’s solution has been to employ female package handlers.

“In Saudi Arabia, women are not allowed to drive,” noted Idriss al-Rifai, Fetchr’s other co-founder and CEO. “Our deliverywomen will not be driving, they’ll just be knocking on doors. And because Saudi law dictates that all women must be accompanied in public spaces by a mahram, a male-relative or in-law escort, Fetchr employs family teams. “Father-daughter, brother-sister, uncle-niece,” al-Rifai explained.

But Fetchr isn’t wholly compliant with the socio-cultural status quo in every country within which they operate. The company is actively involved in furthering employment opportunities for local women, particularly in the UAE, where women are permitted to drive. (Saudi Arabia is the only Muslim nation where they can’t.) Regionally, two-thirds of young Arab women remain out of the workforce, according to Gallup.

“Right now, in the UAE, we are the only delivery company that utilizes women,” al-Rifai said. “We are the only company that has hired women drivers in the region.” The company currently serves customers in Bahrain, in addition to the UAE and Saudi Arabia, with plans to expand into Qatar and Kuwait in the coming months.

“E-commerce is booming here,” Ajlouny told Quartz. “It’s growing, and it’s growing fast. And people are just beginning to get online—that’s the exciting part. We’re where the United States was about 30 years ago.”

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