This 21st century marketplace is bustling with prints, dresses, sandals and even furniture, all with a unique take on contemporary style. It’s a marketplace not unlike any found in almost any major African city, except that it’s accessible to the whole word, 24/7 and shoppers only need their thumbs to navigate it.
In recent years, social media platforms have created a new marketplace for African entrepreneurs, who are now able to access a consumer base far beyond their own locale. And thanks to Instagram and the move to more visual interaction on other platforms, Africa’s fashionistas are cashing in.
Instagram alone provides a potential customer base of 1 billion, with 500 million daily users. The scrolling thumbs may not be as intentional as foot traffic to a physical store, but it has brought a global reach to African fashion retailers that was unimaginable just a few years ago. Instagram, in particular, has proven to bring higher engagement than Facebook and Twitter.
WhatsApp is the most popular messaging platform in Africa, and is a gateway to the online world for many. Despite the lack of a formal transactional platform, WhatsApp has cultivated trust among its millions of African users, making it easier for African consumers to trust and access than actual e-commerce platforms. The informal use use of WhatsApp by business users has been significant enough the company is now building a transactional platform.
The combination of Instagram and WhatsApp, and to a lesser extent Facebook (it’s worth remembering that both WhatsApp and Instagram are owned by Facebook), have been a boon for small retailers, who are now able to market their goods, set up de facto e-commerce platforms and manage customer engagement at a fraction of the price.
The small town of Butterworth in the Eastern Cape is certainly no fashion capital, and yet Akhona Shumane-Cakata has created a successful vintage fashion boutique from there. Despite its small-town origins Acorn’s Quaint Attic is very much national and international, thanks largely to Instagram.
She began selling clothes after friends commented on her personal style. At first she advertised on her personal Facebook page, but as the business grew, she began using Instagram as a broader platform, branded to the boutique. She began with a few simple hashtags to grow her presence and today her main customer base is in South Africa’s main cities. She’s incorporated WhatsApp, simply by adding her number to the account’s bio, to facilitate sizes or field enquiries about size in something of a virtual fitting, and facilitate the transfer of payment.
To transition from her own closet to a commercial business, Shumane-Cakate found her products online, finding the best quality goods in Asia.
“It was a risk, I searched and searched,” she told Quartz. Last year, she travelled outside of South Africa for the first time to meet her suppliers in person in Thailand.
Instagram has allowed Davina Ebikeme’s store to attract customers long before and after her seasonal pop-up. Launched this year, her boutique Ebi’s is only open each Saturday in July in London’s Shoreditch neighborhood, yet interested customers can peruse the looks at any time on Instagram.
Having an online presence has also allowed Ebikeme, who grew up between London and Nigeria, to maintain the diaspora connection that is the driving force behind Ebi’s. Young, urban Africans are already using Instagram to challenge the dominant narrative of life on the continent and Ebikeme’s online presence taps into that conversation.
“It was important to me to represent something different, something more modern that reflected a shared experience, and to try to start having this conversation and elevating the viewpoint and preconceptions,” she says. “What I’m presenting is part of that already existing wider conversation on Africa and the African diaspora.”
With a background in wholesale, Ebikeme felt that African brands were being overlooked so when she started her own business this year, she sourced up-and-coming African designers. While the seasonal pop-up means that her main customer base is from the UK, African consumers are increasingly contacting her via direct message to place their orders.
African consumers are more comfortable buying via WhatsApp or direct messaging, says Evelyn Aligba founder and creative director of House of GDI. Launched in Lagos’ Lekki in 2017, House of GDI has successfully integrated several social platforms, such as including a WhatsApp link in email marketing, in order to grow the business beyond Lagos.
“We have serviced clients whom we have never seen thanks to the internet and who have also referred others as well, which has translated to more sales,” Aligba says.
House of GDI began when Aligba, rather unconventionally, tapped into her background in science and education and began experimenting with leather. Her first products were one-of-a-kind sandals, sneakers, briefcases and handbags. Initial marketing on Facebook and Instagram managed to push customers to the physical location, where the range is wider, with bespoke items. While a physical retail space remains important to her brand, Aligba is mindful of the unique culture of online shopping as it is developing among her customers.
“The culture of having fun online and stumbling on a beautiful fashion item, reaching out directly on WhatsApp to negotiate or clarify the details is much stronger than intentionally going to an e-commerce website to browse through a catalog,” she said. “We build our customer base into a community so it’s easy to have them back and have them refer others.”
All three agree that in an increasingly crowded marketplace, it’s important to stand out. Like any shop, Shumane-Cakata has had to “reinvent” her business, using sales, modeling the clothes on real women instead of mannequins and adjusting her collections to fit the season. Aligba says its important to be “tactical” about posting, paying attention to image quality, timing of posts and using local influencers.
Reliable customer service beyond online engagement is also key, like ensuring that deliveries arrive on time, ensuring the quality of their products and remaining trustworthy to remote customers. Like other small-retailers using Instagram, none of the three have a specialized e-commerce platform, and are instead making use of over-the-top services, like cash transfers, EFT or PayPal, depending on what works for the customer.
The online retailers share a strong characteristic with most Instagram influencers—a strong belief in their own taste and aesthetic, based on the idea that if they like it, other people will click like. And it’s worked.