How Jeff Bezos influenced African e-commerce

Amazon doesn’t have any e-commerce facilities in Africa, but Bezos’ influence can still be felt.
Amazon doesn’t have any e-commerce facilities in Africa, but Bezos’ influence can still be felt.
Image: Reuters/Jason Redmond
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Compared to other regions, Amazon’s physical presence in Africa is limited. And yet at the same time, Amazon is everywhere.

The company has not rolled out its e-commerce platform in Africa, although consumers in 17 African countries can order Amazon items to be shipped internationally. Still, Amazon.com is one of the most visited e-commerce sites in South Africa, according to the International Trade Administration. Amazon’s web services arm had its genesis in Cape Town. Prime Video is one of the continent’s most popular streaming services. And Jeff Bezos, who announced on Feb. 2 that he was stepping down as CEO of the company after its first $100 billion quarter, has had a significant influence on African entrepreneurs and startups.

Quartz Africa reached out to a number of leaders in the e-commerce space to understand the legacy Jeff Bezos, and Amazon under his stewardship, have left in Africa.

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Setting the standard

Amazon’s growth strategy is not a perfect blueprint for e-commerce in Africa. Indeed, supply chain hurdles, logistical barriers, and a customer trust deficit may be among the reasons the company has decided to skip rolling out e-commerce operations on the continent and focused on expanding web services instead (Bezos also recently invested in an African fintech startup).

This has left a lot of space for homegrown startups to learn from its legacy and chart their own path. Amazon’s focus on the customer has been hugely influential along the way.

“Amazon is all about the customer. They have blown competition out of the water because its customers get what they want, when they want it—globally,” said Angela Nzioki, the Kenya CEO of Sokowatch, an e-commerce platform for informal retailers which operates in Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda, and Uganda. She cites Amazon Prime as a standard-bearer for the industry. “Now companies like Sokowatch go the extra mile to provide customers with the same delivery service.”

Moulaye Tabouré, the Côte d’Ivoire-based co-founder and CEO of Afrikrea, an e-commerce platform for African-inspired fashion and crafts, agrees that same- or next-day delivery was an inspired move. He’s also been inspired by how Amazon has managed to balance the breadth of its operations and products while still offering a streamlined and reliable customer experience. “Everyone now has to rush to do the same,” Tabouré said.

“Amazon [and] Jeff Bezos have had a positive impact on e-commerce throughout Africa by setting a very high bar for customer service and a general high standard of service especially with regards to logistics for local e-commerce companies to aspire towards,” said Andy Higgins, the managing director of South African e-commerce platform uAfrica. “Having said that, I think often we look too much towards the developed world for inspiration and there are more lessons for us to learn from operators in other more emerging markets such as China, India, and Southeast Asia.”

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Taking the long-term view

Tabouré asks each of his employees to read The Everything Store, a 2013 book charting the rise of Amazon.com, within their first few months at the company. He considers Bezos’s focus on long-term strategy a crucial lesson for African entrepreneurs. “That is what remains the hardest to do in Africa,” Tabouré said. “When survival is the daily menu of most around you, a leader has to embody the gains of investing in the future, rather than just dealing with the present or being burdened by the past.”

Many e-commerce operations have taken comfort in the fact that Amazon famously ran up losses for its first 17 quarters as a public company and provided investors with a modest return for many years even after it turned profitable. It’s a path that Jumia, the so-called “Amazon of Africa,” is set on, Yomi Kazeem wrote in a profile of the company in November.

Amazon’s story normalized a now-common start-up experience of having to deal with increased losses and sustaining investor interest while ramping up, says Mark Mwangi, the CEO of Amitruck, a Kenyan peer-to-peer trucking service.

“It’s a similar picture at Amitruck and its part and parcel of investing in a business to get traction and growth,” he said.

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Thinking outside boxes and beyond borders

“Jeff Bezos’s legacy has shown that as business leaders we need to focus on building platform business models,” said Obi Ozor, the co-founder and CEO of Kobo360, an e-logistics platform connecting cargo owners and truck drivers that began in Nigeria and now operates in seven countries. “Businesses need to be able to scale and serve suppliers and customers on equal measure and on demand. African business leaders have to dare to look beyond the region and the continent, and think about dominating global markets. The blueprint is there.”

“On the whole Bezos has been an inspiration to all the founders I have met,” Mwangi said. “The wild success of Amazon in so many different areas has put a formula in many tech founders’s heads of how and what is possible.”

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Changing the game

African e-commerce leaders cited Amazon Web Services as a game changer for creating the digital infrastructure to support Africa’s booming startup fintech and e-commerce sectors. The company’s most profitable division has distinctly South African roots,

“AWS will probably be the most tangible impact [Bezos] has on the African tech scene, just in enabling start ups to get up and running,” Mwangi said.

The company’s focus on web services as a core business has also been inspiring. “Going from providing the world’s largest online marketplace to cloud computing and being a serious competitor to the likes of Microsoft’s [cloud computing service] Azure—who would have seen that coming?” Ozor said.

Ozor has little doubt that, even without Bezos at the helm, Amazon will continue to blaze trails upon which African businesses can confidently tread. “Jeff Bezos has been a master disruptor for almost three decades and has built a team of disruptors that can carry the baton and continue to lead from the front on a global scale,” he said. “This creates a culture of excellence and a culture where disruptors can innovate, time and time again.”