Will Direct Access to China-made Goods Disrupt Trade in West Africa’s Consumer Market?

jmsamallThe first e-commerce platform for direct trade of China made products has just been launched in the West African country of Togo. Squeezed together with the Benin Republic between the larger, and better known countries of Nigeria and Ghana, Togo is a small francophone country of around 7 million people. Per the article:

“We want to be the pioneer of e-commerce in Togo and to capitalize on the strong multifaceted cooperation between China and Togo, a premier trade hub country in West Africa”, Yuan Li, founder of JMSA-MALL, told Xinhua Friday in Lomé.

“We are promoting a direct trade of genuine Chinese products with fair price between the African customers and the sellers in China,” he explained.

From electronic devices to farm machines, the platform offers a wide range of Chinese products, which are sold in Togo as well as other countries like Benin, Niger, Ghana and Burkina Faso in the region.

All major credit cards are accepted for payment as well as the local mobile money payment system – Flooz. There’s a generous return policy, and shipments arrive at a local brick and mortar shopfront for pickup and returns. That is, if the item ordered isn’t already available in stock at their local warehouse. Furthermore, JMSA-MALL offers local SMEs an opportunity to sell their wares through their platform. On the surface, this looks good – by cutting out the middleman, they can offer lower prices.

Yacine Bio-Tchane, our Beninois colleague also has a footprint in Lome, Togo. She and I discussed the potential impact of this launch in the local context, as well the broader implications in general. Here are some thoughts:

Will this ‘Direct to Consumer’ (DTC) platform have impact on local traders who travel to China for goods?

Yacine made the observation that since the platform sells everything from electronic devices to farm machines, if some pricey and heavy items are not readily available in Togo but for which there is a demand can be bought online, users will take advantage of that opportunity. Going to China, identifying the right product at a good price and shipping it back to Togo is timely and costly (1). The e-commerce platform significantly reduces transaction costs, which makes it very interesting for local buyers.

Chinese products are known to be cheaper (in price and sometimes quality) than other products so they are highly competitive and accessible to many Togolese, especially given the low purchasing power. If, instead of going to the market and walking around in search of those products, anyone can buy it online, people will prefer doing so. However, while Togo has 67% penetration of mobile phones, less than 10% of the population has access to internet. This implies that few consumers have access to the ecommerce solution but it could trigger an increased use of internet from traders interested in China made goods. Although the article doesn’t say who the top buyers are (nationality), it would not be surprising to see that increase in demand is being pulled by Ghana.

Direct trade of China made goods

On the other hand, given the costs, time, and hassles of going to China to source and ship products back home for sale, this platform might be attractive to local traders themselves, both in Togo, and regionally. As Yacine observes, demand might not be from Togo itself but rather the neighbouring countries. As the founder of the platform says himself, Togo is a critical trade hub in West Africa for China.

China has increased trade and diplomatic relations with Togo in the past decade. It is even said that China has become the first financial partner to the country. Chinese companies operate in industries, agriculture, commerce and construction. They create employment and compete with local companies in selling certain products such as fabrics.

The fact that this e-commerce platform is a B2C marketplace backed by a local warehouse full of China made goods is a signal of this investment. For Yacine, the strongest message the launch of this platform has sent is that the Chinese are fully settled in Togo. That kind of long term investment, coupled with their increased investments in industries is a game changer. China is no more a simple partner coming in for projects but has now become an important actor with influence on consumer behaviour. This is a big pivot in its brand.

west_africa_2_storyGeographically, Togo is well positioned to easily access both anglophone and francophone West Africa. E-commerce has been taking off exponentially in the giant market of Nigeria, but has yet to gain traction in other neighbouring countries. Ivory Coast has seen some gains, but it’s in an early stage. Traditionally, the Chinese have waited for markets to mature before flooding it with their lower priced variations – the mobile phone market is one such example. The launch of this platfrom seems rather early from the e-commerce (and mobile payments) perspective but not from the point of view of global trade and market forces.

China’s manufacturing industries are feeling the pinch of shrinking global trade, and the problems of over capacity. The domestic market has been one major focus for development; this initiative seems like an attempt at creating another. Consumer goods trade between Africa and China has not entirely been under the radar – both African and Chinese airlines were the first to respond to demand. Further, there are other changes afoot that directly impact West Africa, as this recent article from CNN shows:

Over the past 18 months, although concrete numbers are hard to come by, hundreds — perhaps even thousands — of Africans are believed by locals and researchers to have exited Guangzhou.

A dollar drought in oil-dependent West African nations, coupled with China’s hostile immigration policies, widespread racism, and at-once slowing and maturing economy, means Guangzhou is losing its competitive edge. […] As China becomes less profitable, many Africans feel the downsides of living there more acutely.

If the mountain cannot support Mahomet, could it cut costs by building warehouses fronted by online marketplaces? Warehouse centres for China made goods are not new to the African continent, southern Africa has quite a few, while Tanzania’s China funded logistics hub has just been flagged off. The JMALL founder’s opening statement positions Togo as another such ‘trade hub’ in West Africa. Is this e-commerce platform a pilot to test regional B2C marketing cost effectively?

Chinese e-commerce giants like Alibaba have shown the way with their agent led efforts to open up the challenging rural markets of the mainland’s hinterlands. It’s only a matter of time before a different kind of intermediary springs up in Togo (and elsewhere) offering similar agent services to facilitate trade. This time, however, it’ll be from the comfort of their home countries, as they assist traders and consumers with online purchases. Taken together with ongoing investments in mobile money payment systems, financial inclusion initiatives, and the utilization of the agency model – China seems to have grasped an excellent opportunity space to begin exploring.

 

(1) Here’s a documentary following a Congolese trader during her shopping spree in Guangzhou, China, looking to fill her container with tradeable goods. It offers us insight on her customer experience.

This article has been translated into the French by Yacine Bio-Tchané

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