Africa’s Delivery On Demand Apps are Transforming the Informal Economy

When women in rural Rwanda can buy sanitary napkins and contraceptives, on demand, simply by pushing a few buttons on their phones, you know the digital informal economy is here to stay. And, its not just imported apps and social enterprises pushing this digital commercial activity. The “uberization” of the African informal economy is well underway across the entire continent, inspired in part by the visible success of the now ubiquitous ride hailing apps.

The concept of using your phone to access a product or service, on demand, has taken root as a viable and feasible business model for startups from Angola to Ghana to Nigeria, and Rwanda, of course. And, its spreading beyond the usual suspects to yet-to-be recognized nations like Somaliland as well as it’s far less stable neighbour, Somalia. The impact of this will be felt long after Uber itself has lived or died, as the case may be.

For the vast majority of the workforce in the informal sector, this approach to business development increases their reach and customer base, with net positive impact on their income streams and cash flows. You don’t have to sit and wait passively for a customer to show up if she or he can ping you for an order on your phone. Your discoverability has been exponentially boosted by technology.

Its far to early to gauge the impact on the entire informal economy’s productivity, but certain sectors are already evidencing the effects:

  1. Transportation – of people, of vegetables, of cargo – you name it, you can now find an app to transport it. Startups are responding to the wide variety of local needs in addition to launching Uber clones in their local metros and regions.
  2. Services – grocery shopping, laundry, housecleaning, plumbers, electricians, artisans et al – all of these are coming online, albeit unevenly across segments and geographies depending on the individual startups and their capabilities.
  3. Goods – From consumer products to fresh produce, live goats to tractors for rent; the low costs and barriers to entry of an app that collates and coordinates demand and supply is an easy win for entrepreneurs who can work out the kinks in their operations.

In addition to what the apps can deliver to your doorstep, this “uberization” of the informal economy is also transforming mindsets and behaviour, of both the buyer and the supplier. There are two approaches to leveraging technology to boost your business – doing it yourself via social media platforms, thus building your brand; and downloading an app that takes care of promotion and discoverability for you.

Each has its pros and cons, but from our earliest discoveries whilst conducting user research among social commerce merchants and customers in Kenya, we can see the differences emerge between traditional traders in the informal marketplace, and the tech savvy traders straddling the virtual and the real. Long established business development strategies that worked in the cash intensive informal economic ecosystem are being forced to transform in response to these tech enabled ‘interventions’- whether to the benefit of all is also too early to tell. But if the patterns of mobile phone adoption are any indication, there’s a tsunami of change underway.

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