ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast — She had eight hours, 32 packages to deliver and no addresses.
So, the woman on the front lines of Africa’s burgeoning e-commerce industry stayed on the phone, listening to directions: Look for the ice-cream cart.
Viviane Lakpa’s job was to find the customers — even if they were nowhere near the ice-cream cart — and stay polite, even when they demanded to open an order before handing her money.
Few people in her West African city of 4.4 million have numbers on their houses. Credit cards are rare. So is trust in online shopping.
“You have to have patience,” Lakpa said in her blue Mazda van crammed with microwaves, printers, shoe racks and soap. “Lots of patience.”
Internet users in Africa now outnumber America’s population by some estimates, but reaching that exploding market is among the continent’s most pressing business challenges. Hopes of leaping into the world of same-day delivery are colliding with the lack of street signs, dominance of cash, threat of robbery and fear of knockoffs.
Labyrinths of red tape, meanwhile, stall packages at the borders, making it easier for someone in Ivory Coast to buy something from Germany than neighboring Ghana.
Today only 1% of goods sold in Africa are purchased on a screen, but if that share swells to 10% — closer to U.S. and European levels — McKinsey analysts forecast annual sales will hit $75 billion, unleashing an economic boom and a new age of convenience on the continent.
Lakpa, 39, wants to make convenience her career.
She’s one of thousands in the region who deliver goods by car, truck and motorcycle for Jumia, Africa’s biggest web retailer with approximately 4 million users.
The fleet fluctuates with demand. Jumia enlists local firms to manage delivery staffers on contract in 14 countries. Pay, benefits and schedules vary.
Lakpa was on a two-week run that would net her 60,000 West African CFA francs, or about $100 — a step up from selling ginger juice out of her home.
She likes the revolving door of problems to solve. The go, go, go. Being a mom of four, she said, gave her the necessary skills.
“You have to communicate and be creative,” she said on a recent route.
She’d never considered buying stuff online when two French entrepreneurs founded Jumia seven years ago in Nigeria. She’d walk to markets in her neighborhood — or, on special occasions, ask someone to bring her something from somewhere.
“This is the future,” she said.
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Jumia became the first startup from the continent to list on Wall Street this year, prompting pundits to dub it “the Amazon of Africa.” Reporters deemed the event “historic.” The firm’s stock shot up. Critics noted that a digital marketplace steered by Europeans shouldn’t be called African.
Both potential and struggle manifested in Jumia’s first earnings report as a public company. Sales jumped by 58% over the last quarter to $268 million, executives reported in May, but losses deepened to nearly $51 million from $38 million.
Lakpa lives some of those losses.
She works in a team of two with a former taxi driver, 37-year-old Anzoumana Gbane. He sits behind the wheel while she talks to customers, trying to figure out where they are and what time they can meet.
“Hello,” she says again and again on a recent summer morning. “This is Jumia.”
One customer no longer wants her soap. (“Are you sure?”)
One man doesn’t recall placing an order. (“I have that you wanted this for Tuesday.”)
Another woman won’t answer her phone.
All in the span of 10 minutes.
Service cuts in and out. “Hello?” Lakpa says as they bump from a paved road to a dirt path. “Hello? I can’t understand you.”
People normally tell her to meet near a landmark — pharmacies, hotels, banks, schools.
They start the day at a college campus and wait six minutes for a student who bought a printer to meet them.
They park next in front of a hair salon and wait seven to sell a phone.
They park next on a patch of gravel to drop off a lighter. No one comes. The phone rings. The customer is actually a half-mile down the street. They pull up. There he is.
Cash is king in Ivory Coast and most other African nations. No sale is complete until money changes hands.
Sometimes, this leads Lakpa inside a customer’s house or workplace. She follows a lawyer into his gray office and watches him open a cardboard box.
No one speaks as he pulls out an electric kettle. His assistant rushes over, fills it up with water and plugs it into the wall.
“I want to confirm that it works,” the lawyer says.
Lakpa keeps an eye on the clock.
Jumia’s warehouse in the industrial Koumassi suburb has steel gates, concrete walls and a line of workers waiting outside just after sunrise.
They’ve come to sort packages, load cars, grab a new list of phone numbers and zip into the city, where they complete as many as 30,000 daily orders.
Half of Jumia’s packages in Africa go to pickup centers. It’s easier for rural folks, who sometimes lack reliable phones, to grab their goods from a physical location.
The other half is carried off by the contract workers. Many grew up in these neighborhoods.
“You can never replace the local knowledge, the local interaction,” chief executive Sacha Poignonnec said. “It’s about the details.”
The details separate good staffers from lousy ones, said Martial Ohoukou, who supervises the Ivory Coast delivery team. Some days, that’s 100 people. Some days, 250. (Jumia won’t disclose the exact continentwide number.)
Yes, they start as contractors, agents of the global gig economy. There are upsides (flexibility, good pay in a country where the average person annually makes $1,692) and downsides (irregular work, fear of messing up and never hearing from your boss again).
America’s Amazon Flex and China’s Alibaba follow similar labor models for what analysts call the last mile. But the work is much harder here. No one can rely on GPS. (Amazon Chief Executive Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
“You have to be more than a common driver to advance at this company,” Ohoukou said. “You have to know the products. You shouldn’t be calling your supervisor all the time and asking, ‘What should I do?'”
Those with tenacity can move up, he said. Salaried employees tend to work in management, marketing and human resources.
“My night manager started as a simple delivery agent,” he said. “You can double your pay after two years or so.”
The pressure stays on for Lakpa.
It’s midday. Traffic clogs seemingly every road. She hasn’t taken a bathroom break.
The delivery partners must finish by 4 p.m. for security reasons. A Jumia driver was robbed and killed two years ago in Nigeria while toting iPhones.
They roll down the windows on the way to the next destination, a downtown marketing firm, and breathe the usual smog.
The place is called Zen Communications. Relief: It’s just off the highway. Easy to find.
They slide into a parking spot. Gbane stays in the van. Lakpa grabs an orange bag with the Jumia logo. Up the stairs she goes to an office with no windows.
An IT manager in a Hawaiian shirt greets her. He’s not smiling.
Before they can discuss today’s order, he wants to raise a grievance.
“I’ve been waiting for a receipt for a printer since April,” he said. “I can’t do my expenses without it.”
Lakpa nods. She understands. She’ll tell someone.
The man doesn’t seem to believe her. He repeats himself. He really needs to do his expenses.
Then he reaches for her bag and pulls out printer cartridges.
His eyes widen.
He’d ordered black ink.
Lakpa stays calm. She’s sorry about that. She’ll get him the right color.
“This ride has been harder than usual,” she says, walking outside. Three hours have passed, and she has delivered only three packages.
Gbane starts the engine without a word.
They’d go on to deliver 16 of the 32 orders. Worry would grip Lakpa’s gut. She was scheduled to work the rest of the week.