Over the years, African leaders have set up numerous trading blocs to pursue regional integration and increase trade, but intra-regional commerce has remained stubbornly low, ranging between 10% and 12% of Africa’s total trade since 2010.
Into this picture comes Esaja.com, a business-to-business start-up that has created a marketplace which connects companies across the continent.
Esaja – which stands for Empowering Solutions And Joint Action – provides information on businesses spread across the continent, while creating relationships between enterprises and buyers. The platform leverages on technology to bridge borders and create a truly African marketplace for goods and services, particularly for small businesses.
The platform has 60,000 company listings, all African and doing business on the continent. Almost all of the companies are in the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA) trade zone.
“There is a lot of rhetoric around the need for increase intra-African trade, but there isn’t enough information exchanged between African countries and even opportunities to trade, despite the numerous trade agreements,” says Esaja founder, Zimbabwean entrepreneur Clinton Mutambo.
After launching in May 2013, it took a while for the platform to take off.
“For over a year we barely had 100 companies and that was primarily in Zimbabwe. But we have really subsequently grown and have expanded across the region. We are pushing the platform and our core focus is at the trade corridors that are existent in Africa and how we can grow them,” says Mutambo.
The growth of the platform in the COMESA region was as a result of understanding the common trade aspirations of the countries in the trading bloc.
“We started by looking at natural and existing trade corridors as having an existing relationship and some rules that could facilitate trade between the countries. The existence of the corridor also means that there is political will, yet somehow the commercial integration is not happening as fast enough,” says Mutambo.
“We travelled to most countries in the region, talking to the companies to understand their specific needs. We got lots of feedback from various markets. We travelled by road too mostly, and we have often crossed border posts across some of these countries at odd hours. On one occasion I crossed the border between Uganda and Kenya at Busia at 2am just to understand the challenges businesses faced. But, it was worth it if we were going to build a platform that spoke to the aspirations of the businesses we were trying to convince to be part of the marketplace.”
Esaja’s potential has long been recognised. In 2015 it was named among the Kairos 50 global start-ups for 2014/15 while Forbes Africa named Mutambo one of Africa’s top 30 entrepreneurs under 30 years.
It has attracted investment from South Africa-based CRE Venture Capital, formerly Africa Angels Network, and Swastika Company, an investment firm headquartered in Hong Kong.
“The Swastika investment is interesting in that we are their first investment outside their primary focus of India,” says Mutambo.
“Their backing has allowed us to then formalise our structures and also to expand our presence. So far we have 12 offices across the continent and have partners in almost all countries in COMESA.”
To push its growth in East Africa, the company has set up a subsidiary in Kigali, Rwanda.
It is a far-cry from the humble beginnings and scrounging for funding. Zimbabwe was and still is struggling to emerge from a deep recession that abated briefly between 2009 and 2012 under a unity government.
The economy is in the throes of crippling currency shortage and its once bustling factories are now rusty shells. Its mines are reeling from the fall in commodity prices and unemployment is estimated at 85%.
“For a long time, I tried to start this venture but it was not happening from a resource point of view. I had no money. So I started working, organising events around the technology issues and saving the money that I could make out of those. It was hard because I was operating in possibly the most challenging economy in the region in recent times. Eventually friends and family came in to help after I worked for over two years and saving up,” says Mutambo.
“As a 26-year-old, I understand and see on a daily basis the unemployment challenges that exist. But this continent has potential, we just have to channel it the right way. Africa has a massive youth bulge and they need jobs. Trade is key.”