An e-commerce model tailored for low- and middle-income consumers in Kenya

Copia has a unique business model that focuses on the underserved mass market.

A woman walks into a hairdresser in Siaya, a town in western Kenya, about 400km from Nairobi. While having her hair done, she browses through a printed Copia catalogue of products ranging from bulk fertiliser to face cream and flat-screen TVs. She places an order for her monthly toiletries with the hairdresser and pays for everything, including her new hairstyle, at the end of her visit. Two days later, an SMS informs her she can collect her order from the hairdresser.

“What we bring is, in essence, the largest virtual supermarket in Kenya,” says Tim Steel, CEO of Copia. The company caters to lower- and middle-income customers in Kenya, and soon, Uganda. “We are a mobile commerce business, focusing on the consumer market that has traditionally been underserved,” says Steel.

Copia works through a network of over 30,000 third-party agents who all own a small business, like the hairdresser in Siaya. They recruit customers for Copia, advise them on products and inform them of promotions, and earn commission on each sale. They then receive the deliveries and act as collection points.

The company was founded in 2012 by Americans Tracey Turner and Jonathan Lewis. Turner had spent some time in Kenya in the mid-’90s before leaving to obtain a business degree. After starting a successful microfinance enterprise, she came back to Kenya with the aim to solve the pain points she had seen while living there.

Steel, who joined Copia in 2017 after almost two decades heading up various national and regional offices for logistics companies and courier TNT, says they spent the first few years fine-tuning the model. “Since 2018 we have been in a position to start scaling.”

Over the last three years, the company’s agent network has grown about fourfold.

“To retain its customers, Copia has to make sure that they trust the platform,” says Steel. In order to achieve this, the strategy to build strong processes first and focus on growth later proved valuable.

Steel believes most Western e-commerce businesses suffer from a trust deficit when launching on the African continent. “For Copia, working through agents not only assists with the logistics associated with deliveries, but it also associates them with a known and reliable person in the community. These agents include small businesses like tailors, hairdressers, even chemists, but also general traders who are likely to stock some of the products Copia offers. “This is another way in which agents benefit from partnering with Copia,” says Steel, “as it allows them to expand their product offering without having to invest any working capital.”

Meeting customers where they are

Copia’s product categories range from fashion, foodstuff, personal care, household items, electronics and beauty to automotive accessories such as tyres and car seats, and construction and farming supplies. Before Copia became an option, many Kenyans had to travel to a neighbouring town or even to the nearest city to purchase some of these items.

There are several ways to order from Copia and customers can choose which is most convenient for them, be it directly from the website, face-to-face with an agent, by phoning the customer care number, by sending a WhatsApp or via USSD. “Our customers can engage with Copia in pretty much any way. They can also pay by using mobile money or their credit card, or by paying cash with the agent. We put flexibility and choice absolutely at the heart of the way we engage with our customers, because that is how they want to engage with us,” says Steel.

Copia offers a wide variety of products, from fashion to electronics to farming equipment.

“There is at least one and possibly several Copia agents in a village or small town,” adds Steel. Copia signage and radio advertisements further help to make the public aware of the platform.

Cutting out the middleman

Steel says Copia enjoys good support from consumer goods manufacturers. Normally, their products would have to follow a series of steps in the supply chain: distributor, wholesaler, sub-wholesaler and retailer before finally reaching the customer. Because Copia cuts out these middlemen, manufacturers are given a more direct route to market.

The competitive pricing and free delivery Copia offers, is possible because it consolidates products from different manufacturers in one delivery vehicle, says Steel. “Copia is able to achieve economies of scale that are passed on to our customers in the form of great pricing and allows our model to generate profit as well as commissions for our agents.”

Delivering orders to the agents instead of directly to customers solves a problem often listed as one of the reasons e-commerce businesses struggle on the continent – physical addresses tend to be non-existent in many rural communities.

“I believe all logistics challenges can be overcome if you have the tenacity and belief that you can achieve it,” notes Steel.

Copia’s fulfilment centre in northern Nairobi is situated at the confluence of main arterial routes, which provides easy access to different regions. “We manage the facility and the processes in it ourselves. It is the only grade A warehouse facility in Nairobi thanks to its multiple dock doors, the height of the storage space and the security we put in place. All of this allows us to operate super efficiently,” says Steel.

Future plans

For now, Copia’s main focus is to grow and expand within Kenya. “There is something like 650,000 retail outlets across Kenya and for Copia to have a presence in most of them is very achievable and part of our ambition,” says Steel. The business in Uganda will become operational in April.

For now, there are no real competitors on the horizon, according to Steel. “There are a number of great e-commerce businesses, but their focus is on the urban, salaried consumer. Our focus is, and will always be, the underserved low- to middle-income consumer. We want to make sure our model works for them.”