Côte d’Ivoire: Investors need to keep a cool head, says e-commerce boss

Francis Dufay, managing director of e-commerce company Jumia in Côte d’Ivoire

Francis Dufay, managing director of e-commerce company Jumia in Côte d’Ivoire

After decades of debilitating political instability, Côte d’Ivoire is now the fastest-growing economy in Africa, with the International Monetary Fund projecting an 8.5% rise in GDP in 2016. For the last two years, French-national Francis Dufay has been managing e-commerce platform Jumia in Côte d’Ivoire.

Dufay speaks to How we made it in Africa about the business opportunities in the country, the state of the e-commerce industry, and why investors entering Côte d’Ivoire need to be pragmatic.

Give us a general overview of the e-commerce industry in Côte d’Ivoire.

I would say it is very limited beyond Jumia. We were the first to start and then a few small players began to emerge around us. I think today they make about five to 10% of our sales. So we see small initiatives around. Some are owned locally and lack funding, while some are funded by big companies or international companies, but often they have business models that limit their potential. So we don’t have real competition.

What explains this state of the industry?

There are many factors at play here. First of all, this is not a huge market. Côte d’Ivoire has only 22 million people and not many people have the purchasing power to buy a TV or a smartphone. So the cake is not so big for many e-commerce players, especially because this business requires scale to cover for huge costs and fixed assets.

Secondly, Jumia started very early in this market and became big early, which kind of reduced the opportunity for other players.

Thirdly, this is a challenging market – from payments to logistics. So it is not easy to grow and become really big in e-commerce in Côte d’Ivoire.

What about the overall tech start-up ecosystem?

The landscape is changing. There are lots of young entrepreneurs who want to do something in technology. Unfortunately, there is not enough funding to support those initiatives. Consumers are quite happy to experiment with new technologies. People are increasingly ordering food online, ordering transportation… but there is still a barrier in internet access. Internet remains very expensive, in fact most of our customers make orders from the office because they have access to the internet there. We still do not have enough people ordering smartphones and overall not enough users of mobile data in Côte d’Ivoire.

Tell us more about the buying behaviour of your users.

We have a diverse offering with different categories. But we have very significant sales that come from home appliances, TVs, computing and fashion in general. Our average basket size varies between EUR75-100 (USD83-111).

Home appliances is quite big for us here. I think it is because we work with the best importers, distributors and brands in this category, so as a consequence we are competitive in the market and we offer good prices. Secondly, we have very good sales of home appliances in emerging cities outside of Abidjan (the economic capital and most populous city) where the offering tends to be poor. We take care of the logistics, which is also a very expensive part of the supply chain if you do it yourself. If people in those cities buy from us the transportation to their home city is cheaper. Our prices are also cheaper than what is offered in the shops in those cities. These shops operate in an almost monopolistic way and they have never felt the need to adjust prices, so they can milk the market with high margins. So we are bringing competition to the other cities outside Abidjan, such as Yamoussoukro, Bouaké and San-Pédro.

Where do you see investment opportunities in Côte d’Ivoire?

First, if you look at the macro trends, Côte d’Ivoire is doing very well. Governance is okay, GDP growth is pretty good at around 8% per year, infrastructure is improving and everything is going in the right direction.

When we look at sectors, I would say retail is a big opportunity but it is starting to get crowded. There are a lot of new shops, supermarkets and malls opening in Abidjan. I think the retail [infrastructure] is growing faster than purchasing power. But this is the case in Abidjan – the market in other cities is not sufficient to sustain a mall, for instance.

You have other less flashy sectors that are doing great such as agriculture, real estate and construction, which is very hot at the moment, and mining. There are also huge gaps in energy, education and infrastructure, where not much was done for years due to political turmoil.

What advice would you give foreign investors eyeing Côte d’Ivoire?

At the moment in Côte d’Ivoire everything looks bright and shiny. Côte d’Ivoire is the one great market in the French-speaking African region at the moment. There are lots of business opportunities but investors should not get overexcited. The market is extremely promising but don’t go crazy. Investors need to keep a cool head. You have to remain realistic and pragmatic.

Why do you say so?

I would not have said that one year ago. But in one year the quantity of new companies and investors that have come into the country is very impressive, which is great for the country. But not all of them will make money out of it. There will be losers and winners, and any investor who comes into the country needs to keep that in mind.