Mall for Africa: How did one man satisfy the shopping needs of an entire continent?

Delivered by DHL

Chris Folayan was already a hugely successful technology and marketing entrepreneur when he had an idea that changed the way the world can export to Africa. Before he launched Mall for Africa, many e-commerce sites couldn’t (or wouldn’t) deliver to sub-Saharan Africa. Then Chris had a moment of clarity.

“Every time I went back home, people kept asking me to bring stuff, over and over again. They said ‘go to Carters’, ‘go to CottonOn’, ‘go here and there’ – running me around from mall to mall and store to store. They were sending me on errands and my luggage got out of control.” Chris saw a problem. And, being an entrepreneurially minded sort of person, he came up with a solution and business idea. One that has made him a huge success in Africa: “There was definitely a need. I said, ‘You know what? I can fix this. I can create a process, where items can be shipped to me and the end user can do everything they need, from selecting the item to paying for the item with local currency on an app.’”

To make things happen, he had to do it himself: “I develop software, so driving back home from the airport with my 10 suitcases after being rejected from my Delta flight for having too much excess luggage, I started structuring the foundation of the software in my head, got home, started writing code for it and within two weeks I had sent the very first version of our platform to friends and family to test. And it worked.”

From a few lines of code to a long line of customers, a continent’s need was met: “The rest is history. We’ve advanced the code and platform ever since… We started with five online stores and now we’re at about 260. About 80% of what we ship is clothes and accessories: watches, handbags, purses, shoes, socks. The rest is about 10% small electronics and 10% miscellaneous items.”

From a one man band to global brand

Chris, like all successful entrepreneurs, has total belief in his business. Belief that inspires years of complete devotion: “I was customer service, sales, IT, support, brand ambassador, marketer, everything. The first true, non-friend or family order came several weeks after the launch it was for a short wave radio and I was on cloud nine, and the second order came in about four days after that. So it was a super slow start and I personally backed and drove the items out for shipping, but now we get more than an order a minute. Five years later, that first customer is still around, still uses the platform and is a regular customer.”

Thinking big? Then find a market to disrupt

“We consider ourselves big disruptors because we enable US and UK retailers with websites to sell into Africa within 24 hours using our patented process and code. There’s nothing technical retailers need to do to turn on our platform. We do everything. If you want to start shipping into Africa, we will tell you what our terms are, and by the time you wake up, you’ll have access to the African market. We don’t need to talk to your IT team. We don’t need anything technical related done by retail merchant online stores to get them hooked on our platform. We are able to plug in your site and get you rocking and rolling on our platform within 24 hours, and nobody else can do that. It’s something we’re very proud of and why so many US and UK retailers love working with us.”

Keep testing. Keep improving

Although it sounds like Chris’ big idea was an instant win, the reality is very different. Success only came after a great deal of hard work, mistakes, and revisions. “We didn’t get it right the first time. I stopped counting [software] revisions after about 55. Technology advances in the software space pretty much every two months, so the app of today maybe uses 2% of the code that I started off with in version one. It’s definitely a different app now. We’ve enhanced it. We’ve improved security. We’ve improved the UI, the UX, the speed, even the core platform itself. You can never be complacent when it comes to technology and adapting to the ever-changing environment.”

A big e-commerce idea needs its own software and evolves all the time. There are advantages to creating your own platform: “No one else can replicate what we’ve done. We’ve built everything from scratch. We’ve created our own code logic and code base, so nobody else can build anything like ours on the planet. Plus our patent doesn’t hurt either. We can re-skin it to do other things, which we’re looking at. As a company, we’re trying to see in what other industries our [proprietary] core code base can be used, like banking institutions, mobile operators and payment platforms.”

Today, Africa. Tomorrow, the world

Chris didn’t just stop with Africa as he expanded. He saw other countries outside the African continent as a viable market. So he said, “Let’s think big: Mall for the World! Let’s open up the world to true e-commerce. Selling products from one country to another, across borders without any friction whatsoever, so that payments, delivery, customer service and everything in between are streamlined and made efficient, cheap, and accessible. And that’s truly what we want to bring across the world. I want a world where people in the US, for example, are not afraid to sell to somebody, wherever they may be – we want to take away that fear of selling to the unknown person in a foreign country. So we’re looking at this in a global way, mostly for emerging markets because that’s really where the needs are. So we’ve partnered with DHL on a global scale, not just sub-Saharan Africa, to sell into over 100 countries with DHL as our partner. We’re looking at the partnership with DHL to open the doors to e-commerce and the world.”