Zambia: Why this entrepreneur is targeting the building materials industry

Chisepo Chirwa

Interview with Chisepo Chirwa

Lives in: Lusaka, Zambia

Chisepo Chirwa is the co-founder and CEO of Bosso, an e-commerce platform for building materials in Zambia. Established in 2022, the company recently secured $400,000 in pre-seed funding from investors, including Launch Africa Ventures and Renew Capital. We asked Chirwa about his entrepreneurial journey and why he sees potential in the construction sector.

Not new to business

Bosso is not Chirwa’s first business.

His previous venture was ZPOS, an inventory management system for informal retailers. He started it in response to the challenges his mother faced in running her grocery and fabric stores, from theft to bookkeeping inefficiencies.

The company signed up over 2,000 businesses before Chirwa exited after six years. He notes that his ZPOS co-founder is now the CEO and continues to drive the company.

The thinking behind Bosso

The idea for Bosso came to Chirwa after he learned about the housing crisis in Zambia. Due to urbanisation, there is a significant shortage of affordable housing, which has led to the proliferation of informal settlements. (Read more: Zambia real estate – Five trends and opportunities unveiled)

“I started thinking about how we can use technology to solve some of these issues around housing,” Chirwa explains. “I was chatting with my friend, who’s my co-founder at this company, Salwa. He built a couple of houses here in Zambia when he came back from the United States … It culminated in me getting up and saying, ‘Let me start with the supply chain for building materials so that the individual home builders that buy from those small hardware stores can buy at better prices’.”

Chirwa points out that access to affordable and quality building materials is particularly lacking in rural areas.

The company generates revenue through three channels: product markups, delivery fees, and its FlexiPay credit solution.

Bosso Flexipay was launched in response to the financial constraints many of its customers face in acquiring building materials. Once the initial payment is made to reserve the products, customers complete the remaining payments as per the agreed schedule, after which the materials are delivered. “One of the things that discourages people from even starting is the sheer cost of building altogether. But if you can break it down into small payments, I think it starts becoming conceivable for them to undertake such projects,” Chirwa says.

From offline to online

When Bosso started, the business wasn’t even online. Chirwa followed Y Combinator’s ‘do things that don’t scale’ approach, which encourages startups to perform tasks manually to gain a deep understanding of their customers’ needs and get their ventures off the ground. Starting with offline operations and direct customer interactions, Bosso built trust and understood their needs, and then built technology on top of that.

As Bosso gained the trust of its customers, they began placing orders through phone calls and WhatsApp messages. The company then transitioned these customers to buy online. “I think it is about walking with your customers … We helped move our customers from not trusting us at all to buying from us over the phone and now we’re successfully moving them from buying over the phone to buying on the platform,” Chirwa says.

Zambia as a blueprint

Some international investors have been hesitant to back Bosso because they deemed Zambia’s market too small. The country has a population of about 21 million. However, Chirwa believes that Zambia’s market dynamics are representative of the majority of African countries, which are more similar to Zambia than to the continent’s ‘big four’ markets — Kenya, South Africa, Egypt, and Nigeria. “Most of Africa is actually like Zambia. So you want to solve for Zambia and then quickly replicate that in other small markets similar to Zambia,” he says.