Founder's Corner: Etang Egbe of Shopotte
Hello Etang, tell the readers about who you are!
I am native of Cameroon where i completed all my studies. After my schooling I worked in India for 7 years as a software engineer which allowed me to travel to 25 African countries. I came back home 2 years ago and started what is today Shoppote.
Can you describe shoppote for us and how it works?
Shoppote is a new solution that will provide digital consumers a way to do their shopping and connect them with offline small businesses. With shoppote, a consumer can locate a particular product and they can also get details on the product and learn about what is going on a particular store that sells that product. Then the user can go to the specific store and make a purchase. On the other side, it helps small informal business adapt to and attract the rapidly growing number of digital consumers which is increasing 25% year after year.
What is you inspiration for Shoppote?
The thinking that led me to entrepreneurship was Inspired by my experience working abroad and traveling in Asia and Africa; India has a population about that Africa and it faces similar development issues as most african countries with education, infrastructure and unemployment. I started thinking about why it is that African countries aren’t creating jobs like india. As an entrepreneur you have to break challenges down to their root in order to create fitting solutions. When i think about Cameroon, the highest employer is the small business, most of them in the informal market. Thus to create jobs, these businesses must be empowered to hire more. But they need to increase sales in order for this to happen. So i wanted to help position the informal market in a place where it would be able to grow. The growing number of digital consumers can fuel this growth. Finding out how to do drive this took a lot of learning and iterations. We set out to understand both sides of the market, first how digital consumers shop and what’s important to them but also what small businesses’ expectations were. I wanted to create an omnichannel way for small business to enter the trend.
What trends did you observe that inspired you to start Shoppote?
First, I observed that in Africa in general was the lack of competition. Working in India for a company that was developing software solutions for companies, there were many companies competing in the same space. In the rest of Asia the west, no matter the sector, there’s competition, Africa is the only market left that when compared to the rest of the world is almost untouched. Increasingly, large corporations from Asia, the Americas and Europe are waking to this and there is sort of 21st century scramble for Africa that’s taking root. Companies like facebook, google, microsoft, these tech giants are opening offices in Africa because they realize the potential that the continent holds within. It’s time we not only take part but lead. Africans have to be at the helm of this ship.
Secondly, the rate of internet penetration especially mobile internet in Africa has grown amazingly fast. Access to technology like the increased availability of cheap smartphones has contributed to the rapid pace of internet adoption and connection. The continuing drop in mobile and internet prices also drives consumers online and it is not slowing down anytime soon. This is creating millions of digital consumers.
On a micro level, After I returned home, I noticed a lot of sales groups being created on facebook. This showed a need for businesses to reach digital consumers. The problem with these groups is they were not organized and business owners did not know how to market, buy or leverage ads for example; and even if they invested in ad campaigns on facebook, the fact is that money would not be staying in cameroon.
With my experience abroad and what i know about ecommerce businesses, I understood that Africa has logistical issues that make traditional ecommerce not the best business model. In most African countries, there aren’t organized physical address systems enough for delivery of goods and services tied to ecommerce. Ecommerce does not provide the physical and personal touch and does not flow with african sales culture.
Lastly, The digital consumer is growing in Africa however the brick and mortar still rules. Penetration of internet came with a lot of good but also with a lot of bad which creates skepticism for african consumers and business owners. Thus they’re not confident to sell or buy online. Even if they wanted to, the majority of africans are unbanked which is a large hurddle. Small business owners don’t understand how ecommerce works nor the costs associated with it and though consumers are going digital, they aren’t ready to buy online. Shoppote bridges that gap by providing a hybrid of both.
In the absence of shoppote, what was the nature of the relationship between offline retailers and shoppers? How has shoppote changed that relationship?
In recent years that relationship has evolved as more retailers are adding ecommerce components and more consumers are going online to find products with search engines. shortcoming with e-commerce is that it gives you details about a products without locating it and search engines will show you where you can get a product but no details about the it or a detailed look into what’s going on in the store. However for the most part, this relationship has been traditional window shopping, where consumers go from shop to shop to barter and negotiate for the best price. The brick and mortar is still king in Africa, with all its kinks. Consumers also face challenges such as product availability. You may go to a shop that sells one type of phone today, next week the whole inventory has changed and the consumer is lost and does not know where to find the same phone they bought last week. We have changed this relationship by merging the two technologies of search engine and e-commerce. Consumers can learn about products, see where they are available and go in person like they have done in the past to purchase. This saves them a great amount of time.
What notable challenges have you encountered on this journey and how did you respond?
The first one I have to say is finding the right human capital. You have to teach not only consumers, business owners, but also your employees. Human capital development is the number one problem for entrepreneurs, not finance. How do you find the right people? When you can’t find them, you need to make them sometimes, train and teach them. I used to get upset at some of my staff when they came in late for example, but now when I am late I never hear the end of it which makes me happy.
Realizing that our Markets are childish was sobering. In Africa, you need to grow, and educate market as you build your product. It’s not just about creating a solution and selling it. In Africa, as an entrepreneur, you realize that before you get to that point, you may have to solve certain issues for the customer to put them in a position in which they can use and benefit from your product. For example, when we started approaching small businesses to sign them up for Shoppote, we realized that they did not have organized inventory systems. Rather they wrote down everything on paper. We went back to the drawing board and created a minimalized inventory application that allows business owner to organize and list their inventory, give details about them, run promotions and set prices. However we quickly learned that business owners were more interested in how they can get clients instead of organizing their inventory. This prompted us to change our pitch to make them see how using our app and listing their products will make them easier to find to digital consumers who will come in and buy from them. We also offered a 3 month freemium to the first hundred businesses as an incentive to join.
Finance has somewhat been an issue in the sense that there’s not great access to investment. VCs and Angel investors aren’t an omnipresence in Cameroon. However i do not consider it a major issue because investment is all about figures. Once you have paying customers, the right figures, then it does not become issue. Most african startups don’t produce figures and that may be the challenge to getting investment. We’re now starting to get there as a company because we are increasing the number of paying customers. The interest we’ve had however has come from outside of Cameroon, either foreign or from the diaspora. Localites don’t invest in tech which they consider risky as they don’t know it. Rather they invest in the agricultural sector or transportation.
Is your target market limited to cameroon? What challenges do you have reaching your target?
Our long term strategy is international. But now Cameroon is our focus because Cameroon is both francophone and anglophone. If i make it here it’ll be easier for us to break into other countries. With that vision in mind we’re planning on taking advantage of a huge opportunity that is coming to Cameroon. The African cup of nations, Africa’s biggest sports competition is happening in cameroon in 2019 and those attending from other countries will need our solution. We plan on delivering on their needs and when we put our african expansion plan in motion, we will already have people in other african countries who know of shoppote. This could make penetration easier.
What is the vision for shoppote and what does the future look like for your company?
Our vision is simple and it will not change. We want to link small businesses and digital consumers. We want to be a one stop shop for buyers to discover and prebook products and allow small businesses to nurture ongoing activity that keeps consumers hooked and local. The Informal sector is the driving force of African economies so the future of shoppote is to structure that informal sector to make it more dynamic, adaptive and prepared for when africa is ready for full blown e-commerce. When this time comes, for brick mortar businesses will face increased competition. Thus developing minimalistic and adaptive training and tools for these business owners is imperative.
As an African entrepreneur, reflecting on your work and its impact, what role do you think entrepreneurship can play in motivating young africans to create solutions for Africa?
I completed my education in Cameroon and I can tell you that after school, many youths lack orientation. They expect a car, comfortable air conditioned office. They have this idea that the moment you have a degree you’re entitled to a job but then reality hits and they're lost. With entrepreneurship, they have choices and a different way of thinking. They’re fascinated with how much impact they can make in their own lives but also in the communities around them. It’s about looking at your immediate environment and see how you can improve it, improve what is happening. That is the door that entrepreneurship can unlock. It will be a tremendous tool at the hands of so many smart and talented young Africans. My biggest achievement is that i have provided employment to 13 people and by 2025, we want to help 2 to 3 thousand small businesses employ one to two people each.
Any advice to aspiring entrepreneurs?
I will say to any young person thinking about starting a company, learn to know who to hire and when to hire them to avoid large and expensive mistakes. I made that mistake and thankfully not for too long. I originally Started with 7 people who were all sales people. I thought that’s what i needed but now, out of my 13 employees, only 2 are sales people.