Building a company not a Unicorn

What African B2C eCommerce Startups Should Learn from Copia

By  |  November 21, 2023

When discussing Africa, people often say, "Africa is not a country" and "Silicon Valley models don't work here". However, very few startups actually consider these statements.

As e-commerce gained popularity around the world, African markets struggled to keep up due to a lack of proper postal addresses and other infrastructural deficits. While startups in other parts of the world became unicorns by aggregating products and enabling e-commerce on their platforms, the African market had to overcome the additional hurdle of online payments.

Jumia was a pioneer in the African consumer-facing e-commerce market when it entered in 2012, specifically in Nigeria, which is the most populous country in Africa. It is worth noting that Jumia entered the African e-commerce space with deep pockets. Even after a decade of operation in Africa, achieving profitability remains a challenge for the platform. However, this is not surprising as most e-commerce companies face a similar challenge. It takes time for any e-commerce startup to become profitable; this process may take longer in Africa due to the still-developing supporting systems.

A startup was launched in Kenya in 2013 with the goal of serving the lower-income group in the East African market. It was evident to them from the beginning that the 'Silicon Valley' model of e-commerce was not part of their strategy.

Copia was founded by Tracey Turner and Jonathan Lewis, who had exposure to all the key factors needed to build a mass business-to-consumer (B2C) e-commerce platform for Africa. They understood the market considerably since Tracey had worked in Kenya in the 90s. On the other hand, Jonathan had the idea of household product cataloguing for emerging markets. This gave birth to what we know today as Copia (meaning abundance in Latin).

Copia's agent model has always intrigued me since their Series B round. I have been following Copia's story regularly as this, in my opinion, is closest to being an African B2C e-commerce model. So, I met Tim Steel, who has been the CEO of Copia since 2017, to understand what Copia is doing differently.

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