ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast - She had eight hours, 32 packages to deliver and no addresses.
So, the woman on the front lines of Africa’s burgeoning e-commerce industry stayed on the phone, listening to directions: Look for the ice cream cart.
Viviane Lakpa’s job was to find the customers - even if they were nowhere near the ice cream cart - and stay polite, even when they demanded to open an order before handing her money.
Few people in her West African city of 4.4 million have numbers on their houses. Credit cards are rare. So is trust in online shopping.
“You have to have patience,” Lakpa said in her blue Mazda van crammed with microwaves, printers, shoe racks and soap. “Lots of patience.”
Internet users in Africa now outnumber America’s population by some estimates, but reaching that exploding market is among the continent’s most pressing business challenges. Hopes of leaping into the world of same-day delivery are colliding with the lack of street signs, dominance of cash, threat of robbery and fear of knockoffs.
Labyrinths of red tape, meanwhile, stall packages at the borders, making it easier for someone in Ivory Coast to buy something from Germany than neighboring Ghana.
Today only 1% of goods sold in Africa are purchased on a screen, but if that share swells to 10% - closer to U.S. and European levels - McKinsey analysts forecast annual sales will hit $75 billion, unleashing an economic boom and a new age of convenience on the continent.
Lakpa, 39, wants to make convenience her career.
She’s one of thousands in the region who deliver goods by car, truck and motorcycle for Jumia, Africa’s biggest web retailer with approximately 4 million users. Jumia was funded by two French entreprenuers seven years ago in Nigeria. Jumia became the first start-up from the continent to list on Wall Street this year, prompting pundits to dub it “the Amazon of Africa.” Reporters deemed the event “historic.” The firm’s stock shot up.
Jumia enlists local firms to manage delivery staffers on contract in 14 countries. Pay, benefits and schedules vary.
NO ONE CAN RELY ON GPS She works in a team of two with a former taxi driver, 37-year-old Anzoumana Gbane. He sits behind the wheel while she talks to customers, trying to figure out where they are and what time they can meet.
“Hello,” she says again and again on a recent summer morning. “This is Jumia.”
One customer no longer wants her soap. (“Are you sure?”)
One man doesn’t recall placing an order. (“I have that you wanted this for Tuesday.”)
Another woman won’t answer her phone.
All in the span of 10 minutes.
Service cuts in and out. “Hello?” Lakpa says as they bump from a paved road to a dirt path. “Hello? I can’t understand you.”
People normally tell her to meet near a landmark - pharmacies, hotels, banks, schools.
They start the day at a college campus and wait six minutes for a student who bought a printer to meet them.
They park next in front of a hair salon and wait seven to sell a phone.
They park next on a patch of gravel to drop off a lighter. No one comes. The phone rings. The customer is actually a half-mile down the street. They pull up. There he is.
Cash is king in Ivory Coast and most other African nations. No sale is complete until money changes hands.
Sometimes, this leads Lakpa inside a customer’s house or workplace. She follows a lawyer into his gray office and watches him open a cardboard box.
No one speaks as he pulls out an electric kettle. His assistant rushes over, fills it up with water and plugs it into the wall.
“I want to confirm that it works,” the lawyer says.
Lakpa keeps an eye on the clock.
America’s Amazon Flex and China’s Alibaba follow similar labour models for what analysts call the last mile. But the work is much harder here. No one can rely on GPS.
MAGENTA?!! I HAD ORDERED BLACK!
The pressure stays on for Lakpa.
It’s midday. Traffic clogs seemingly every road. She hasn’t taken a bathroom break.
The delivery partners must finish by 4 p.m. for security reasons. A Jumia driver was robbed and killed two years ago in Nigeria while toting iPhones.
They roll down the windows on the way to the next destination, a downtown marketing firm, and breathe the usual smog.
The place is called Zen Communications. Relief: It’s just off the highway. Easy to find.
They slide into a parking spot. Gbane stays in the van. Lakpa grabs an orange bag with the Jumia logo. Up the stairs she goes to an office with no windows.
An IT manager in a Hawaiian shirt greets her. He’s not smiling.
Before they can discuss today’s order, he wants to raise a grievance.
“I’ve been waiting for a receipt for a printer since April,” he said. “I can’t do my expenses without it.”
Lakpa nods. She understands. She’ll tell someone.
The man doesn’t seem to believe her. He repeats himself. He really needs to do his expenses.
Then he reaches for her bag and pulls out printer cartridges.
His eyes widen.
He’d ordered black ink.
Lakpa stays calm. She’s sorry about that. She’ll get him the right colour.
“This ride has been harder than usual,” she says, walking outside. Three hours have passed, and she has delivered only three packages.
Gbane starts the engine without a word.
They’d go on to deliver 16 of the 32 orders. Worry would grip Lakpa’s gut. She was scheduled to work the rest of the week.