Informal retail is one of the biggest economic sectors representing 50% of official GDP in sub-Saharan Africa, but it is largely under-served. In Ghana, the informal retail sector accounts for 80% of the Ghanaian workforce. Although a burgeoning sector, women in underprivileged communities who form a majority of informal retailers are faced with the challenge of restocking products at high costs and barely having access to credit to run their businesses. Ulric Chekap is the co-founder of Shopa, a MEST portfolio company that is redefining informal retail and revolutionizing how informal retailers access and restock their products. They do this while providing practical solutions to the credit challenges of informal retailers.
In the interview that follows, Ulric Chekap shares what his motivation together with his co-founders has been and shares some insights on the future of informal retail in West Africa.
- In less than 2 years, Shopa has conducted over 30, 743+ transactions; reached 3,288 customers and has partnered with over 50 manufacturers and suppliers. Tell us the need in the market Shopa sought out to address and how you have managed to gain such traction over a short period of time.
After spending close to six months researching this space, my co-founders and I realized that about 20 million informal retailers in Africa, mostly women living in underprivileged communities, need to frequently restock products they want to sell at the lowest cost from wholesalers they can rely on. They also needed access to credit to manage restocking and the running of their business. However, they were unable to do so because of:
- The extra money required to handle transportation to the open market;
- High margins added on products by wholesalers;
- Sales lost by closing their shops to go to the market to restock;
- And the inability to access credit from microfinance institutions because they were mostly classified as not credit-worthy.
We have been able to gain traction because we have differentiated ourselves from our competitors. The following reasons account for our exponential growth:
- We ensure 1–4 hours of delivery time to our customers. While our competitors are doing 24–48 hours.
- We give our customers the flexibility to buy in bits (a unit or a portion of a box or carton). This is something our competitors do not do. Hence, we are able to fulfill orders of the equivalent of at least $10. Competitors are usually in the $50 bracket.
- We allow our customers to buy now and pay later at the cheapest interest rate on the market.
- We are a customer-centric business, with customized answers to their needs.
2. Where do you see Shopa in the next 3–5 years?
In five years, we hope to see Shopa become the biggest tech player in the informal retail sector across West Africa. On the one hand, by assisting informal retailers in obtaining inventory on cash or credit, handling all payment transactions, and acquiring new customers. On the other hand, we also hope to provide relevant and insightful data analytics reports to suppliers and manufacturers to allow them to achieve better growth at efficient costs in their different African markets.
3. Shopa then (when it started) versus what it is now, what are some significant milestones you have achieved?
We have over 3,300 customers just in Accra (Ghana) and we have crossed the bar of a monthly total transaction of $150,000 with an average of 120 orders fulfilled per day.
4. Shopa offers app-based services, how has the digital divide and high cost of internet affected your business and what solutions do you offer to counter that?
The digital divide is real in our market. We are dealing with customers who are not always tech savvy. We are addressing this issue through our sales agents who work on the field with our customers in order to teach them how to use our digital solutions. We have also put in place a multichannel approach for non-tech customers, such as USSD technology, SMS, and phone calls.
5. Who are the most essential people to have on your team in the early stages of building a startup and how do you spot great talent for your team?
For a tech startup, you need three essential people: dreamers, doers and thinkers.
We spot great talent by evaluating their commitment to serve our customers’ needs.
6. What are the fundamental/ key qualities every startup founder/leader should possess or learn
A passion to solve customers’ needs, think down to earth, work hard and smart, and have a high sense of empathy.
7. What excites you about the future of Africa’s retail market and what role will Shopa play in it?
The proliferation of the internet across the continent and the massive adoption of smartphones and new digital means of payment are going to change a lot of things in Africa’s retail market. Shopa intends to seize those opportunities to boost the productivity of a huge number of informal retailers.
8. How has being a MESTer contributed to and prepared you for your entrepreneurship journey?
Being part of a community that is creating opportunities and leaving a legacy for the next generation of entrepreneurs in Africa has made me being a part of the MEST Community worthwhile.
About Ulric Chekap
Ulric obtained a bachelor’s degree in Business Computing at the University of Picardie Jules Verne in France in 2012. He went on to work as a relationship manager at Financial House S.A., a microfinance institution in Cameroon, for 2 years, where he facilitated SME loans.
Later on, he worked for over 4 years in retail sales and wholesale distribution for Diageo Guinness Cameroon S.A.
Ulric is passionate about providing lasting solutions to disadvantaged informal retailers in Ghana and beyond.