Photo: UNDP Uganda

 

When Uganda’s government imposed a nationwide lockdown in March 2020, in response to rapidly increasing rates of COVID-19 infection throughout the country, many market vendors in the capital city of Kampala feared for the future. The markets themselves weren’t closed – vendors set up stalls with six socially distanced feet between them – but what’s a market when customers are anxious and home-bound? “Restrictions on transportation systems effectively limited markets,” says Innocent Fred Ejolu, Partnerships, Innovation, and Development Solutions Specialist at UNDP’s Uganda Country Office.

The anxieties of Kampala’s market vendors were soon assuaged. Not only did markets survive under COVID lockdown conditions – many of them positively thrived, doing more business than ever and even attracting new, middle-income customers who normally don’t shop there. Their success is largely thanks to a partnership between UNDP’s Uganda Country Office and Africa’s premiere e-commerce company, Jumia. 

Bringing Kampala’s markets online

The partnership, incepted in May 2020, connects informal market vendors with customers online. Leveraging Jumia’s existing e-commerce infrastructure, the partnership allows customers to place and pay online for orders of groceries and other market items, then relays orders to intermediaries called market agents. The market agents then fill the orders at market stalls and send them out for delivery via Jumia’s robust network of motorcycle drivers. 

But consumers aren’t the only beneficiaries of the new scheme. Urban markets in Kampala play a critical connective role between consumers and the rural agricultural sector. Without markets, farmers have no outlet to sell their produce, which generates food waste and can be catastrophic for their livelihoods. In creating a safe, sustainable way for these supply chains to remain operational, the Jumia x UNDP partnership supports these rural-urban connections that are crucial to the function of agricultural supply chains. 

As of June 2021, the Jumia x UNDP team has onboarded over 3,000 vendors from seven markets to the platform, including the provision of basic online trainings. Sixty percent of these vendors are women and youth, says Ejolu. In a country where the digital gender gap is 43% – meaning that women are 43% less likely than men to leverage ICT for basic purposes – this is a significant proportion. Best of all, the platform has doubled daily sales for the majority of vendors. “[In the first stage of lockdown] they were making $10 per day,” says Ejolu. “Now they are making around $22 on a daily basis.”

UNDP x Jumia at the vanguard of African e-commerce 

The success of the Jumia x UNDP Uganda partnership reflects a growing trend throughout the African continent. Before the pandemic, e-commerce was already on the rise, growing at a faster rate than the rest of the world due to its relatively low base of users. But COVID-19 has accelerated this growth, due to the launch of new platforms like Jumia x UNDP Uganda, according to Torbjörn Fredriksson, head of digital economy and e-commerce at the UN Conference on Trade and Development.

At the formal launch of the initiative, the Ugandan Cabinet Minister of Trade, Industry, and Cooperatives Amelia Kyambadde echoed this sentiment: “e-commerce is here and it’s never going away,” she said. 

E-commerce solutions, like the ones the Jumia x UNDP Uganda partnership have promoted in Uganda’s markets, have the potential to improve the livelihoods of people across the region, continent, and even world, says Ejolu. “This is what’s so exciting,” he says. “If we have really valid proof of concept, and prove the economic viability of a programme like this, we can look into scaling it in many countries in sub-Saharan Africa. No one has found the Holy Grail of e-commerce, how to really connect small informal vendors with e-commerce. This project could potentially find an answer to a globally pressing challenge.”

Scaling up ambition with Digital X

In April, the UNDP Uganda Country Office team was selected to participate in the Digital X Scale Accelerator, a programme run by the Chief Digital Office and supported by the Government of Japan. Digital X creates the opportunity for successful country-level solutions to exponentially scale in terms of impact and geographic reach. The UNDP x Jumia partnership will receive funding and five months of organisational and technical support.

With this new tranche of funding, UNDP Uganda x Jumia plan to focus their efforts on several areas. First, they plan to expand the programme to new markets in Kampala, as well as other Ugandan cities. The team also wants to better tailor the program to the ways in which vendors are actually using the service, sometimes with feature phones instead of smartphones. They also want to create training programs that work around vendors’ lifestyles, allowing them to upskill as they carry on with their daily business. 

Finally, they want to engage with Digital X’s mentors and experts to make the program financially self-sufficient even without additional outside funding. The team are experimenting with several new business models, including collecting flexible commissions from vendors, organising a vendor cooperative to pay a collective commission, or applying for grants from development agencies or foundations. 

 

Urban markets in Kampala play a critical connective role between consumers and the rural agricultural sector. Photo: UNDP Uganda

On-the-ground impact

The success of the project is evident in the accolades. But the team is more motivated by testimonials from the customers and the vendors whose lives have been eased, and in some cases, transformed.

Only a few weeks after the project was incepted at five Kampala markets, two other markets applied to get involved too. “The director in charge of Kampala’s markets was so surprised at the volume of sales,” says Ejolu. 

Hadijah Nabbale, UNDP Uganda’s Head of Solutions Mapping, reports a range of benefits spanning from the nice-to-have to the necessary. One customer she spoke to loves the UNDP x Jumia service; by preventing her in-person impulse shopping it saves her money.

For vendors, the service represents more than that. “I don’t even own a smartphone,” Nabbale reports one vendor telling her. “But this service has expanded my income because I’m able to get customers online anyway. Now I have a huge range of new customers.”

This story was produced in cooperation with the UNDP Uganda Country Office. Special thanks go to Hadijah Nabbale, Innocent Fred Ejolu, Berna Mugema, Deborah Naatujuna, and Ashley Prigent.