Online Shopping Takes Off in East Africa: Find Out How This Rwandan Startup Is Riding the Wave


Rapid economic growth across Africa has created a sudden and overwhelming demand for goods. It’s not slowing down anytime soon, either; the continent’s income continues to rise and is projected to triple by 2060.

More people, with more money, will be hankering for things … but can they get what they want? And when they want it?

Traditional retail can’t keep up

Traditional retail hasn’t pivoted gracefully to meet the demand of growing African economies.

Consider the two shopping malls that serve the 20 million people of Lagos, Nigeria. In East Africa, Kenya was recently ranked Africa’s second biggest retail economy, but only 30% of Kenyans shop in formal retail outlets.

In East Africa, Kenya was recently ranked Africa’s second biggest retail economy, but only 30% of Kenyans shop in formal retail outlets.

This is where online shopping and delivery services can shake up the retail experience across Africa.

The get-it-now economy

Lauren Russell started GET IT, a text-to-order retail company in Kigali, because she didn’t feel shoppers got what they deserved: A convenient experience. (She decided on the name “GET IT” because it was fun, she says, and because it has plenty of pun potential … get it?)

“Trust is the No. 1 thing that makes business work here,” says Lauren Russell, founder of GET IT.

“Trust is the No. 1 thing that makes business work here,” says Lauren Russell, founder of GET IT.

The 28-year-old American first came to Rwanda several years ago with Nike. She stayed and, last October, decided it was time to break out as an entrepreneur and change the retail game. GET IT’s customers can order fresh herbs and vegetables, cleaning supplies, and much, much more directly to their doorstep.

Can online shopping really take off?

Here’s a sense for how quickly online shopping can grow in the right market: One of Nigeria’s online marketplaces, Konga, was founded in 2012 and is now listed as one of the country’s top 10 most-visited websites. It’s ranked ahead of Instagram and Twitter!

It’s competitor, Jumia, is just behind YouTube. In fact, “the biggest online shopping mall in Africa” is all over the continent, including Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda.

Creating localized solutions

Sites like Jumia offer a whole world of online shopping, but Russell wanted to create an easy way to shop in Rwanda. Only 20% of Rwandans have access to data on their phones, so simply making a website wasn’t going to work.

“Data isn’t omnipresent,” she says, “so we rely on [text] messaging.” Instead of a website, GET IT’s customers can call, SMS, or WhatsApp the company to ask what’s in stock or order a catalog. Of course, if a customer has access to the Internet, they can check GET IT’s inventory on Facebook or via e-mail. Russell says next month you’ll be able to find catalogs around Kigali, in places like Inzora Cafe and Inema Arts Center.

E-commerce without the “e”

“It’s ‘e-commerce’ without the ‘e,’” Russell says. However, it’s not as if GET IT is entirely bucking the digital trend. The company collects data to improve the customer experience. For instance, order statistics can help farmers plant crops they know will be in demand.

Data is also key for delivering the goods. In Kigali, street signs are near meaningless, and it’s not uncommon for delivery drivers to get lost. But once they arrive, they can mark a customer’s address in the GET IT app, ensuring there’ll be no mistakes in the future.

Who’s buying in?

Russell says most of the company’s customers are “early adopters”. They include full-time, white-collar professionals who need a service that can save them time. They’re also likely to have financial security, which makes trying something new, like an online delivery service, less risky.

Even though their clientele is primarily white-collar, it’s not necessarily because of cost. GET IT works directly with farmers, so the price of their food is competitive with what you might pay in the market, where the produce has passed through a bunch of middlemen. As word and trust in the service spreads, the hope is that people with more modest financial means will jump on board too.

Trust is key

Trust is something that GET IT, and all online platforms, must earn. “Trust is the No. 1 thing that makes business work here,” Russell says. Which is why GET IT goes out of its way to make sure customers are satisfied with their service.

“Trust is the No. 1 thing that makes business work here.”

They have a 24-hour replacement policy. So if they deliver a bad avocado, let them know, and they’ll replace it for free within 24 hours. “It makes me most happy when people order again because it means we’re providing a great experience.” Thus far, plenty of customers order again and again — GET IT has a 75% customer retention rate.

Right now, they’re just in Kigali, but the goal is to expand throughout the rest of the country. If all goes according to plan, communities outside the capital city will soon “get it” too.

Russell and her colleagues are on the lookout for talent, both entry-level and managerial. She’ll be scouting customer service representatives, people to work in the warehouse, and more! They’ll be hiring across the board in October as the company continues to expand.

Also, they have a limited supply of rhubarb and specialty lettuce this week, so order now and get it while the getting is good.

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