Monday, March 4

A journey through time: The story of Nigerian eCommerce startup, Heroshe

Over the years, commerce has moved from brick and mortar stores to online stores. Though Nigerians have fewer options for online shopping, Nigerian-founded ecommerce startup Heroshe is building a platform to enable buyers ship products from global retailers such as Amazon, Ebay and Asos to Nigeria.

The pandemic dished out several lessons, and it emphasized the Internet’s importance in connecting the world; it has caused a seismic shift in the global Internet culture, as more people have started working and shopping online. While some markets seamlessly adapted, the pandemic-led shift uncovered a gaping hole that needed fixing.

Between 2020 and 2021, global eCommerce activity skyrocketed, the likes of Amazon and Shopify saw sharp increases in valuations, and thanks to the sharp increase in the demand for Shopify developers, more businesses started itching to get online. However, Africa experienced just a fraction of this eCommerce boom. In 2020, less than 3% of global eCommerce activities took place in Africa. Online retail giants like Jumia actually attest that the pandemic did not bring any noticeable increase in e-shopping activities.

The co-founders of Heroshe, Chinyere, Osinachi and Cobhams believe that eCommerce is primarily based on trust, and long before the pandemic disrupted the world, they set out to build that trust with their customers through Heroshe. This journey started through Chinyere’s innovation to support Nigerians seeking access to online retailers in the United States (US).

The beginning (2006 – 2012)

In 2006, Chinyere relocated to the United States after years of extensive experience working in multinational companies such as Shell and KPMG. However, she hit several frustrations with her job search despite her impressive pedigree and experience. Upon moving to the United States, she received several requests from family and friends who needed help shopping from U.S stores and sending them to Nigeria; which she agreed to.

After a while, she became inundated with more requests including new referrals made by her family and friends. As a result, she mentioned the possibility of charging for the service because it required time and effort, and to her surprise, her networks agreed to pay for the service. In 2012, following many years of building her logistics and operations expertise by supporting Nigerians with their shopping and shipping needs, the “buy for me” idea was conceived. Through the “buy for me” service, Chinyere was getting paid to shop for individuals and businesses, which she would then ship to them in Nigeria.

Growth and traction (2012 – 2021)

Several things make 2012 remarkable in terms of Internet activity; one of the most important being the proliferation of smartphones and online activity. This was pivotal for Chinyere, as she started running her business through the then-popular BlackBerry Messenger (BBM). She would take pictures of products and send them to her customers via BBM for buying decisions to be made as she was physically going to stores to shop for them.

While running the different aspects of the business all by herself, the manual process began to take its toll, and she realized that some changes were needed for the business to scale. The problem was solved by the introduction of a Squarespace landing page that was connected to Freshbooks and Formstack to improve the process. Customers were simply required to place orders online by filling forms and paying via an invoice in order to have the purchase made on their behalf. This process quickly took off and began to gain traction.

With the introduction of the Central Bank of Nigeria’s cashless policy initiative, more people began to shop online with their debit cards. While this meant that most of her customers no longer needed her to shop on their behalf, they still needed her services for shipping to Nigeria. The plan seemed simple; people would order online from a retailer, using a U.S. address provided by Chinyere. Once the items are received, she would ship them to their customers in Nigeria.

“At that point, we were a little bit skeptical. We didn’t know our customers well and could not guarantee that they were not going to use our address in a way that would not get us in trouble. So we held off from that for a while,” Chinyere recounts.

After experimenting with a few business models, monitoring the progress of the business and seeing the prospects, Osinachi officially assumed the role of CEO in 2017 to provide business strategy expertise to support the growth, innovation, and sustainability of the business. Now with a working business structure, it became necessary to build a viable team for operations and customer support; a customer support team was set up in Nigeria and an operations team was also set up in Nigeria and the U.S.

Following some unsuccessful iterations and two failed platforms between 2012 and 2018, the team sought a Nigerian-based talent to rebuild the web application. The rebuild was successfully launched but there was no internal team to support it. This is where Joseph Cobhams, a software engineer with over 10 years of experience joined the team in 2019 to build and lead an internal engineering team to perfect the tech platform.

In May 2019, Heroshe was officially launched as a tech-enabled ecommerce startup with Osinachi leading the team as CEO, Chinyere leading operations as COO and Joseph Cobhams taking up the role of CTO a year later. Through several iterations, testing, and important improvements, Heroshe is gradually gaining popularity; from its official launch in 2019, it has shipped up to 200,000 pounds of packages to over 40,000 customers in Nigeria.

“We’ve migrated across different platforms like Google Sheets, Wix, Squarespace, and WordPress, so we’ve not merged all the data from previous iterations,” Osinachi explains.

Though the founders did not reveal their transaction numbers, we can surmise that Heroshe has carried out a minimum of $1 Million Dollars in transactions going by the fact they charged $5 for each pound of the total number of packages they have shipped between 2019 and 2021.

Looking into the future

From the moment of conceptualization in 2012, the business has largely been bootstrapping; however in 2021 Heroshe raised $50,000 from family and friends, and is currently looking to raise institutional funding in the first quarter of 2022.

According to Osinachi, the company’s focus is to go deep before going wide. This means solving deep challenges in regard to logistics, access, and payments.

“Shipping to Nigeria takes 8 to 14 days, in extreme cases 8 to 21 due to supply chain disruptions occasioned by Covid. Getting items from Lagos to other parts of Nigeria has also been challenging, which adds to the delivery time. We want to cut that down to 5 to 10 days. We have figured out how to execute this.”

To solve the challenges around access, they are working on solutions that will give people visibility to quality products anywhere in Africa and across the globe.

“So if you live in Nigeria, you would be able to access quality products that are coming from Kenya, Egypt, Uganda, and South Africa on one platform,” Osinachi expatiates.

To reduce payment barriers caused by the constricting debit card limits imposed by most banks in Nigeria, the startup has revealed that they are working on enabling their current and prospective shoppers to have access to a designated U.S Visa card to shop on online retail stores in the U.S. In addition to this, the founders’ vision for payments in Africa’s eCommerce space grows directly from the plan to generate access across Africa.

“Once that access is created, a customer in Nigeria can buy products from a Kenyan vendor and make payment in Naira using their local debit card. The Kenyan vendor will then receive payment in Kenyan shilling deposited directly into their local bank account. When we have solved this problem for Nigeria, we have solved it for Africa; it will then allow us to scale outside of Africa to other frontier markets like Latin America, Southeast Asia, and South Central America,” Osinachi concludes.

In 2022, it is apparent that there is a massive market for online retail on the African continent; this is despite the limitations present due to lack of resources and limited infrastructure that would enable accessible shopping within the continent and globally. Osinachi maintains that solving eCommerce limitations in Africa has to be approached with innovation; and Heroshe is well placed to leverage an impending eCommerce evolution.