JEMLA: Digitising Ethiopia’s Informal Retail Sector with Tech-Enabled Platform

Ethiopia’s bustling informal retail sector has found a partner in JEMLA, a promising B2B ecommerce platform that caters to the diverse needs of small retailers. Launched in 2019, JEMLA is providing reliable and cost-effective supply chain and distribution platform tailored to informal retailers’ needs.

The brainchild of co-founder Estephanos Zewdie and his three friends, JEMLA aims to uplift the livelihoods of informal retailers and their families while simultaneously facilitating FMCG manufacturers and importers in reaching a wider market. By leveraging mobile-first technology, the platform offers access to a wide range of fast-moving consumer goods (FMCGs), along with working capital and a suite of services designed to support the expansion of retailers’ businesses. Notably, the incorporation of data insights through advanced technology empowers retailers to make informed decisions.

In a recent interview with Disrupt Africa, Zewdie emphasised the company’s commitment to enhancing the lives of informal retailers and their families, as well as driving market reach for FMCG manufacturers and importers. JEMLA’s visionary approach extends beyond its core offerings, as it integrates digital financial services into the platform. This enables retailers to sell digital financial services (DFS), enabling them to generate additional revenue while promoting financial inclusion among underserved communities.

JEMLA’s potential has earned it a coveted spot in the Catalyst Jobtech Accelerator, a programme organized by Mercy Corps and BFA Global. As one of the four selected companies, JEMLA stands to benefit from a grant funding of US$200,000 and valuable support, enabling it to further refine its business model and expand its impact.

The platform has already registered over 8,000 retail outlets in Addis Ababa, the capital city of Ethiopia. Zewdie attributes this success to JEMLA’s ability to cater to a wide range of consumer goods, effectively attracting a substantial customer base. Additionally, the platform’s tailored approach to ordering has simplified and expedited the process for retailers, fostering an increase in both registered retailers and unique customers served.

JEMLA addresses several critical gaps in the Ethiopian market. Informal retailers’ limited access to a reliable and cost-effective supply chain and distribution network. These retailers often struggle to procure quality products at competitive prices and secure working capital to expand their businesses. The company recognises the significant challenge posed by limited access to traditional finance options for these retailers, such as bank loans and credit facilities. Collateral requirements, limited credit history, and high interest rates further hinder their access to essential financial resources.

Innovative financial solutions, including Buy Now Pay Later services, are on JEMLA’s radar to assist retailers in overcoming the credit limitations. Whilst the East African market has witnessed the emergence of various B2B ecommerce platforms aiming to enhance the supply chain and route-to-market, Zewdie asserts that JEMLA’s primary competition still arises from the traditional supply chain. The conventional model, characterised by numerous intermediaries like distributors, wholesalers, and brokers, often leads to an inefficient and costly supply chain for manufacturers and retailers. The intermediaries’ fragmented operations and lack of added value result in inflated prices for retailers and consumers alike.

Furthermore, the conventional supply chain’s lack of standardised systems and intermediaries’ independence complicates product tracking, impeding informed sales and marketing decisions for FMCG companies. Moreover, wholesalers often add little value to the supply chain, yet they still have high margins for their services, ultimately increasing prices for retailers and consumers.

JEMLA currently operates in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s largest metropolis and a central hub for fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) companies. Given the city’s dense population, central location, and concentration of retailers, it has proven to be an ideal market for JEMLA to refine and validate its business model. However, the company’s ambitions extend beyond the confines of Addis Ababa.

JEMLA is looking to expand its operations to other regions and secondary cities, driven by the escalating demand. Recognising the fragmented nature of the route-to-market dynamics in these areas and the potential to serve underserved customers, JEMLA aims to assume a pivotal role in meeting their needs. The company envisions itself as a reliable and efficient route-to-market platform catering to these previously neglected regions.

In pursuit of its expansion plans, JEMLA is currently in discussions with prospective partners who can facilitate its entry into other Ethiopian cities and towns. The primary objective is to extend its services to these underserved areas and establish a robust and dependable platform for commercial transactions.

The development of modern trade in Ethiopia is still at a very preliminary stage, and it is more likely for consumers to purchase their milk from local souks (small grocery stores) rather than supermarkets. Souks remain the dominant trade channel in Ethiopia, with major modern retailers yet to have an impact in the country.

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