Recent developments indicate that all is not well at one of Africa’s biggest e-commerce outposts, even as facts on the ground suggest Jumia may be considering exiting its biggest market
By Kameni Doe
Long touted as the Amazon of Africa after a much-publicised listing on the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) in 2019, Jumia has since contended with a reversal of fortunes, accentuated by a series of missteps or unforced errors that have crippled its status and left market watchers speculating about a potential exit from Nigeria, its biggest market.
As recently as 2016, Jumia became the continent’s first unicorn being valued over 1 billion USD. It had equally seen a rapid expansion of its services to over 15 countries in Africa. However, after a highly subscribed Initial Public Offer (IPO) on the NYSE that later went south after a bashing from Citron, a US-based equity intelligence research company (which described the filing as a fraud and the company’s shares as worthless), it has been a seeming trajectory of grace to grass for Jumia.
But how did it all go wrong for this e-commerce giant?
In analysing the Jumia debacle, it is important to situate the fact that the company, from inception, has been a loss-making entity. Jumia is yet to turn profitable, despite over a decade of huge financial investment and massive expenditure in marketing and overheads in Nigeria. Considering the fact that Nigeria remains the biggest contributor to its revenue profile, one can only imagine how it has fared in other African countries in which it is operating. In November 2019, Jumia announced the suspension of its e-commerce operations in Cameroon effective November 18 as the company concluded that its transactional portal is currently not suitable to the current environment in that country. As part of the portfolio optimization effort, Jumia later ceased operations in Tanzania effective November 27, 2019. While its operations in Tanzania provided many opportunities for customers and vendors, the company said it needed to focus its resources on other markets that can bring the best value and help Jumia thrive. In addition, the company held that the decision would help it achieve greater success in the future. On December 9, 2019, Jumia suspended Jumia Food in Rwanda, making it the third country in two months as part of a continuous monitoring of the business environment and operating costs in the markets in which it operates. However, it expressed its intention to continue doing business online in those countries on the classifieds portals, previously called Jumia Deals.
From the foregoing, one can detect its ongoing struggles in Nigeria mirror a discernible pattern across other locations in Africa.
More importantly, Jumia’s challenges in Nigeria can also be extrapolated from its often-changing business model which sometimes may appear misguided in navigating a peculiar market such as Nigeria. In 2020, Jumia announced a tweak in its business model to focus more on its third-party marketplace. This saw the company place less attention on its first-party model which involved the company basically buying items and putting it at the disposal of shoppers. Consequently, the intent was to grow its revenue from the collection of commission on items listed and sold on its platform – a move which appeared to have an instant impact. In 2021, Jumia generated more revenue – $24m in Q1 2021 compared to $23m in Q1 2020 — from third-party sales on its platform. However, in what would seem like not being able to have one’s cake and eat it, Jumia’s first-party revenue dropped from $12m in Q1 2020 to $8m in Q1 2021, a massive 35% decline. Although this switch in its business model contributed to lower logistics costs (Jumia’s fulfilment costs dropped by 18% Year-on-Year to $23.7m in Q4 2020 and in Q1 2021, it dropped to $17.2m), Gross Merchandise Volume (GMV) also took a hit as a result. In fact, average order value declined by 16% from $35.8m in Q1 2020 to $30m in Q1 2021 while GMV also dropped by 21% compared to 13% in Q1 2021.
Critics have also fingered the Jumia strategy of outspending Konga, its main rival in Nigeria, as one of the missteps that landed it in trouble. Jumia has spent a humongous sum to occupy a dominant Share of Voice in the Nigerian market, while not investing as much effort in cleaning up its reputation. The reality on ground, however, shows that while it has consistently spent more than 500 times than its closest rival, Jumia has not seen the massive expenditure result in any meaningful outcome in its acceptability, brand love or trust for the platform among Nigerians.
Closely related to this is some of the unethical shenanigans that have dogged Jumia over the years. After enduring a thrashing of its share value following revelations by Andrew Left, a short seller at Citron in 2019, Jumia confirmed that several class action lawsuits have been filed against the company and its officers in New York over alleged misstatements and omissions in its IPO prospectus. In addition, Jumia, in the same year, admitted that it had uncovered instances of improper orders placed and subsequently cancelled on its marketplace platform, wrongly inflating its order volume. Some of the improper sales practices, the company said, were carried out by its own personnel in Jumia Force, its network of commissioned agents. The fraudulent orders generated $17.5 million in GMV between the last quarter of 2018 and the first two quarters of 2019, prompting allegations that they had been used in padding the company’s financial statements filed as part of its IPO. Recently, Jumia was in the news for the wrong reasons once again this year, with over 60,000 units of fake Nokia 105 traced to it which the e-commerce company had already distributed to its outlets in Africa to grow their sales and number. Reports indicate that Nokia 105 is a marque product from Nokia and highly sought after in Africa. Since the relaunch of Nokia phones, some of its products have been targeted by crooks who clone them and sell at lower prices to beat competition. Checks at Nokia also showed that fake Nokia 3310, the rave of smartphones from Nokia and their most sold brand before it suffered market eclipse, had popped up in China soon after it was relaunched in 2017, as well as some markets in Asia and Africa, with Jumia believed to have been one of the distribution channels of these fake Nokia phones.
Not long after this development, the company had announced the exit of co-CEOs Jeremy Hodara and Sacha Poignonnec, ex-McKinsey consultants, who founded the company in 2012 alongside Tunde Kehinde and Raphael Kofi Afaedor.
But beyond this, the exit of a number of key investors seem to present the most valid evidence of the shaky foothold of Jumia in the Nigerian market. Added to this is the historical losses that have become a tradition of sorts for it. Jumia has accumulated over $1 billion in losses since inception in 2012 as it continues to burn through cash in order to stay relevant in the market but without a clear, discernible strategy to turn a profit. Only a fool would have supported the Jumia strategy of burning cash, with over $221m loss every financial year.
Leadership has remained a major sore point of note too. The vagaries and peculiarities of the Nigerian e-commerce market requires some deep, local insight which has been obviously lacking at Jumia. Indeed, feelers from industry experts suggest that the company’s leadership is inexperienced and blindsided, especially with respect to a core understanding of the Nigerian market. But the sacking or exit of two founders and some Management staff of the company equally appears to have come too late.
I had predicted years back that Jumia’s fight with Konga in a market that never existed may destroy Africa’s potential as a future market to bet on. Naspers and AB Kinnevik, erstwhile owners of Konga, were smart enough to sell to a strong and experienced indigenous company in the Zinox Group. The folks at Zinox at least understand the market, having built a solid reputation of leadership and constant success in the sector for over 30 years and are financially strong to navigate the tough market.
Konga pioneered the third-party marketplace structure which Jumia later aped. Also, Konga launched the omnichannel structure which has remained the mainstay of its business model, one that has also been adapted by global e-commerce players such as Amazon and Alibaba, among others. This model has aided Konga consistently take a share of the growing appetite for online shopping, while also allowing it key into the still predominant traditional shopping predilection of the average Nigerian. Since its 2018 acquisition by the Zinox Group and the subsequent operational merger between it and Yudala, we read that Konga has cut losses by over 45 per cent and also achieved growth of over 800 per cent in the past 18 months. Crucially, Konga’s advantageous understanding of the Nigerian market finds further expression in its fusion of an online platform with a growing chain of brick-and-mortar stores including its robust digital logistics, as well as its strategy of retaining a highly ethical, customer-centric approach to the business.
Clearly, there is strong optimism that Konga will survive, despite the encumbrances in the tough Nigerian market, but with Jumia, it would require a miracle. If founders anywhere in the world are unable to turn their company to profitability before exiting, it is near impossible for any corporate genius to restructure it and turn it around except they sell.
Like they say, founders understand the DNA of their companies.
Kameni Doe, an Emerging Markets expert, writes from Yaounde, Cameroon