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WATCH: Live-streaming opens up big online sales opportunities for African products in China

Published Nov 30, 2020


By Xia Yuanyuan/Beijing Review

James Kimonyo, Rwandan Ambassador to China, is becoming an online star. He has found a new way to take diplomacy to the people by selling some of his country's best-known products, including coffee and chili sauce, through live-streaming.

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This January he made his live-streaming debut when he teamed up with a well-known Chinese live-streaming host on Taobao Live, China's premier online sales portal, introducing Rwandan coffee beans to Chinese netizens. Then in May, during a joint live-streaming session with Vera Songwe, Executive Secretary of the UN Economic Commission for Africa, he sold 3 000 bags of packaged coffee beans in just one minute.

"It's so fascinating to see how people come rushing to buy the products. It is a good opportunity to reach as many consumers as possible," Kimonyo said.

On August 13 he took part in a live show organized by Hainan TV and China Foundation for Peace and Development, themed African specialties. He was joined by the ambassadors to China from Benin, Ethiopia and Tanzania, along with Yusuf Timol, Minister Counselor of Economic Affairs at the South African Embassy in China, to promote their countries' specialty products online.

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Closer to customers

As a coffee lover, Xiang Qing, a Beijing resident, learned about the African specialities show from Zhang Mofan, a Chinese blogger/broadcaster with more than 10 million followers on micro-blogging platform Weibo.

"I didn't want to miss the show as it is unusual to see African ambassadors introduce their countries' products personally," Xiang told Beijing Review.

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Seeing the ambassadors broadcasting has helped reassure online customers that the special products on sale are genuine.

Live-streaming has become a popular activity in China. It basically involves broadcasters, including online celebrities and influencers, who are seen as credible, introducing products or services to potential buyers.

In the past customers used to move slowly down the path from awareness, to interest, to purchase, Timol said. "Through live-streaming, the process has got much shorter," he told Beijing Review. "It allows us to try and promote our products and services without leaving our cities and countries."

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During the epidemic, live-streaming gained momentum in China, showcasing online retail to attract millions of people confined at home. Sales through the Internet have played a key role in reviving the economy.

"Given the circumstance we are in, people can't move easily. So it is the best [opportunity] and a new normal. We should all make use of this opportunity," Teshome Toga, Ethiopian Ambassador to China, said. According to him, live-streaming can help products reach more potential customers.

Benefiting farmers

"Three, two, one, the link is live!"

Together with broadcaster Zhang, Kimonyo began selling chili sauce on Taobao.

"From my experience, every time we market and sell products through live-streaming on Taobao, within minutes everything is sold out," Kimonyo said.

During the African specialties promotional show, within two hours, some 2.6 million viewers had logged on.

The ambassador said he appreciated the marketing method because it's not only about the products being sold, but also about the farmers who benefit from it.

Coffee is the main product of Rwanda. The country has more than 33,000 hectares of coffee plantations with over half a million people working on them. Grown in naturally enriched volcanic soil at high altitude, coffee beans sold by Rwandan farmers are known for their delicious flavor and addictive aroma.

However, there has been a lot of anxiety among farmers in Rwanda following the measures put in place to combat the novel coronavirus disease. Kimonyo said the African specialties show helped to address their stress and restore hope. Being able to market coffee to millions of customers live online removes the barrier between farmers and final consumers.

The ambassador thinks the growth of cross-border e-commerce would help African countries fight over-reliance on commodities whose prices are prone to market dynamics, generate jobs, help check poverty and ultimately translate to economic growth.

A lesson to learn

Africa has a large number of Internet users and boasts a huge market potential, while China, which has accumulated experience in cultivating e-commerce markets, digital payment and logistics management, could help African countries build an e-commerce ecological system, according to Mark Kapchanga, a researcher and expert on China-Africa cooperation based in Kenya.

The number of Internet users in Africa has hit 465 million and is expected to reach 495 million by 2025. The market scale of e-commerce in Africa is expected to reach $34.7 billion by 2024, with an average annual growth rate of 17.1 percent, according to Statista, a German online statistics portal.

In fact, China-Africa cooperation in e-commerce is already ongoing. Kilimall, a leading online shopping mall in Kenya set up by Chinese founders, has attracted thousands of suppliers. While bringing Chinese products to African consumers, the platform has also introduced African goods, such as coffee beans and red wine, to Chinese consumers.

Rwanda has seen great benefits since joining the Electronic World Trade Platform (eWTP) initiative launched by Alibaba in October 2018. Since the launch of eWTP, Rwanda's coffee and tourism products have been sold on Alibaba's e-commerce platforms.

Additionally, young talents from Rwanda are being trained in the Alibaba Business School to understand and learn cross-border e-commerce operation. These Rwandan students are to change how people back in their country view e-commerce and digital payments, as well as create a better environment to facilitate the growth of the digital economy in Rwanda.

"E-commerce is a different method, different channel. I'm sure it's going to be difficult in the beginning, but once all the teething problems are out of the way, I'm sure we'll see some results," Timol said. "It's a learning process."

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