How African online stores can fight back

The Temu app icon is displayed on a smartphone with Temu visible in the background in this photo illustration in Brussels, Belgium. Photo: AFP

The Temu app icon is displayed on a smartphone with Temu visible in the background in this photo illustration in Brussels, Belgium. Photo: AFP

Published May 7, 2024


There’s a growing concern about Temu, the Chinese online platform, and its operations in South Africa. The latest concern focuses on economics and the usual pain point around unfair advantage of foreign online stores of not paying local fees. All of these concerns are valid.

I still recall that they were raised directly with me by someone high up at MultiChoice. The concern then was Netflix and its unfair advantage. My standard answer for this is simply innovation.

I’m of the view that local online stores can have more advantage than foreign online stores. Local online stores understand the local environment far more. They can provide exactly what the market needs.

I also believe that the Department of Trade, Industry and Competition (Dtic) can find a way to cushion local business from external economic factors. It won’t help to cry foul. As we’ve seen with Netflix, and now with Temu, we will see more global players entering the local market.

Local online stores need to find ways of differentiating themselves from the global players. One example could be an online store that is purely African or South African in terms of product range. Such an online store could work closely with local product developers to provide them with digital powers.

A local online store could also work out the best logistics methodology for delivering products in townships. New products could emerge from an entity with a focus on local solutions. Such an online platform could even scale globally to the world and offer local goods abroad.

The digital space allows local and global activity. The world is waiting for an African online store among many that exist currently.

As the Dtic contemplates how they can stifle global e-commerce platforms locally, the empowerment of local platforms should also be considered. Is there a strategy to ensure that local online stores can grown across the continent? Is there a digital plan to take South African products to the global community? Proudly South African was a useful intervention for other products, but it needs to be extended and include the introduction of local platforms abroad.

Protecting local companies from global competition will not go far enough to keep local players afloat. In the same way that we find Italian products globally, there’s a need to flood global markets with local products through digital means.

This does not mean African products will be adopted just because they are African, innovative approaches will be required. Local wine, music, designs and art have the potential to be adopted globally.

iROKO by Jason Njoku has done this very well in the film sector. The African film platform has taken African to the world. Online stores need to follow suit and not limit themselves to local markets.

The world is hungry for African designs, however, they need to be accessible. There’s a good reason why the African curio market is flourishing based on just foreign buyers. Online stores need to close this gap as part of their fighting strategy against global players. The internet has flattened the world, African online stores can also be global players if they are innovative enough.

Wesley Diphoko has been operating at the intersection of media and tech as the editor of FastCompany (SA). He is passionate about the township economy. You can reach him on X via: @WesleyDiphoko