Zimbabwe’s SMEs struggle to embrace e-commerce despite Covid-19

By Lemuel Chekai

The outbreak of Covid-19 and the lockdowns imposed to slow down the spread of the disease have done little to nudge local small to medium sized enterprises (SMEs) towards embracing e-commerce, a snap survey in Harare has revealed.

Globally, the pandemic has forced businesses to scale down on physical operations while moving to online spaces as means of survival.

Zimbabwe first went into lockdown in March last year and businesses were forced to close for several months and entrepreneurs were being encouraged to embrace digital marketing tools if they were to stay afloat. 

For  Dyson Murata, who owns a shop that sells clothes in central Harare, selling merchandise online is not an attractive proposition because his customers cannot afford data to access it.

“It is not effective,” Murata said. “You can never make as much money as you would when you sell to walk-in customers.

“Most of our daily customers are random walk-ins and impulse buyers. You don’t get such shoppers online.” 

Another shop owner operating from central Harare, Clayton Murenje, said ordinary Zimbabweans cannot not afford the costs of data to shop online.

“Our data charges are quite high,” Murenje said.

“It is almost impossible for someone to download 30 to 40 pictures of my stock that I would have shared in a WhatsApp group to be able to buy from me.

“Online shops are for countries with functional economies. 

“If it is tough for a shop owner like me to sustain an online shop due to data access challenges, then what about my customers?” 

While the transition to online markets  is proving to be a daunting task for SMEs , big companies like Simbisa Brands Limited, which runs fast-food outlets such as Chicken Inn, Fish Inn and Pizza Inn, see it as the future.

Simbisa chief executive officer, Basil Dionisio, said the company’s focus going forward was on improving the marketing of its products and services via digital platforms.

“A key focus area remains on growing and improving the delivery business, which is being realised through the continued development and refinement of the Dial-a-Delivery mobile application in order to enhance the user experience and with the target of growing application-related customers and orders,” Dionisio said.

SME Association of Zimbabwe director,  Farai  Mutambanengwe,  said the infrastructure for e-ecomerce was not yet available in the country.

“Looking at where we are as Zimbabwe, we don’t have the culture of online shopping,” Mutambanengwe said.

“Then secondly, we don’t have the structure for e-commerce. There is need for collective work between network service providers and government that will ensure affordable data charges.”

He added: “SMEs follow the market and currently the market is physical, and this is where they are.” 

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