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COVID-19: e-Commerce needs more support from Govt

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At a time when global players in the e-commerce sector have seen the peculiarities of their operations come to the fore in helping governments and people in other climes observe social distancing and stay in supply of essential items without leaving their homes, the Nigerian e-Commerce sector is instead buckling under the weight of heavy restrictions by state actors and law enforcement officials; leading to no end of frustrations for players in the sector.

E-commerce giants in other climes such as Amazon and Alibaba, for instance, have played important roles in the fight against COVID-19 in other parts of the world, working in concert with the government in helping people ensure social distancing through wholesome adoption of online and contact-less shopping.

However, investigations reveal a sorry tale of huge pains and frustrations among e-Commerce players in Nigeria, in stark contrast to what obtains elsewhere. The likes of Konga and Jumia, two of the biggest operators in the Nigerian market have endured difficulties at the hands of government enforcement agents, despite being the best means of contact-less shopping that can help in curbing the spread of the virus.

Research shows that in a number of countries and even in Africa, e-Commerce players have been supported and encouraged by the government in the fight against COVID-19.

But here in Nigeria, the situation is different.

The Nigerian government and some state governors have not only failed in openly backing the operations of e-Commerce players as an essential ally in the COVID-19 crisis, but a situation where security operatives are frustrating the operations of e-commerce companies due to the ongoing lockdown and border closures has further worsened matters.

A source at Konga, who spoke on condition of anonymity provided some insights into the dire situation.

‘‘E-Commerce is a cost-intensive venture all over the world, one which relies on a number of very expensive applications which must be constantly paid for. Konga, for instance, is burning a lot of cash to keep the business going and employing thousands of Nigerians directly and indirectly. Yet, we are taking huge losses in meeting the commitments to our customers, many of whom rely on us for essential deliveries. Our merchants, who we also rely on in meeting the numerous online orders, cannot open their shops due to the lockdown. These merchants are individuals who have all being trained on essential safety procedures such as wearing masks, gloves and social distancing and, as such, pose little infection risk. In addition, we have to endure undue delays in the course of reaching the customers. For instance, a truck making essential intra-state deliveries is often delayed for a minimum of six days, thereby causing huge pains for the company and consumers,’’ he lamented.

‘‘Even when granted exemption letters, the situation on the streets is far from ideal. We have encountered severe delays and huge frustration as a result of the overzealous actions of some security operatives who sometimes refuse to grant access to delivery personnel or in other cases, even turn them back. The government needs to do something about this.’’

Also, feedback from sources at Jumia, who pleaded not to be named, paints a picture of frustrations.

‘‘In virtually every other country, e-Commerce is being deployed as a critical weapon in the fight against COVID-19. Consumers are encouraged to go online and leverage e-Commerce for contact-less shopping by staying at home and receiving their essential deliveries including groceries at their doorsteps. Shoppers can also pay via e-channels which obliterates the use of cash or POS. But in Nigeria, we have hardly seen any form of institutional support in this regard.

‘‘In fact, we have seen a situation where delivery is constantly being hampered by the harassment of our riders, vendors and delivery men on a daily basis. This happens to both intra-state and inter-state deliveries. As a result, deliveries that should take 24 hours due to the absence of traffic on the roads now stretch for days or don’t even happen at all in some cases. Also, our staff, who actually are essential service providers, equally face serious difficulties and in some cases, harassments by security operatives on their way to and from work.

Continuing, the source stated: ‘‘Government has a critical role to play in nipping this worrisome situation in the bud as the operations of most e-commerce companies are suffering. Worse still, when consumers encounter undue delays for an item ordered online, they would naturally turn to offline markets, thereby worsening the risk of community transmission of the virus.’’

Indeed, with the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic which broke out in Wuhan, China but which has since spread across the globe, virtually every country has had their national life and normal economic activities disrupted.

Subsequently, a number of measures have come into force in helping curb not only the spread of the dreaded virus, but also halt community transmission, which has been identified as one of the most worrisome aspects of the war against COVID-19.  Specifically, there is an emphasis on behavioural changes, with social distancing and improved personal hygiene emerging as essential guides. Furthermore, restrictions have been placed on areas of high human concentration such as airports, schools, religious gatherings and most importantly, markets.

Consequently, e-Commerce has emerged as a ready-made channel for helping people carry out contact-less shopping, observing social distancing and the important call to stay at home, while also coping seamlessly with the shut-down of offline markets. As a matter of fact, evidence abounds of how e-commerce has been leveraged to great effect in other climes and even in other African countries in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In Germany and New Zealand, two of the countries that have made the most progress with respect to curbing the COVID-19 pandemic, e-Commerce has been one of the secrets. Even in other African countries such as Morocco, Ghana, Uganda – where citizens were advised in a government communique to opt for online shopping options as a means of getting essential items delivered to homes – and in Ghana – where e-Commerce was given special status and Ghanaians urged to rely more on digital channels for the delivery of food and other essentials; the situation is different.

In fact, same special deployment of e-Commerce in aiding the citizenry observe the essential regulations of social distancing and reducing unnecessary contact in crowded markets has been identified in China, Spain, France, the United Arab Emirates, among others.

However, in Nigeria, the situation is almost the opposite.

A number of Nigerians, left with little choice due to afore-mentioned challenges encountered by e-Commerce players, are increasingly relying on open-air markets – which manage to escape the subsisting ban – to shop for their essentials.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the country is currently battling to stop ongoing community transmission of COVID-19 as confirmed cases continue to rise by the day. Going by recent figures released on Saturday by the country’s disease-fighting agency, the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC), Nigeria has recorded 1182 cases of COVID-19; with Lagos in particular, accounting for nearly 60 per cent of the cases.

Yet, e-Commerce companies, which have the capability to reach the last mile with essential deliveries, are not given free rein to operate.

Further buttressing the points raised above, the source at Konga called on the government to take action.

‘‘We expect the government and the authorities to act. E-Commerce companies in Nigeria can play a key role in the fight against COVID-19, as can be seen from the examples in other countries. The Nigerian government should provide more institutional support and some form of public backing for this budding sector as this would go a long way in not only encouraging more Nigerians to embrace the needed behavioural change central to the COVID-19 fight but would also ensure less hassles from other state actors on the highways,’’ he concluded.

Nigeria is currently battling hard to rein in the rampaging COVID-19 pandemic.

While there has been no formal restriction of e-commerce players, the government has equally stopped short of any form of official public pronouncement or declaration to ensure that the services of e-Commerce companies are protected and not disrupted by security agencies enforcing the lock-down. In addition, the government has failed in toeing the path of other countries in leveraging e-commerce to great advantage in helping Nigerians stay in supply of essential products while complying with the lockdown.

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