The e-commerce market is booming in Ivory Coast, French-speaking Africa’s largest economy. Currently worth around €46 million, it’s set to grow even more in coming years alongside the population. However, e-traders face a host of systemic challenges, from high transfer fees to restrictions on global online payment platforms such as PayPal.
Vanessa runs a business from her home in Bouaké, one of Ivory Coast’s largest cities, and has been selling her cocoa butter and shea butter cosmetics online for nearly 10 years. She’s financially dependent on that business, and loses a large chunk of her profit to transaction costs.
“In Ivory Coast, customers don’t have bank cards. They pay by Orange Money, Wave, MTN and other phone payment apps – but they must also pay fees. It can quickly get expensive,” she laments. “For customers abroad it is even worse. They actually have to go to a Western Union, Ria or MoneyGram branch to send the money, and fees can reach 2 percent.” These extra costs often discourage customers, and ultimately lower turnover.
Kader Diaby, who sells clothing made from organic materials, faces the same issues. His online business constitutes 30 percent of his monthly income, with foreign customers mostly based in Nigeria, South Africa and France. But he says his profits could be much higher if only he had full access to PayPal – one of the global leaders in online payments for the e-commerce sector.
PayPal blocks withdrawals
PayPal, which has been available in Ivory Coast since 2014, usually allows users to receive money and withdraw it directly in cash. But because PayPal restricts some transactions in Ivory Coast due to cybercrime risks, Ivorian customers and merchants can only pay by linking a credit card to their PayPal accounts and cannot receive or withdraw money.
“I find it discriminating; it’s not normal that I don’t get access to my money just because I’m Ivorian,” says Mory, an entrepreneur who offers online services to artists. “We have to create accounts based in Morocco or elsewhere but when PayPal realises we don’t live there, it blocks our accounts and our money with it.”
The young Abidjan businessman has no choice but to accept PayPal payments if he does not want to lose customers.
According to a study by McKinsey & Company, e-commerce could account for 10 percent of retail sales in Africa’s largest economies by 2025. In Ivory Coast, this sector already represents more than 9 percent of the country’s GDP.
Aware of the potential of this market, Idriss Marcial Monthe co-founded CinetPay in 2016 – a payment and money-transfer platform that works without a bank card. “Before, I had an online domain name sales company and I traveled to collect payments from my customers. Between the cost of transport and traffic jams, it was not viable. We then decided to integrate the three mobile payment operators in Ivory Coast on our site,” says the businessman.
Monthe’s idea is now used in more than 10 French-speaking countries at low cost. For CinetPay’s president, security and modernisation go hand in hand. He says the fight against cybercrime could open the door to innovations that could revolutionise the e-commerce sector in Ivory Coast.
Focus on banking solutions
Revolutionising the whole e-commerce sector is no easy task when only around 20 percent of the population has a bank account.
For economist Yao Seraphin, structural reforms are needed – as well as a stronger collaboration between the state and private firms like Visa, MasterCard and PayPal.
Daniel Ahouassa agrees. He co-founded APaym – an application that allows merchants to accept all types of bank payments. During the Ivorian Digital Forum held in Abidjan on September 2-3, he called on telecommunications players to seize this market: “We need to work with banks to develop and raise public awareness of electronic payment methods. We have to make it reliable and accessible,” he told FRANCE 24 during the event.
In the meantime, small traders continue to pay the price for underdeveloped online payment methods in Ivory Coast.