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Updated: Jun 4

All Malawians are familiar with the month-end hustle and bustle within business districts when it feels like the entire city has converged to go grocery shopping. With our limited (yet soon to improve) road infrastructure, this usually means long queues both on the roads and in the shops. But what if you could go online on your phone, fill up your basket, provide your location and payment details, and have your groceries delivered to your home? That’s exactly what Sana, one of Malawi’s most popular stores, promises with their new online shopping experience. After seeing their announcement on Facebook, I knew I had to try it. A part of this post is about my first experience with the Sana service, while the rest covers my general thoughts on online retail in Malawi.

My Experience with Sana Online
Mr Archangel from Doorbell with my delivery

Here’s how it went:

  1. I visited their website, selected a category of goods from the drop-down menu, and added them to the cart. There is a minimum of MWK20,000 spend, so I went just above it.

  2. On the checkout page, I entered my address, contact, and payment details (debit card, credit card, mobile money, and even cash on delivery are available).

  3. I entered my Area 6 postal code (MACRA has postal codes for all areas on their website).

  4. They offer different tiers for delivery, with the fastest promising delivery within 3 hours. I chose this option, which cost MWK5,000 for delivery to Area 6, and then pressed ORDER.

  5. Within a few hours, I received a text from the SANA business WhatsApp line confirming the order and asking if the cash was ready, as I had selected “Cash on delivery.” I decided to trust them and made the payment via Airtel Money, sharing the proof of payment.

  6. A few hours later, Mr. Archangel (yes, that was the WhatsApp username of the delivery guy from Doorbell) called me requesting my location. I provided my exact Google location pin, and the delivery arrived at my gate within the hour.

  • Functionality: The website was easy to use, and the service delivered what it promised within the timeline.

  • Convenience: The variety of payment options and the quick delivery time were impressive.

Areas for Improvement
  • Catalog: The product range is currently limited but will likely expand.

  • Automation: The process should ideally be fully automated. While I appreciated the customer care aspect, interacting with two people (the SANA guy and the Doorbell guy) was unnecessary.

  • Packaging: Better packaging would be beneficial, especially for longer trips and more fragile goods.

If you were only interested in Sana online, then that’s my thoughts on that. But from here on I will expound on online retail in Malawi in general. You see, for me this is not a random topic I found interesting, but rather it is fundamentally intertwined with the work we do at Mawa Creative, providing sustainable solutions to help Malawian firms prosper in the new digital age.

Story Time

In 2017, I was in my final year of college, finalizing my dissertation for my bachelor's degree in business information systems. My thesis was titled “An Empirical Study on the Potential of Online Retail in Malawi.” I interviewed both consumers and emerging online retailers to understand attitudes toward online retail and gauge the country’s readiness.

The main hypothesis I tested was:

Most educated Malawians with regular internet access have positive attitudes towards e-retail. However, the lack of established e-retailers, high internet costs, and inadequate payment methods stunt the industry's growth.

In 2017, my study showed this to be the case, with respondents overwhelmingly agreeing that they would welcome the technology, despite some mistrust.

Challenges and Solutions
  • Internet penetration - at the time only about 9% of the population had regular access to the Internet. This figure has risen to around 30% at the present day. Data has become more affordable, and the government appears to have played an active role in making this happen even though I still feel we have some ways to go.

  • Consumer attitudes – Are there negative consumer attitudes towards online retail? My study in 2017 disproved this and showed that most Malawians were interested in shopping online if they had trust in the company and their transactions were secure. Keep in mind this was before the emergence of “Shein Baddies” which would emerge around the 2020s. That's a term coined to describe people who purchase from the immensely popular Chinese online fashion retailer This proved that Malawians (the youth in particular) were willing to part with their hard-earned Kwachas for clothes that they only saw on their screen worn by someone who did not necessarily look like them. This demolishes the idea that Malawians do not trust online shopping and that timafuna tichigwire chinthu (we need to physically touch a product before we buy). These days many Malawians are comfortable buying a wide range of products from car parts to electronics from international online retailers. I do not have to mention the widespread popularity of Be Forward and other secondhand car exporters.

  • Address Systems – Let's talk postcodes. I always thought that this would be the biggest challenge with online shopping given our city planning or lack thereof. However, the emergence of delivery services such as Doorbell, Smart Deliveries, and others proved that there was hope. Granted, the delivery guy usually ends up calling you for exact directions but for the most part, they get there. Oh, and remember when you woke up years back and there were strange numbers written outside your gate? Well, that was part of the pilot phase of a MACRA postcode project which I believe has since been finalized. This means that every area in urban Lilongwe has a postcode, and most houses have a house number. Combine this with the use of Google Maps, there is no excuse. So this hurdle too has since been demolished.

  • Payment Systems – The only hurdle left then was the lack of payment systems. This is a broader topic, but I will focus on “payment gateways”. These are simply pieces of code that a supplier can install on their website that will allow them to accept payments online. The first payment Gateway that I knew of best suited for African online retailers was DPO. They allow you to accept payments from credit and visa cards and even mobile money such as Airtel money. In a few years, all the major banks in Malawi (Standard Bank and National Bank) had also developed solutions of their own. As a web developer, I have met with people from all three of these institutions and they have taken me through their API and dashboards and to summarize, they all work. A special shout out to Paychangu who are a new player in that space and from what I understand are fully Malawian-owned and operated.

  • Policy – I won't dwell too much on this but with all the programs geared towards a “Digital Malawi” I would say the government has shown a positive attitude in supporting digital solutions in the country. Whether they are focusing on the right areas is a story for another day.


Why Has It Taken So Long to Have Established Online Retailers In Malawi?

Honestly, I could not figure it out. Between 2017, when I submitted my dissertation, and 2020, the environment had changed substantially. All the hurdles that previously hindered online retail in the country seemed to no longer be an issue. Why then were more firms not launching online stores, given the clear benefits for both consumers and suppliers? The pandemic further forced us to think of different ways of doing business, yet no firms seemed to be seizing this opportunity. E-commerce seemed to be limited to Facebook groups where you still had to risk your life to meet a stranger.

Doing business on Facebook

Coincidentally as I was submitting my paper in 2017, there was a headline in the newspaper about an online retailer launching the following month called “Ize Mall”. I have followed Ize Mall over the years and I just feel like ultimately, they were never able to “cease the day” and even closed eventually. They have since relaunched and you can check them out here. I also must add that I am aware of other businesses with online shops such as Build Africa and I hope to test more of them and share my thoughts.


Fast forward to 2024 and here we are with Sana online. Projections indicate that the number of e-commerce users in Africa will surpass half a billion by 2025. The African eCommerce growth is explained by growing internet access, increased smartphone penetration, rising digital literacy, and innovative solutions tailored for local markets. I guess this was an article I needed to write for a while now, almost as a follow-up to my 2017 dissertation. In 2024 I do not need to test a hypothesis to confirm that yes, Malawi is indeed ready for online retail. If you are a physical retailer looking to take advantage of the benefits of online retail, reach out to Mawa Creative and we can get you selling online.

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