5 Key things to consider when starting an e-commerce business in Zimbabwe

Rufaro Madamombe Avatar
e-commerce-online-stores Zimbabwe

I recently wrote an article on how Amazon is going to conquer most markets through e-commerce. At the end of that article, I was left wondering why e-commerce hasn’t reached its true potential in Zimbabwe. Creating a business which sells goods online (e-commerce) is quite easy as all you need is a website which can process orders and payments. Just it’s easy to start, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it is easy to make it profitable.

Now considering that most of us are already using ‘plastic money’ and payment integration systems like Paynow exist which allow e-commerce store owners to accept different payment options like mobile money (EcoCash, Telecash etc) along with the standard mastercard or Visa cards from banks. It is more convenient today than ever for Zimbaweans to buy things online regardless of whether they have a bank account or not. However, that isn’t what’s happening on the ground as some local e-commerce stores are facing difficulties.

Personally, I haven’t built an e-commerce business so I won’t pretend to know what they’re doing wrong. However, as a person who has worked as a web developer in Zimbabwe and who is also a user of e-commerce websites, I am going to share with you what you might want to consider when building an e-commerce business.

Everything i’ll say can be summed up in one golden rule: Don’t make me think! as a user. It’s not a golden rule of e-commerce but it is one that is popular among user experience and user interface designers. And since buying online is more of an experience of interacting with a website or web application than anything else, the rule can also be applied to e-commerce done in that way. That’s all you have to do, catch you in the next article.

I’m just kidding, if it were that simple, i’m sure we’d have many successful e-commerce businesses locally and I mean the one’s that started from scratch with no brand or any big investments not the one’s which just benefited from an existing successful company. So what can you do to make a customer not think.

Be visible

If I have to think about what your business name is or what your website url is then you’ve probably lost me as a customer. many people are far too busy to research about where they can find you and what you’re even called. So as an e-commerce store owner, it is your job to be visible everywhere: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram etc.

Search Engine Optimisation is also very critical. You are online and the bulk of people online navigate the web through Google. So whether it seems fair or not, you have to play by Google’s rules to be discoverable.

It’s not just good to exist there, you have to be active and engaging.  So if I were to ask a friend of  mine where I can get some headphones online, they should mention you instead of Amazon or AliExpress. The more people know about you, the more they will trust you and they are likely going to buy some stuff if you play your cards right. Now if someone wants to shop for something on your e-commerce store then it should be very easy right, this lead me to the next thing.

Make everything clear and simple

So you’ve managed to get a customer to know about you and they’ve actually visited your website. As soon as they reach your website, they get confused because your brand isn’t clearly visible on your site or you haven’t added any contact information. Immediately, I start to think that maybe I’ve reached the wrong website.

That’s not the only way customers can get confused, if it’s not easy for me to navigate around easily and I have to think about where to click, then there’s a problem.  That means that I am more likely to leave because the whole experience isn’t convenient for me since it requires me to input a lot. Apart from just branding and navigation, the images of the actual products should be very clear and high quality so that I have an idea of what I am getting.

Assuming all is well, at this point in the journey, I have found you, browsed for a product and I am ready to buy and then I encounter yet another problem.

Don’t force the customer to give you or leave with their money

Yes, you can force people to give you their money. No I don’t mean robbing them. Imagine having to go through multiple steps like you fill in some of your information on one page then get sent to another for extra information then get sent to another for actually authorizing the payment. All this hustle just so you can pay someone for what you really want.

If some feels like their doing work to get something then you’ve failed as an e-commerce store because the customer probably going to be forced to leave with their money. This part ties in well with the previous point of making things clear and simple but I made it a separate thing to highlight it’s important because it goes beyond design but also about the forms in which the person can use to pay for the goods.

Make it irresistible for the customer to buy again

In the end of it all, it should just feel natural for the customer to buy again. You can even go as extreme as to make it feel irresponsible if the customer doesn’t buy again. How do you do this. Care for the customer after they’ve made the purchase.

This can be done by either giving them discounts on future purchases, making the delivery process of their goods very quick or bringing them into a special community through a membership that will give them added perks. Take for example Amazon and their Prime membership which gives users Free 2 Day shipping, exclusive deals and even let’s them try on clothes without paying for them.

Learn from but don’t try to be Amazon too early

Lastly, don’t try to scale to quickly if you cannot afford to. Instead offer good quality service then grow gradually. This might mean that you’ll need to solve the chicken and egg problem and manage your inventory well: don’t over stock and over estimate how many people will buy that stock but don’t have too little stock that people will be left wondering why their product isn’t being shipped because suddenly they were sold something that was out of stock.

Above all, always keep the customer in mind and don’t make them think, they should just buy as if it’s natural. From talking to people, I’ve discovered that most don’t buy online because they end up thinking too much. Whether it’s about how their stuff will arrive, what extra fees they’ll need to pay to get the stuff or even whether the stuff will arrive at all.

It just doesn’t feel natural to Zimbabwean, let me say for me as a Zimbabwean it doesn’t feel natural to buy online because there are too many barriers that make me think. If some were to make it seem like a natural thing by making it easy and convenient then there’s no doubt that many Zimbos would be buying goods online.




  1. Van Lee Chigwada

    Over the past 3 months I’ve turned down offers to join these e-commerce start-ups.
    I also reject the offer of developing an e-commerce website for someone in exchange for payment. I try to be an ethical developer, and I wont take your money if I can see you are a failed cause before you start.

    The problem with all of these e-commerce websites is similar. They think they can just create a web-platform and become billionaires. If only it were that easy.

    I know a lot of industry veterans. They could get a platform like Facebook up and running in a few weeks.
    I remember creating a minimal Facebook clone when I was learning PHP.

    Amazon itself ran from 1997 to 2003 with little to no profit at all. Bezos made no money for over six years! But look at him now.

    Then other factors like becoming an actual business played a key role. You don’t make money my playing middle-man. You create a need for you to exist. Amazon did this by buying large warehouses all over the place and keeping their own goods.

    Kudos for the piece.

    1. Imi Vanhu Musadaro

      It’s bad for your business as a developer to reject payment for a service a client requests. It’s not up to you to decide if their idea/start-up/e.t.c.. will succeed or fail. Software is not the only component to an online business, many other factors contribute to an online business success. Aside from that, if you refuse to develop it, someone else will. You are basically just passing business on to someone else.

    2. Sagitarr

      How do you KNOW that someone is a failure before they start. Are you psychic?
      You mention Bizos failing for 6 years before succeeding, does this not contradict your earlier assertion?

      1. Van Lee Chigwada

        When you pitch your start-up to me, and your entire business model is :

        PayPal is cool, lets create it again in Zimbabwe Mark Zucks beat the odds, we can do it too.

        My friend, you are in trouble.

        I’ve seen my fair share of start-ups come and go. I’ve got lessons learned

        1. Imi Vanhu Musadaro

          Pitch to you? Are you a venture capitalist? The client gives you a specification or outline of the product the want built. You do your analysis, research and then develop said product. They pay you, then use THEIR software as THEY had planned. Simple…

  2. G

    Additional factors to consider when starting a ecommerce startup in zimbabwe are
    – how are you going to deliver the products to clients (last mile)
    -margins vs profitability
    -business model (help businesses sell online or sell own products or help anyone sell online using ur platform)
    -how are you going to get customers (customer acquisition)

  3. Van Lee Chigwada

    When you pitch your start-up to me, and your entire business model is :

    PayPal is cool, lets create it again in Zimbabwe Mark Zucks beat the odds, we can do it too.

    My friend, you are in trouble.

    I’ve seen my fair share of start-ups come and go. I’ve got lessons learned