An e-commerce platform in Senegal offers agribusinesses and smallholder farmers access to urban clients looking to buy quality local products.
The Senegalese start-up Sooretul– meaning ‘it’s right here’ in Wolof – is devoted to delivering rural products to urban consumers. The Sooretul e-commerce platform for the online sale of local and organic foods was launched in 2014 to bring these products to Dakar consumers.
The recent emergence of the middle class in Senegal has led to a shift in eating habits, but food supply trends have not followed suit. Urban consumers seeking attractive, ready-to-eat, processed and quality-controlled foods are also more demanding regarding the traceability and ethical aspects of these commodities. “There is growing awareness that local goods are a lever for the Senegalese economy,” says Awa Caba, just 30-years-old and co-founder of Sooretul. “More imported products are currently sold in Dakar supermarkets than local processed products.”
Promoting local products
Prior to launching Sooretul, the four founders of the Sooretul platform – who were all computer engineering students at the École Supérieure Polytechnique in Dakar – created a platform in 2011 to promote and provide information to producers on fisheries, livestock and agricultural products in the framework of Microsoft’s Imagine Cup local competition. The platform then morphed into an e-commerce platform in September 2014 to fill the local product supply gap and facilitate the buying process. Sooretul was launched with the founders’ own funds and a grant from Fond de Développement du Service Universel des Télécoms, which ensures that a public telecom service is available across the country.
First, it was essential to identify existing processing units, which are primarily run by all-women small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), thousands of which are found in Senegal. Sooretul’s collaboration with these women processors gives them material support, more visibility and access to a new urban clientele. With over 7 million people in Senegal digitally connected, rural women living hundreds of kilometres from Dakar have access to a huge number of consumers through Sooretul’s online platform. In fact, women-led SMEs have reported that Sooretul has enabled them to more than double their monthly turnover.
“Many of the women work in their processing units and have no access to the technology necessary to promote their products,” says Caba. “In rural areas, they do not necessarily have sales outlets nearby, nor can they afford to open one. Online selling turned out to be the best option.” Caba goes on to explain that this new market also enables cooperatives to expand and tailor their range of products. “Feedback from customers during home delivery helps us guide our processors towards improving their products or creating new ones.”
“Administration is the toughest part”
After convincing women processors to embrace e-commerce, the first main hurdle that the SME had to overcome was coping with the administrative aspects of running a business. Caba and her three associates – all with engineering training – had no prior entrepreneurial experience. “The Microsoft competition awakened our entrepreneurial spirit, but the administration was the toughest part at first,”says the entrepreneur.“Tax issues are still tricky because Senegal does not have a suitable taxation regime for start-ups, except perhaps on paper. However, taxes levied on not yet profitable start-up companies are crippling. We had to work informally for the first 2 years because we were not earning enough money to pay the taxes.” Caba now belongs to the Enablis entrepreneurial network, where she can obtain legal advice regarding supplier contracts, corporate restructuring and business issues.
Sooretul is in its growth phase and has successfully tripled its sales between 2015 and 2017. This revenue is derived from three activities: online sales, a business catering service that was launched in 2016, and a partnership with DIGITAG, a digital marketing agency. This partnership has attracted the attention of USAID, which supports four producers’ and women processors’ platforms throughout Senegal. “USAID helps processors develop new products and then calls on us to promote them. We shoot videos illustrating recipes, while showcasing the food products and the women processors involved,” says Caba. DIGITAG is currently Sooretul’s largest source of income.
In November 2016, Sooretul also received a €15,000 grant from CTA, as winner of the Pitch AgriHack competition’s advanced stage category. CTA’s support has helped Caba to grow her business. Since 2016, she has expanded her supplier base to work with three new women cooperatives to meet consumer demand for particular products (e.g. local rice from northern Senegal), as well as purchase a vehicle to facilitate delivery of larger goods.
The search for long-term investment
However, Sooretul has not yet achieved profitability. Moreover, the start-up is under competition from some hypermarkets. “Until 2017, our prices were competitive compared to those of the Casino and City Dia supermarket chains, but then Auchan arrived on the scene and undercut us. Customers have the choice – our marketing rationale is focused on the rareness, local origin and distinctiveness of our products rather than on the price,” says Caba.
Caba is also using the support to develop business partnerships outside Senegal; Sooretul is currently finalising deals with a retailer in Côte d’Ivoire and has also started selling its products to an Asian business wholesaler. To support the growth of the start-up, CTA also invited Caba to participate in events to give Sooretul international visibility. Commercial partnerships in France have been explored, Sooretul products were presented in Geneva at a social investment meeting and the SME was able to interact during recent events organised by the African Development Bank.
Sooretul is now looking for investors to help it acquire more equipment, increase business, reinforce staff capacity, hire people to help with the increased workload and launch a broad communication campaign to promote the platform. Caba is ambitious, “We now hope to get a foothold in major African capitals, starting with Abidjan. This will require a large-scale communications campaign to scale-up our sales and generate profits.”