“Local is lekker” for SA e-commerce startup Advance

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The “local is lekker” culture is already well established in South Africa, but e-commerce startup is looking to expand the concept with its online ecosystem.

Launched earlier this year, Advance links small producers with consumers, making it easier for people to order products from – and pay – local farmers, artisan bakers, craft brewers and the like.

Users can then collect their items directly from the producer or at a local collection point, or accept delivery if the store owner offers it. Advance co-founder Will Edgcumbe told Disrupt Africa the startup is trying to bring people closer to the source of their food or other locally produced items, and allow them to buy ethically with a truly clear conscience.

“We’re calling this hybrid retail, and we believe it’s the future of shopping – bringing online and offline together seamlessly,” he said.

The Advance team came up with the idea for the platform in early 2016 when trying to buy bread from a local bakery.

“We’d often drive from across town only to find that their limited wares were sold out, and their ordering system was very manual and unreliable – literally a phone call with your order scratched on a post-it,” Edgcumbe said.

“Whilst we understand that when it comes to ‘artisan’ products there can only be so many available, as a consumer it’s pretty frustrating. We engaged with the bakery to create a proof of concept for people to order and pay in advance, and then have their order ready and waiting on their collection day.”

What Edgcumbe and the rest of the team thought would be a simple development turned out to be much more complicated than expected, however.

“Through the planning phase we realised the scheduling and availability needed to be very robust and cater for all sorts of exceptions and the vagaries that artisans have in terms of how and when their products are available,” he said.

Eventually, however, the proof of concept app proved itself, with Advance then launched in its current multi-tenant form.

“Whilst building in the feature-set we wanted for launch, we met with farmers and other small producers all over the Western Cape and KwaZulu-Natal, and launched in mid-May in those provinces. Since then we’ve been growing the user base and partner stores, and working through all the new features we have planned,” said Edgcumbe.

He said buying local is appealing to most South Africans, but it is “really hard to do”.

“We’re trying to bring all those local producers together on one platform, exposing them to a wider market in their area, and making buying local as easy – or easier – than going to a large retail chain to do one’s shopping,” Edgcumbe said.

“In our experience so far, not only is the quality of the product offering generally much better, but we’re even finding that buying directly from the producer means that it’s cheaper or at least comparable to buying from the large retailers.”

The self-funded Advance has seen “pleasing” uptake with its uptake, with around 1,500 users so far.

“It’s an entirely different approach to e-commerce and particularly when it comes to buying food, so it is challenging convincing people to try the first time,” said Edgcumbe.

“However, once people use the ecosystem they tend to immediately see the value. We would like to estimate that 80 per cent of the orders placed are from people using the ecosystem regularly. There is still much growth we need to pursue, but we’ve been thrilled with the feedback so far.”

Operating in the Western Cape and KwaZulu-Natal currently, Advance also has plans to expand to other provinces.

“The next major step is Gauteng. We already have a number of amazing producers signed up, but we want to launch with a critical mass in key areas. We’re also offering white labelled versions of the platform for producers looking to customise Advance for their customers,” said Edgcumbe.

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Passionate about the vibrant tech startups scene in Africa, Tom can usually be found sniffing out the continent’s most exciting new companies and entrepreneurs, funding rounds and any other developments within the growing ecosystem.

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