Africa’s e-commerce boom has its roots in the late 2000s and early 2010s. With rapid internet penetration on the continent, as well as the launch of platforms that eased payments, there were numerous opportunities for innovation in inter and intra-national logistics that would help complete the triangle.
In Nigeria, one of the companies that deliver this goal is Heroshe. Heroshe is a cross-border e-commerce, logistics, and payments startup solving the problem of access to global commerce beyond Nigeria for businesses and individuals who want to access products that are not locally available. For Nigerians, that translates to an affordable service that helps people buy, ship, and deliver goods from the US within a reasonable period. The name Heroshe is derived from the Japanese word ‘Hiroshi’ which means generous and it encapsulates the team’s vision.
Heroshe, however, didn’t start out to become the booming B2B2C platform it is today. In October 2012, the business started with Chinyere Ukomadu who had just begun helping family and friends shop for and ship goods from stores in the US—where she was based—to Nigeria using third-party courier services. While services like FedEx, UPS, and DHL existed, she quickly realized, upon speaking to clients, that many had problems with these services: they were expensive—with some charging over $100 for shipping items less than 1 pound—and had to pay customs duty when the packages got to Nigeria. She decided to build a solution that did not depend on these major carriers which will work for small businesses and individuals who can’t afford their exorbitant rates.
As word spread from family and friends, she decided to solve the problem by formalising the structure for orders. When this began to take off, it dawned on them that there was something interesting to pursue. It was at this point that they came up with the thesis that a future is coming where “people will live anywhere and shop anywhere as long as the price is right, the quality is right and their items would get to them within a reasonable time”. They set out to prove this thesis by exploring several business models and pivoting as they learned. They plotted the models on their business model canvas as they went to work validating/invalidating each model.
At the time, they knew they were early to the market but they stood tenacious in pursuing their vision. Their first business model was built at a time when solutions for infrastructural problems like digital payment and last-mile logistics had not been solved. Today, those problems are tackled by fintechs like Flutterwave, and logistics services like GIG. But at Heroshe’s early stages, these solutions did not exist. They had to build workarounds to solve these problems and delight customers, and that meant they had to try options that sometimes didn’t scale.
Heroshe used tools like Blackberry Messenger to communicate with prospective customers, and third-party courier services to ship to Nigeria. To streamline orders, they built a landing page on SquareSpace, created orders on Formstack, sent invoices using Freshbooks, and received the payment through direct deposit into their Nigerian bank accounts. The last-mile deliveries, when the goods landed in Lagos, would be handled by a company representative who would load up all the items into a taxi, call customers to confirm their orders, and drive around Lagos delivering to customers.
In 2015, after speaking with customers and compiling a list of in-demand items from them, the company sampled a payment-on-delivery business model. They filled a forty-foot container, and shipped it to Nigeria where customers—who had previously indicated interest — would pay for their items. The model, however, turned out to be a colossal disaster when those who had ordered failed to fulfill their orders. The team was stuck with a forty feet container filled with perishable goods which they had to liquidate within two weeks. The team, led by Chinyere Ukomadu, swung into action to find buyers to take the goods off their hands as quickly as possible.
In 2016, the adoption of Nigeria’s cashless policy brought a new upgrade to Heroshe. Customers who realised they could then shop and pay for goods using their own Mastercard or Visa debit cards turned to Heroshe to provide the logistics. Initially, the team was skeptical about the business model, worried that people would misuse the service by using stolen credit cards to purchase goods and so only trusted customers had access to this offering. The secret, however, spread fast and more customers—old and new—clamored for access to Heroshe’s Ship for Me feature and the company acquiesced. With Ship for Me, customers would shop for goods from online stores like eBay or Amazon, ship their goods to Heroshe’s address in Texas, and Heroshe, in turn, would ship the goods to Nigeria.
Between 2012 and 2019, Heroshe had 1,500 loyal customers, processing over 200 packages weekly. The team concluded that this model—shipping only—was easily scalable and set out to work, halting the Shop for Me offer. The next task was building a platform where prospective customers could easily learn about Heroshe’s services and pricing, and track any orders they make. The platform would also help the team manage their product offerings on one consolidated tool. It was at this time that Joseph Cobhams came on board as the CTO and he helped build the technology team. The team also launched the logistics platform that would optimize its service delivery and power growth. This came from many years of failures, learnings and pivots through sheer grit.
Heroshe.com was officially relaunched in 2019, providing shipping services from the US to Nigeria for businesses and individuals. The platform has allowed Heroshe to continue to learn and iterate towards a more suitable product for prospective customers. The platform offerings presently include a Ship For Me feature at US$5 per pound for shipping from the US to Nigeria, and an additional US$10 for last-mile delivery in Lagos and to any state or region in Nigeria. Heroshe customers get their packages delivered within fourteen days upon payment and a 30-day pre-shipping storage option for customers who can’t pay immediately. Customers can shop from all stores in the US — including Walmart, Amazon, Nike, ASOS and Zara — and get their packages delivered to Heroshe’s address.
Since launching in 2019, the company has processed orders weighing over 200,000 pounds growing to over 40,000 users, acquiring customers organically and scaling through bootstrapping. But it is only the beginning, according to Osinachi. “At Heroshe, we are improving lives by opening access to global commerce. This takes different dimensions. We want people to live anywhere and shop anywhere.”
Heroshe is expanding its product offerings to serve more business users that need access to more global suppliers and provide the logistics for them to their customers. Heroshe plans to eventually expand its offerings to other African nations including intra-African transactions in the next two years.
“Our desire is to make an impact,” said Osinachi. “We want to see more businesses establish and thrive on our platform thereby providing opportunities for millions of people who are looking to start and scale their businesses. We have spent time and resources to build a resilient logistics platform that serves tens of thousands. We want to open this platform to enable both existing businesses and aspiring individuals to access customers, products, and logistics capabilities to deliver goods and services for their e-commerce and social commerce businesses.”
To drive this further, the company is platforming its logistics solution to enable more businesses to run their business on its platform. Over 40% of Heroshe’s customer base are business users who use its platforms to shop and ship for their customers; the company is adding more tools and services to enable business owners to establish and grow their businesses on its platform. Heroshe will enable them by providing access to customers, global inventory, enabling cross-border payments, and powering the first leg and last-mile logistics to their customers.