16th Jun

I moved to Nigeria to start an online business. Here’s how I’m doing. (Part 2)

Hello Murtala Mohammed International airport!

It took me two weeks to realise that things out in Nigeria move slowly. Very s-l-o-w-l-y. It was almost as though we were in a different realm of time, so I soon learned not to underestimate the importance of overplanning. You want something from the bank, you over-plan by making sure that you’re there to help them open the gates in the morning.  And so forth. Take getting a local phone line, for example. I thought I just needed to purchase a SIM card to get a local phone line. Wrong. All new SIM cards were barred by default until I went to a dealer in person to register my personal details against the sim card. Fair enough, as it was part of a government-wide fraud prevention program.  However, this meant that after purchasing my SIM card, I needed to fill out a registration form (which I did), hand my personal details over (okay), and wait 24 hours for my new line to be activated. If I thought this was long enough, I didn’t know what was coming.

TWO days after doing all that was required of me, my SIM card was still not registered. I couldn’t speak to my husband without borrowing someone’s phone (O2 charges about a million pounds per second to roam, so not an option). So I decided to put my head in the sand for a little while, and focus on things I could control. Like setting up my online store, and choosing a product to sell to the international market.

I started with an inventory of my skills and resources which I could count on for this task. I very quickly did a SWOT analysis.

Just in case you didn’t know, I used to own an online store selling wholesale stock to business people based in Nigeria. I packed it in after around 5 years for several reasons which I cannot go into now. When I worked on that store, I did it the traditional way – found suppliers, contracted the site to a professional web designer (£2000!), waited about 8 -10 weeks, tested the site, requested changes and in about 3 months, I was ready to list my first product. Only then could I start my marketing,  advertising and prayers. There was an awful amount of waiting-around time (I did e-mail product photos and prices to people in the mean time, but gosh it felt so unprofessional!). On top of it all, the Germany-based hosting provider I used went bankrupt and I lost the site and everything on it. I then decided to use a WP solution since I had learnt to make WP sites and nothing prepared me for the headaches involved with dealing with hacked sites, updating plugins, hiring developers to add extra functionality, fixing problems etc.

This time around, I decided to spend more time on the product and using an out-of-the-box solution to build the site. Afterall, people exist out there who live and breathe e-commerce shops night and day, so why not hand over the store to them? So I looked around for an e-commerce shop solution which had the following features:

  • could be managed from Nigeria
  • offered payment gateways for international clients
  • had the ability to access my payments from Nigeria
  • was easy to use
  • was completely managed by experts
  • had features/plugins I could add to my store as I saw fit
  • had a no-obligation trial period, so I could do a test run
  • cost me less than £30/month

I shopped around and Shopify kept popping up, so I looked into it. I found out that Shopify had teamed up with a Nigerian startup – Paystack, to offer African e-commerce stores the ability to collect money in Naira. That’s my first 2.5 checkpoints ticked.   I reached out to one of the people behind Paystack to gain clarity, and here was his very gracious response:

Now that I know better, building the store from scratch is no longer worth 90% of my efforts. I have decided instead to focus on validating my idea.

Remember that SIM card I applied for earlier in this post? Well, in the midst e-commerce research, I decided to go back to the store to check that the cashier had not been kidnapped or worse. It turned out that she had not been spirited away as I thought. Instead she just “forgot”. Just like that. I had to pick my expectations up from the floor and accept that These Things Happen Here. 4 days after my visit, I had reception on my mobile phone. One life-long lesson I have picked up in this journey is that if you are mentally prepared to be a.) disappointed and b.) face each disappointment when it comes with tough resistance, you have better chances of achieving what you set out to achieve. If you arrive with rosy expectations, this place will gun you down and you will end up wilted and wasted by the roadside. On this journey, I have been quite determined that nothing can stop me from my e-commerce dream – building and marketing a physical product on sale internationally. Onwards and forwards.

Validating my idea

When I was at University, I started up a business venture that never really materialised. Back then, I spoke with a business consultant who gave me all the validation I needed. Apparently, my idea was in the top 10 best ideas he had ever heard, so I ran with it. I wrote out a 30+ page business plan which basically tried to confirm what he said – that the business was viable. After this process, I had to proceed to start building the business – business registrations, renting an office, ordering the products, marketing, seeking funding and then trying to get customers appreciate all your handwork with some interest. Possibly a sale. Well, I was exhausted by the time I had reached item 5 on the menu and gave it up.

This time, I decided to take the more sensible approach of testing the idea first before spending on it. The aim of this was basically to prove that the demand exists for the product/idea, so that I didn’t end up with a product no one was willing to pay for. If I was going to spend any money at all, it was to put the product in front of potential customers in order to figure out whether or not they would potentially make a purchase. More about this later. The point is that I wasn’t prepared to sink £2,000 into a venture to guess whether people would buy or not – never again.