By Aliyu YAKUBU
America’s Jeff Bezos, the founder of e-commerce giant, Amazon, is becoming a trillionaire in the midst of COVID-19 global pandemic. This is both good and bad news. Good news because it is the reward of foresight and tenacity.
Bad news because, in the midst of the same pandemic, his e-commerce counterparts in Nigeria are counting losses. The difference is not in the business dexterity of Bezos, nor in the poor marketing skills of the Nigerian counterparts. The difference, unfortunately, is how the two governments reacted to the pandemic and its attendant lockdown.
While the US government gave a clear signal to e-commerce companies in America to move freely during lockdown to make delivery in anticipation of a surge in online shopping, the Nigerian government did the opposite. It locked down e-commerce activities by not clearly classifying e-commerce companies and their workers under ‘essential services’.
This is the difference between a 21st-century policy-smart government and a policy-dumb government. The US government anticipated a spike in online sales during the lockdown and gave free access to Amazon and other e-commerce workers. The Nigerian government was too happy to lock down e-commerce firms alongside other businesses.
Now, for the smartness of the US government, Bezos is walking his way to trillions. Imagine the tax that would add to US government purse. Imagine the number of jobs it will save when other companies around the world have either furloughed their staff or have sacked them outright.
This is a case of the absence of critical and strategic thinking in the Nigeria public ecosystem. Our leaders are not intentionally progressive. You cannot lock down a critical driver of the economy at a time you have decreed no-movement for the populace. It is also a function of low appreciation and lack of understanding of what e-commerce really means and how it works.
In the wake of the lockdown, somebody ought to have anticipated that Nigerians would resort to making online purchases, hence the overriding need to categorise e-commerce workers as persons on essential duty. The nature of e-commerce is that it’s unobtrusive, does not draw physical crowd yet it effectively services clients from its backend through the delivery channels. In this way, issues of non-compliance with social distancing and other precautionary protocols do not arise.
The paradox of the Nigerian e-commerce story during the pandemic is that they were lumped with other regular businesses and clamped with the same lockdown measure. They are not. Their staffs were treated as non-essential duty persons. It took some explanation for them to be allowed to do their businesses during the lockdown. In some states, it was practically impossible as e-commerce delivery workers were either harassed or turned back from performing their duties.
For instance, some delivery staff of Konga, Africa’s fastest-growing and most innovative e-commerce company, were either harassed or turned back from making deliveries. Delivery men were harassed while moving items inter-state. There were also reported cases of harassment within some metropolis. Lagos was no exception.
In Rivers State, not a single Experience Store was opened during the lockdown. Strict enforcement by the state government meant no e-commerce delivery man was allowed movement even within the metropolis.
You cannot build economies when you shut down all channels of trade. In the western world and Asia, persons on lockdown turned to online purchases to restock. Their governments clearly exempted e-commerce outfits from the list of companies that must remain shut for as long as the lockdown lasted. The net result is beginning to show in the balance sheet of Jeff Bezos’ Amazon.
Comparisun, a company which allows small- to medium-sized firms to compare different business products, projects that Bezos will by 2026 emerge as the world’s first-ever trillionaire, an honour he won’t be sharing with nobody, not even with Bill Gates of Microsoft whose fortunes keep growing with the birth of more technologies.
Their projection shows Bezos reaching trillionaire status by 2026. The company said their projection is based on taking the average percentage of yearly growth over the past five years and applying it to future years. Comparisun shows Bezos’ net worth grew an average of 34% over the last five years.
As of Thursday, May 14, Bezos’ net worth was estimated at $143 billion, according to Bloomberg’s Billionaires Index, which tracks the worth of the world’s richest people daily. Compared to last year, Bezos’ worth has surged by more than $28 billion. He profited heavily from the coronavirus pandemic. Shoppers denied access to physical stores turned to online stores to make purchases from groceries to gaming machines, toys for the kids and big toys for the parents. The lockdown was the appropriate time to change household electronics for most parents, just anything to fight the boredom.
In Nigeria, there were cases of security men delaying delivery for days by ‘impounding’ vehicles and keeping them for as long as they wished. Delayed delivery makes nonsense of e-commerce. One of the unique selling points of online shopping is the prompt delivery of goods. Once purchased goods are delayed, the suspense dies and so does the utility of the goods.
Unfortunately, this was what Nigeria’s e-commerce companies suffered during the lockdown. At a time they were supposed to win more patronage and disciples into the e-commerce family, they got stuck in resolving issues of violation of lockdown rules while their counterparts in Europe and America simply worried about their balance sheet.
Now, the difference is clear. Bezos and others are smiling to the bank; their Nigerian counterparts are counting losses. Lesson: When next you lock down a state or city, make sure that e-commerce workers are exempted.
However, beyond Nigeria e-commerce fraternity, Jeff Bezos himself must learn the lessons of his capitalist expansionism. When the news of his impending trillionaire status broke, Twitter went agog. Elizabeth Warren, businesswoman and Democratic presidential candidate tweeted: “While Bezos is on the track to become a trillionaire in the middle of a pandemic, Amazon is ending overtime pay for warehouse and delivery workers on the frontline. This is immoral.”
While I congratulate Bezos for his feat, I should also remind the Nigerian government that e-commerce deserves a better deal next time.
*Aliyu Yakubu writes from Abuja