Switched on! Women entrepreneurs in North Africa grasp business potential online

26 October 2011
ITC News

In North Africa, women entrepreneurs are discovering the potential of online business platforms, but having a website alone is not enough. Success in the online environment also depends on having a good business and marketing plan supported by sympathetic local business realities including affordable e-commerce solutions and technology infrastructure.

When mechanical engineer Hajer Belaiba’s second daughter was born, the new mother faced a dilemma. How could she spend more time with her children and still have a career? After some research, the spirited Tunisian found the solution online. ‘Selling handicrafts seemed a good choice as there are beautiful products not necessarily available abroad,’ says Mrs. Belaiba, as she recalls setting up her web-shop – Produits de Tunisie – two years ago.

Her timing was perfect, as the sudden availability of open-source e-commerce solutions, like PrestaBox and Magento, was already sparking a boom in online sales across Europe and America. After about a year of dealing with costly web agencies, she decided to use open-source technology to launch a website where she manages the content and maintenance. But opening the doors of her virtual shop was only part of her successful strategy.

‘If you have a good idea, e-commerce presents huge opportunities because the set-up costs these days are so low,’ says Sonia Latrous Guidara, who runs an online services incubator for small and medium enterprises in Tunis. ‘What you need, of course, is a good business case and to know what the market is expecting,’ she declares.

‘It [marketing] was a field I knew nothing about,’ says Mrs. Belaiba, but it was critical to raise her shop’s visibility above other sellers of Tunisian handicrafts, so she plugged into what she calls the ‘international word of mouth’ – or, social media. With 600 million people now using Facebook, for example, e-businesses like Mrs. Belaiba’s can maximize their opportunities to stay in touch with their customers and to expand their client-base without spending much, claims Ms. Guidara. For this reason, Facebook and Twitter are now an essential part of Mrs. Belaiba’s e-business, but not the only one. ‘On special occasions such as Christmas I also use more targeted and paid publicity,’ she says. It has taken time, but this strategy has paid off. ‘By the second year my site had become known and I have started selling,’ she says.

In neighbouring Algeria, Samira Sadali also had high hopes for her e-business, but recently discontinued her web-shop. ‘You can’t buy or sell because electronic payments can’t be done and on top of that we Algerians have no access to credit cards,’ she explains.

Ms. Sadali’s web-shop offered a range of decorative local art and handicrafts. The products were often unique pieces, selected for their exclusive character or originality. ‘I could see these kinds of products were being exported from Tunisia and other neighbouring countries but not from here where we also have beautiful products,’ she says. While her website was an excellent promotional tool – attracting the attention of buyers from France and South Africa – without the ability to trade online, Ms. Sadali eventually decided to drop the e-commerce side of her business. She feels her efforts were premature given the e-business environment, but hopes to be back online soon. ‘The electronic growth will happen here too because people, particularly the middle class, are ready for it. People want to consume, the ideas are there and many already have access to the Internet at home or in their offices,’ she says.

Elsewhere in the region other significant structural barriers also remain. For Hajer Belaiba, in Tunisia, the high cost of shipping means she loses customers who are unwilling to pay almost the same again for postage. Meanwhile, currency controls mean that she and her counterparts across the region are unable to pay for services from abroad. It is important now, says Martin Labbé, Online Marketing and Digital Networks Advisor for the International Trade Centre (ITC), for governments to give their online entrepreneurs the best possible chances to compete by liberalizing postal markets, easing currency controls, and by making online payments available locally. ‘These steps, more than any other, boost e-commerce,’ he says. Mr. Labbé works on several e-commerce projects in North Africa as part of the Enhancing Arab Capacity for Trade (EnACT) programme, financed by the Canadian International Development Agency and implemented by ITC. EnACT supports efforts that build skills and provide advice on web marketing and e-commerce to governments and budding entrepreneurs in the region. ‘New technologies offer tremendous leverage in terms of women and youth employment’, states Torek Farhadi, the programme’s coordinator.

Leading Moroccan e-business woman Samira Gourroum believes that ICTs could become their oil: ‘We have the engineers, the competencies and the knowhow.’ For the past 11 years, this 37 year-old IT engineer has worked as the Director of Technologies and Business Development at Maroc Télécommerce – the only local company that provides a payment gateway to e-commerce websites.

At first, the business struggled as e-commerce was little known in Morocco; but in 2008, it took off. This was largely due to online payment becoming available, the private sector seeing the benefits of e-commerce, and the Government’s ICT promotion strategy. The strategy includes simultaneously developing the needed infrastructure and skills.

‘The liberalization of the telecommunications sector in the country was of course a key change,’ says Mrs. Gourroum. Amongst other things, this plan aims for two-thirds of the population of Morocco to gain Internet access. In this receptive environment, Mrs. Gourroum sees her business growing. ‘For the time being our platform offers online payment solutions to individuals using credit cards. But, we also want to offer services to companies and government institutions. It is ambitious but we think the time is right.’

Mr Labbé explains further that the rise of e-commerce in North Africa also gives women the opportunity to jump traditional hurdles they may face in the business world. Hajer Belaiba agrees, but warns that e-commerce alone is no magic wand: ‘Women in Tunisia, for example, stay at home usually because they have lower levels of education. [...] Without support they will not easily start this kind of enterprise. But she quickly points out that through her example some of her women friends have become inspired to set-up shop online. To these friends and other women considering starting their own e-business, Mrs. Belaiba says, ‘Go for it! You can choose your own working hours, the products you like to sell and you can spend more time with your family. The advantages are many.’

Expert tips for starting an e-business

•   Have a business plan.

•   Do your market research, know who your potential buyers are and make sure your product appeals to them.

•   International markets have great potential, but are also competitive.

•   Budget for marketing and communications.

•   Compete on quality, not price.


What policymakers can do to help e-commerce flourish

•   Liberalize postal markets to reduce shipping costs.

•   Allow credit card payments to open domestic markets that compliment international markets.

•   Ease currency controls to give your e-businesses the best chances to compete.

•   Empower women to get involved by supporting them in obtaining the skills and resources needed to establish e-businesses.