• Tuesday, July 23, 2024
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‘We are the first social marketplace in Nigeria’

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Cristobal Alonso, co-Founder and chairman of Mobofree, an online market place in Nigeria and other part of the world, in this interview with BEN UZOR talks about the enormous potentials inherent in the online business landscape despite limited broadband access. He also spoke on the need for better cyber-security, amongst other germane issues

Cristobal Alonso, co-Founder and chairman of MobofreeNigeria launch

We are the first social market place in Nigeria. We actually started with about five countries in Africa including Uganda, Zimbabwe, Morocco and others, but we have decided to focus more on the Nigerian market because of its uniqueness. We are actually trying to ensure that our slogan ‘Africa’s leading social market place’ come to reality. We have slowed down in other countries because of the Nigerian market. MoboFree is a platform where people could sell, buy and swap, but the social element of the platform helps to do this in a more trusted and convenient way. We are able to do this by allowing our buyers and sellers get a lot of personal information about each other – starting from photos and common friends and ending with ratings or other data, which allows one to identify if the person is trustworthy.

We fully understand that negotiation and communication during the buying/selling process is very crucial. In view of this, we allow our members to conveniently communicate and negotiate without leaving the platform. They can do it via private message or via chat. Our members send over eight million private messages per month. By 2016, after we must have gained significant presence in Nigeria, we shall continue our expansion into other countries, which will also depend on the number of talents available locally. We planned to grow with the market. The market is here in Africa because the use of smartphones and other new technologies are on the upswing. We believe that MoboFree can latch unto these opportunities considering that Europe and other parts of the world are already saturated.

Market expectations
The Nigerian online space is still in its infancy but full of growth potential. The market is very dynamic even at an early stage. We foresee further penetration of smartphones and others. Mobofree.com is aiming at maintaining its number one/number two position over the coming two years, which means not less than 25 percent market share. Like I said earlier, our focus is to operate in growth countries, especially in Africa and with what we have seen so far, Nigeria is an obvious choice as the largest market in Africa, with very high mobile presentation and a rich trading culture.

Broadband penetration
There has been some appreciable level of development compared to some years back. The quality of Internet access has increased significantly in Nigeria. This development has a clear impact on the amount of players trying to enter the market and the amount of users who want to be part of the online world. However, while this is good news we still see Internet penetration lagging behind both in terms of coverage and speeds. In terms of affordability, we believe that with the current number of telecoms infrastructure providers in the market, if the bandwidth is there, prices will go down and usage will increase. In terms of the government, we believe that most of these challenges will be overcome if led by the private sector.

But the government has the capability to be an influence. The degree of success on the issue of broadband penetration and bandwidth will make one of the biggest differences for the development of the Nigerian economy. Nigeria needs strong and secure online presence for continuous traction.

Cyber security
Online scams and the rest are serious problems in our target markets. It can be dangerous to go on a ‘‘blind date” with the buyer or seller with money or an expensive item in your pocket. Our focus is to enable the social marketplace to battle scam. Most boards of classifieds provide minimal contact info – phone and sometimes email, but Mobofree.com approach is different. For us, a big part of the community members are involved in scam control activities as volunteers. We have a dedicated technical solution allowing us to identify suspicious behavior. Every classified advert goes live only after manual check by the customer support officers.

We do three things. First, we try to check every acts done on the platform. Like I said there is an operating team that monitors all activities on the site. Secondly, we try to profile users and know their activeness. Thirdly, in certain verticals, where we are not yet, we have people on ground checking such transactions. In fact Lamudi is doing something in that regards in the housing sector. We also try to help people, including SMEs come online directly to avoid tragedies.

E-commerce
It is very exciting. Obviously, the current penetration is much lower than in the U.S or Western Europe but the growth rate is very interesting. I believe without having exact numbers that it is growing at least 25 per cent on a yearly basis and it is likely going to hit the $1 billion mark over the next three to four years.

Competition
Our strategy is to have a clear differentiation from our competitors. And this is what Mobofree.com offers to its users, sellers and buyers, a unique social market place, where buyers and sellers interact and transact thus creating trust. That is the value we offer and strive to maintain against our competitors. We believe in having the best possible product and an optimized user experience regardless of how you access. I also believe in segmentation so that we can understand the markets individually, which I see as a a major edge. We are also looking at getting very close to customers, having a one to one relationship with them. It is also very important for our kind of business to have capacity to listen so that you identify uniquely with the consumer.

Mobofree.com currently has more than 3.3 million registered users, with more than two million users in Nigeria. The platform adds thousands of new registered members every day and for this reason we believe Mobofree is well positioned to capture more market share by the day and soon spring to be number one in Nigeria.

Investments
We planned heavy investments on our product and marketing spending and Nigeria has the largest share of that investment. Furthermore we will continue enlarging our local presence as part of our investment. MoboFree user experience is well customized for feature phones, smart phones, tablets and PC. We have always made sure we optimized our experience towards features phones as more than 60 per cent of African population access Internet via feature phones. But as the market evolves the amount of devices will continue growing and our technical solution makes the user experience of buying and selling online not only available but also optimised for any African user regardless of their access device.

Regulation
I think the government is doing a lot already, but as usual it can do more. Government can have a great push and influence in terms of broadband access. However, the government needs to be very active in two key areas: infrastructure improvement and a solid regulatory framework. I believe and I have seen the Nigerian government working hard and achieving results in those areas and we believe it will continue to do so. In terms of improving infrastructure, the online marketplaces offers convenience and an easier way to put buyers and sellers in contact, but they still need power to charge their phones and PCs. Reliable power is still one of the key challenges the country faces and it can’t be emphasized loud enough how important it is that government should keep investing in this area.
At the same time good roads are also fundamental. Even if goods are purchased or traded online there is still a need to use the roads to deliver or trade these goods. Better roads will mean more e-commerce and online trading. In terms of regulation, the government needs to ensure that legislation is updated with the times and offer a solid ground to do business.

USPF drives ICT penetration in rural and underserved areas
The federal government is set to address critical challenges impeding access to Information and Communication Technology (ICT) facilities in rural and underserved areas. The move to bridge the digital divide between people living in the cities where there is already ICT access and the un-served and the under-served areas in the country, is being driven through the Universal Service Provision Fund (USPF). The USPF, a body set up by the Nigerian Communications Commission to promote the growth of ICT connectivity in the rural areas, is to ensure the implementation of the development of a Strategic Management Plan 2013-2017 for the ICT industry.

Speaking at a consultative stakeholders forum organised by USPF to unveil its strategies for the country to achieve and implement the Strategic Master Plan (SMP) 2013-2017, the Chairman, USPF Board and Minister of Communications Technology, Omobola Johnson, said the government’s plan was to use USPF as a vehicle to fast-track ICT access and address other issues affecting both data and voice services availability. The Minister, who was represented by Peter Igho, chairman, Nigeria Communications Commission (NCC), said though Nigeria is still facing a number of infrastructure challenges, among many others, which is impeding ubiquitous access to ICT connectivity and services, plans were ongoing to address some of the challenges facing ICT penetration in the country.

The minister, who noted that the Nigerian Communications Act 2003 places significant responsibilities on the USPF, said the Fund, in addition, would be used to provide greater social and cultural development in Nigeria. “The USPF’s role has now been more crucial as Nigeria is now set for an Internet and broadband revolution and the programmes considered by the USPF could give our country the push it needs to become a truly-digitalised nation,” she said. On the reason for organising the forum, Omobola Johnson said it was to seek industry inputs that will define the direction of the Fund’s activities over the next five years. It was also to enable interactions between the stakeholders and key players in the telecoms market on how best to implement the five year strategic plan of USPF.

Meanwhile, KPMG, the global consulting firm, is working closely with USPF to design the strategies for implementing the SMP 2013-2017 for the country. The KPMG, at the forum, also unveiled its strategies for achieving the country’s strategic plan for the ICT industry. Joseph Tegbe, partner, management consulting, KPMG, said in response to the challenge faced by USPF in implementing SMP 2007-2001, emphasis will now be placed on carrying out some key activities in the execution of the new SMP. Listing the key activities, Tegbe said, “We are embarking on holistic approach to project selection; engagement of stakeholders; qualifications of maximum allowable subsidies; sustainability of operational cost; and implementation of a monitoring and evaluation framework.”