Africa. Picture: ISTOCK
Africa. Picture: ISTOCK

When Christophe Fofana, a 29-year-old taxi driver and student in Ivory Coast, needed a birthday present for his daughter in 2018, he did something he had not done before. He went shopping online.

“It was a specific toy, an electric car, that I either couldn’t find in stores or was very expensive,” he said in Abidjan, the commercial capital.

He found a gift for the big day on Jumia, the online retailer active in 14 African countries.

Fofana is one of more than 4-million customers Jumia Technologies has amassed in the seven years since the company was founded, a number that jumped 48% in 2018.

The accelerating growth rate has convinced the company’s co-founders, former McKinsey colleagues Sacha Poignonnec and Jeremy Hodara, to pursue an initial public offering (IPO) in New York this week.

Jumia is planning to sell 13.5-million American depository shares at $13-$16, raising as much as $216m.

The listing is meant to give the company financial flexibility and increase awareness of the brand among investors, the firm said in a regulatory filing in March.

Dubbed Africa’s Amazon.com, Jumia has been able to grow in markets largely untapped by the US heavyweight, which is hampered by a lack of distribution infrastructure on the continent.

To tackle the issue of vague addresses in many African cities, Jumia has built a network of leased warehouses, pick-up and drop-off locations and brought in a string of delivery partners to ensure reliable service.

Less than 1% of retail sales in Jumia’s African footprint are conducted online compared with nearly 24% in China, the company said in the filing, citing Euromonitor International data.

That makes the continent ripe for internet sellers as more Africans adopt smartphones and get access to mobile broadband.

Jumia’s revenue jumped almost 40% in 2018 to €130.6m.

De-risking Africa

The company, which has headquarters in Berlin and got early funding from German start-up incubator Rocket Internet, is not profitable.

Jumia reported a loss for 2018 of about €170m and has warned prospective IPO investors that it has accumulated losses of €862m since its inception and relies on external financing to compensate for negative cash flow.

Still, investors tend to give e-commerce companies leeway because customer growth and market share are seen as more important, according to Seema Shah, a consumer analyst at Bloomberg Intelligence in New York.

While the company competes with the likes of Amazon’s Souq.com and Naspers in individual markets, Jumia has said it believes it is the only pan-African e-commerce site.

“If an online retailer develops a name and offers a good consumer experience, people feel safer to use it,” Shah said.

For the IPO to be successful, investors will have to see Jumia as “a chance to play in Africa with less risk”.

French drinks company Pernod Ricard, the maker of Absolut vodka, invested €75m in December, giving the firm a 5.1% stake and vaulting Jumia into unicorn territory with a €1.4bn valuation.

Mastercard followed with an agreement to buy €50m in stock in a private placement alongside the IPO.

Prior to the offering, Jumia’s biggest shareholder is SA wireless carrier MTN Group, with a 30% stake, followed by Rocket.

Buenos Aires-based e-commerce firm Mercado Libre has a similar profile, Shah said.

The company also largely beat Amazon to the punch in emerging markets, using a New York share sale in 2007 to expand in Latin America, offering shares at $18 each. The stock now trades above $500 and the group raised $1.85bn in a fresh share sale in March.

Payment service

Jumia is also expanding its more nascent payment service, JumiaPay. The app, first introduced in 2016, allows shoppers to settle bills over their computer or phone, even if they are more used to cash payments.

It is now used to pay for most of the orders on Jumia’s platform in Nigeria and Egypt, the company said.

“There are other online shopping services, but Jumia is definitely number one,” said Fofana in Abidjan.

“In Ivory Coast, we’re sometimes sceptical about online businesses. Jumia is fast, reliable and all you need to register is a phone number and an e-mail address.”

Bloomberg