Chari digitizes the largely fragmented FMCG sector in parts of French-speaking Africa, particularly Morocco and Tunisia. It operates a mobile app that connects small retailers in these two countries to FMCG multinationals and local manufacturers, allowing them to order and get products in less than 24 hours.
E-commerce and FinTechs have been the top businesses that boomed during the Covid-19 pandemic, mainly driven by people’s desire to avoid public spaces and handling of bank notes and coins. Ismael Belkhayat and his wife Sofia Alj saw an opportunity to join the bandwagon in early 2020, little did they know how timely their idea had been.
Born in Casablanca, Morocco, Ismael Belkhayat studied his undergraduates in Europe and then went to Cornell university, New York for graduate studies. His first job was at Boston Consulting Group (BCG) in their office in Paris and then moved to their office in Morocco. After BCG, he became an entrepreneur and founded two companies: Property Real Estate website and ride-hailing platform Vatcoshefeikh.ma. Property Real Estate website is the leading Real Estate portal in Morocco and Ismael founded it through a joint venture with the group based in Dubai called Property Finder. After six years Ismael fully exited Vatcoshefeikh.ma by selling his shares to Aevis Carrian Rentals.
The Birth of the Chari.ma App
While doing routine grocery shopping, Ismael and Sofia noticed that restocking small shops was a highly inefficient process that costed owners both time and money. To have their inventories restocked, most shop owners had to wait for distributor vans to drop by with their orders. The delivery schedules were unpredictable and could at times arrive when the owners had customers, interrupting sales. An alternative to distributor vans was going to the wholesale market to buy stock. This was even costlier as the owners had to close shop, missing out on business, and also incurring transport costs which would eventually add to the final price of products.
Having worked with the FCMG sector as consultants, Ismael and Sofia came up with an idea that would streamline the restocking process for small shop owners. “My wife and I wanted to come up with very nice application with a lot of features that could help the shop owners with a lot of things,” Ismael points out. This led to the birth of Chari.ma, a business-to-business ecommerce and fintech mobile application for small shop owners. The owners could not only make orders from the click of a button but also have access to loans to fund their working capital.
The noble idea with loft ambitions was however not readily embraced by shop owners. “We gave them an application that nobody was ready to use because it was too complicated,” Ismael points out. He and his wife went back to the drawing board, simplified the app and replaced the crowded user interface with a much cleaner interface with easy-to-use features and instructions. “We deleted the writings, and added more visual features and that’s how we made these people start using the App.”
With user experience issues solved, Chari.ma launched in mid-2020 targeting small grocery store owners. When working with the grocery stores, messing up with one, means you messing with the whole group, but if you can do something nice word of mouth could be your best friend. Knowing this perfectly well, Ismael and Sofia knew they had to get it right from the start. They invited some of the shop owners, explained what they wanted to do and why they wanted them to use their services. The couple promised the business owners that they will smoothen their operations and did just that. “We were delivering on time. When the client returned a product, we were accepting the returns for free, and we made sure our reputation was the best that can ever be. We presented ourselves as a company which had impacts, social role; a company that was there to help them,” Ismael said.
Shop owners were not just experiencing supply chain inefficiencies, stiff competition from modern trade was also knocking on their doors. Modern trades are the big supermarkets who have a lot of money who can bring down prices to the disadvantage of small shops. “We came and explained to the small shops that we would gather them and become more powerful. If we buy all together, we get better prices and can better compete with the big industries,” Ismael added. With an established network of small shop owners, Chari.ma had leverage when approaching the big first moving consumer brands. They bargained for cheaper rates in exchange for the invaluable data on the where their goods are sold. With cheaper rates from FMCG companies, Chari.ma was able to deliver on its promise of giving small shop owners goods at prices that would enable them to favourably compete against modern trade.
Chari.ma further cemented its position as the supplier of choice for its clients as it was the only one willing to give thirty days of preterm for goods supplied. “We give them micro loans to finance their working capital, so this is basically why more than 10,000 SMEs have used the agent of sharing,” Ismael revealed adding that the startup had cultivated its own group of 6,000 regular SME clients. Chari comes as a ‘super app’ and it might take time before any other company in North Africa comes up with something similar.
Funding, a critical growth driver
Ismael revealed to us that external funding was critical to the startup’s success from day one. Before its launch in 2020, Chari.ma had raised a pre-seed funding round from HnS Invest Holding in 2019. Ismael and Sofia then combined the pre-seed and their savings to launch the company.
Almost one year into the business, Chari secured US$5 million in the largest venture funding round in the country in 2021. Ismael tells that it took four weeks to close the full seed round that valued it at US$70 million. The funding round was jointly led by Rocket Internet, Global Founders Capital and P1 Ventures.
Early this year, the startup closed another funding round that valued the company at US$100m. The funding was led by the Saudi-based venture capital fund Khwarizmi Ventures (KV), AirAngels (Airbnb Alumni Investors), and Afri Mobility, the venture capital arm of AKWA Group.
Chari.ma may have been successful in attracting considerable investment from investors but that was not only thing they were after when seeking external investment. Ismael reveals to us that the mindset to gain market share was another key factor propelling them into partnering with venture capitalists. The desire to grow and become better in what they do has seen the startup also participate in a number of accelerator programs including the prestigious Y Combinator. “It’s an honor for us to participate in the S21 batch of Y Combinator. With my co-founder, we will belong to the very closed circle of YC Alumni, allowing us to benefit from a global network of brilliantly successful startups. This will create a lot of value for our startup,” Ismael affirms.
Chari.ma is also a member of Station F, the largest startup campus in the world. The startup hopes that integration with Station F will allow it to benefit from the expertise of startups around the world and to evolve in an environment at the cutting edge of technology. It also hopes to use experience from Station F to prepare for a Series A fundraising in the future.
Expanding wings beyond Morocco
Born out of a need to assist small shop owners easily replenish their inventories, Chari.ma has bigger ambitions of impacting the entire retail sector in Africa. Just like a journey of a thousand miles starts with one step, Chari.ma has started its journey by expanding into neighboring Tunisia. Ismael says that they are in discussion with a company in Senegal to acquire them and the next move will be to the French speaking African countries such as Mauritania, Cameroon, Ivory Coast, Senegal and Algeria before going to the rest of Africa.
To aid in this growth is, Chari.ma acquired mobile credit book application Karny.ma. Karny.ma. allow traditional local businesses to manage their outstanding customers. Available on Google Play, the application allows them to simply record their transactions on their phone, share them with their debtors and thus more easily collect their loans. Karny.ma, founded by consultants from the Boston Consulting Group, already has 15,000 customer grocery stores across Morocco. What makes the app attractive to Chari.ma is its lower customer acquisition cost. Chari.ma thus hopes to use the mobile credit book application to acquire new users at a lower price and then convert them into Chari.ma users.