What if you owned a small percentage of the marketplace where you buy your essentials from? That every purchase you make, yields profits which will eventually trickled down to you because you co-own the marketplace together with other members of your community. Certainly, your sense of pride will be boosted. You are no longer just a consumer, you become part of the elite category of people known as investors, people who do not just drive the economy but own it. Unfortunately, most online-market places do not afford people the chance of becoming investors. A single share of Amazon, the world’s largest retailer, averages at about US$3,400, more than what most people in Africa take home as annual salaries. Even Africa-focused online retailer Jumia does not come cheap with its shares currently trading at US$18, which is ten times more what a majority of people in Africa spend on meals on a single day.
Somewhere further south in the continent, a group of business men and women are working tirelessly to change the narrative. Their dream is that every man and woman should experience what it feels like to own a small part of the economy. To make the dream a reality, the business men and women combined their resources, talents, and networks to create an online market place with a unique structure where not only do ordinary South Africans get to purchase product at competitive rates but also get to be co-owners of the site. We got a chance to chat with Leopold Malan, one of the key people driving the business, and his insights revealed to us how Sakeng is working behind the scenes to create an inclusive South Africa where everyone can prosper.
An Online Market Place & a Mobile Network
Sakeng Emporium’s quest in economic inclusivity gave birth to the idea of an online marketplace where retailers and consumers could meet and trade. “If you look at the marketplace across Africa today, there are so many retailers and each one of them has several platforms to engage with their customers including apps. In South Africa, there are over 6000 retailers and if 10% of them decided to build an app that would mean that the consumer will have to house 600 apps in his phone which is not practical,” says Leopold Malan, Chief Technical Officer of Sakeng.
Ordinarily, online platforms are often associated with big corporates, which often attracts the suspicion of small-scale retailers. Issues of data privacy also emerge when consumers transact with online market places whose ownership, they have no control over. This was a clear gap that Sakeng had the opportunity to fill. To fill the gap, founders created a unique ownership structure where owners are members of its platform and distribution partners. According to Mahlan, Sakeng members own 80% of the Sakeng Investment Corporation and the remaining 20% is owned by Sakeng Distribution partners who are comprised of all retail stores, spaza shops, hairdresser, or local fast-food shop that join the platform. With its community-ownership structure, the new marketplace under the name Sakeng Emporium would be less intimidating to retailers afraid of big corporations. “The whole idea is to make the consumers own the platform because if a big corporate owns it then the other retailers might refuse to participate,” Malan says. Being community owned, the founders also envisaged a future where the consumer will be at the core of the conversation and he or should be able to protect his own data.
As part of the initial products, Sakeng also built a mobile virtual network operator (MVNO) under the brand name Sakeng mobile. The mobile network like its online marketplace sister is owned by the community. Community ownership ensures competitive airtime rates and what is even more interesting is that Sakeng Mobile promises even lower rates as the number builds up. “Our dream is that the person needing only 50MB of data should not be paying much more than the person buying 2GB of data. Our entry-level data packages are some of the most competitive in the market. The Sakeng Emporium allows the customer to negotiate together with the rest of his/her community for the best possible rates,” Malan reveals.
In the Sakeng Mobile framework, every user of the Sakeng mobile platform automatically becomes a member of the Sakeng Emporium business, and thus has a chance to own a small part of the economy they fuel. Malan reckons that if everyone in South Africa was to join the Sakeng network then the largest mobile network in the country would be owned by the very people who use it, giving them power to dictate their online experience while also benefiting from its profits.
The online marketplace is also gaining traction, attracting more retailers by the day. “We have been in the pilot phase, and we brought the platform into life from the 1st of May 2020 here in South Africa but there is quite a job to be done to convince more retailers to join as well as integrate with them. Nevertheless, I am happy to announce that we have talked with over 1,200 retailers as well as product manufacturers and the feedback is amazing,” says Malan. The Chief Technology Officer at Sakeng is also quick to note that their marketplace is open to all consumers, regardless of age, gender or race. “We hope that it would appeal to customers from all segments. Core to the Sakeng value system is that even the small guy should get the big deal, so we do expect more initial interest from the current prepaid mobile base,” he adds.
Ambitious growth plans
With its current set up, Sakeng’s vision is to have the platform run in any given country on the African continent. “Our concept is universal, and we hope that it will spread all over Africa and maybe even facilitate commerce across the continent,” says Malan. Sakeng also has a dream of helping consumers engaged each other in a much more meaningful manner and potentially have Africans from all over engage with each other. “I think it is high time we as Africans stopped depending on foreign technology and instead started innovating locally considering that our opportunities and problems are unique to us,” Malan adds. “It is definitely a big project, but we shall unfold it one brick at a time. I believe that if we put our minds to it, we as consumers support that which is ours, we can bring about change,” he adds.
As the company moves towards its next phase of growth, Malan reveals that significant investment will be made on its retail network to make it easier for retailers to join the platform. The company also plans to add functionality for members on the platform. “We have a road map of features to add for the next 3 years, we actually have a box full of ideas, time and money is the only thing that comes between us and implementing those ideas. We will also listen to ideas that the community will put forward, you add features that they think will help make their life easier because at the end of the day they are the ultimate owners,” the trustee explains.
Malan believes that despite the enormous task ahead, the Sakeng team has the right skills and talents to take the company forward. Malan, a technology expert, with years of experience working with both large and small companies launch innovating technologies believes his background would be critical in driving the company forward. “I have been working in technology my whole life and my background in working with both big and small companies gave me a lot of exposure. I got to see how technology can actually solve problems in amazing ways. The little contribution I bring to the table together with a bunch of other skills that we need in the business from marketing to distribution to operations will enable the company to thrive. It is never a one-person thing, it is always a team’s affair, and it is always satisfying when one is able to bring their past experience on the table and work with a team to develop something and even more satisfying see it grow,” Malan says.
Future success pegged on consumers
Sakeng being a community owned platform can only thrive if the community embraces it. Investment from outside the business will only dilute member ownership and beat the whole sense of coming up with the business which is making the world a better place and make money for everyone not just a few shareholders. Malan says that the company can only grow if more South Africans join the platform and “Invest” through using the services it offers. “The amazing thing is that there is no place to invest in the business because it belongs to the consumers, but we do hope that over time the business will be funded by two things: – one, a few transaction costs that we can charge on value added. Second, we hope that if the retailers feel that the platform works for them, they can send in some contributions, however we would not want to depend on donations, we must be a sustainable business to a earn a place in the society,” Malan adds. “Sakeng is basically a technology platform built on the philosophy that every single human being can own a part of something and deserves a platform that looks up for their interests. All it needs in exchange is the support of these same people it looks out for.”