Entrepreneurs in emerging economies in Africa, Asia, and Latin America confront numerous logistical, financial, and bureaucratic obstacles.  New mobile commerce platforms from providers like Slimtrader offer a way around these barriers by taking advantage of the rapid adoption of mobile devices in developing countries.

Femi Akinde, Slimtrader Founder

Last week I received a brief visit from an old friend and classmate, Femi Akinde.  Femi made a quick fund-raising stop in Chicago for Slimtrader, his new socially conscious enterprise.  He was in full start-up mode, working late into the night, conserving funds, and adjusting flight schedules.

Femi seems born for this kind of work.  He’s confident, smart, friendly, and a persuasive pitchman.  He hails from Nigeria and brings years of experience leading projects for international telecommunications and computer giants, including T-Mobile and Microsoft.

Roles of Mobile Devices and Slimtrader in Developing Countries

Femi founded Slimtrader to help overcome the endless daily obstacles to business and development on his home continent of Africa.  According to the Slimtrader.com site, “in all 53 countries in Africa, everyday activities – from purchasing airline tickets to filling a prescription – require long searches, long waits, and long journeys.”  Small business operators and individuals in Africa have limited access to financial services and suppliers.  Without lines of credit, they often have to do business in cash.  To conduct vital transactions, they are regularly forced to travel considerable distances and wait in long lines.  Logistical barriers eat up valuable time that could be devoted to more productive activities.

Slimtrader offers a mobile commerce platform that facilitates purchases of goods and services by taking advantage of the rapid adoption of mobile devices in developing Africa.  According to the McKinsey Global Institute, the global telecom industry has been making massive investments of $15 billion annually to unlock the economic potential of African markets.  Since 2000, 316 million people in Africa have signed up for mobile service.  In Nigeria alone, the number of mobile subscribers has grown from 0 in 2000 to more than 63 million people.  As a result, mobile devices have become peoples’ primary means of leveraging modern technologies in Africa and other developing areas.  Though not as current as the McKinsey data above, the table below shows the high penetration of mobile phones in emerging economies relative to the minimal presence of computers, the other potential route to internet access.  (Click on the image below to see a larger version.)

Slimtrader Business Model

The statistics above clearly demonstrate that mobile devices are most peoples’ only viable options for electronic commerce.  The Slimtrader platform allows small business operators and individuals to purchase a growing variety of supplies, products, and services directly through their mobile devices.  Like conventional e-commerce businesses, Slimtrader uses interactive databases to handle product inventory, pricing, orders, and payments.  Unlike other e-commerce platforms, Slimtrader customers can interact with these databases by way of short message service (SMS) through their mobile devices and use their mobile credits as currency to make electronic purchases.

Slimtrader has already signed up several promising accounts.  In July, Aero, the leading e-airline in West Africa, began using the Slimtrader platform to introduce the first mobile web and SMS ticketing service in Africa.  Slimtrader has teamed up with Earthwise Ventures, an innovative passenger ferry service, to facilitate travel on Lake Victoria, Africa’s largest lake, and strengthen the social fabric of the three bordering countries, Uganda, Kenya, and Tanzania.  (Lake Victoria, which goes by several other names including the Eye of the Rhino, is also the world’s second largest lake by surface area and the largest tropical lake in the world.)

Triple Bottom Line

Slimtrader offers an appealing package to traditional investors, philanthropists, and environmentalists by meeting the criteria for a “triple bottom line.”  In other words, the Slimtrader solution simultaneously delivers on three fronts: financial return, social impact, and environmental conservation.  Slimtrader generates income from its services by earning a small percentage on customers’ transactions.  The platform enables sustainable development and rising living standards by fostering economic growth and reducing environmental costs.  Conducting business by mobile device cuts down on energy usage and emissions that would otherwise result from having to travel to suppliers and partners.

When I last saw Femi, he was rushing to catch the first flight out of Chicago for a short stop back home in Seattle to get ready for his next tour.  Last Friday, he left again on a multinational trip to meet with prospective partners and his operations teams in Africa that would take him to California, Nigeria, Uganda, and South Africa before arriving back home some three weeks later.

For more articles on development and foreign aid in Africa and other regions, see the Aid & Development page.

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Economist Pocket World in Figures.  2010 Edition.

Leke, Acha, Susan Lund, Charles Roxburgh, and Arend van Wamelen.  What’s Driving Africa’s Growth.  McKinsey Quarterly.  June, 2010.


Simonite, Tom.  Shopping Via Text Message.  Technology Review.  Published by MIT.  October 6, 2010.