Bringing Online Shopping to Rural Africa, One Shopkeeper at a Time

The founder of Copia Global uses a century-old model to reach the world’s poorest people.

June 27, 2017

| by Martin J. Smith



Tracey Turner | Drew Kelly

Social entrepreneur Tracey Turner says Kenya today has the same problem with product sales and distribution that plagued 1890s America: How do you get goods to people who live in rural areas and whose only access to shopping is a general store or vendor in the nearest village?

The problem, she says, was solved for American consumers at the turn of the 20th century, when the creation of the postal service made the Sears catalog possible. “You could buy everything from fertilizer to wedding dresses through the Sears catalog,” Turner told a Stanford Graduate School of Business audience in 2012, the year she launched Copia Global. “We want to take that same concept … and empower that rural consumer to become a part of the global economy.”

Founded by Turner and other Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, Copia, which has raised $5.5 million to date, uses mobile technologies to connect remote consumers to the goods they need to better their lives. Turner is the company’s executive chairman.

Copia’s 100 Kenya-based employees have recruited about 1,000 shopkeepers in villages surrounding Nairobi. The shopkeepers share the Copia e-catalog with their customers and receive a commission on every sale made via the company’s app. Copia trucks then deliver orders to the shops within 48 hours for customer pickup.

We asked Turner, who received her MBA from Stanford GSB in 1998, about the challenges and satisfactions of social entrepreneurship.

The Sears catalog relied on Rural Free Delivery from the U.S. Postal Service. How has modern technology reshaped that old distribution idea?

The way I think about it is there was this new technology that hit the U.S. in the late 1800s — the postal system. That enabled the Sears catalog model to be born. It couldn’t have existed without that innovation. Similarly, when the internet became ubiquitous in the 1990s, Amazon’s business model came into existence and transformed retail consumerism. For us, in the most rural and poorest parts of the world, mobile technologies are the tech innovation that suddenly enabled a Copia business model to succeed. We’re talking about 3 to 4 billion people, half the world’s population, who have been left behind and suddenly can be served profitably.

You really feel Copia could have a similar impact?

Absolutely. If you think about the U.S. in the late 1800s, generally people were poor, agrarian, and had limited access to goods other than a small general store. The dynamics are very similar in emerging markets today.

How did you raise the money to get the company off the ground?

There’s a whole world of angel and social venture capital investors who think like I do. They put their investment dollars to work changing the world. They focus on investing in social businesses where they can earn a return and make a positive impact.

How did your experience at Grameen Bank shape your career?

Hugely. After living in Kenya and Bangladesh, it was apparent that the poor are not charity cases. They’re as hardworking as anyone anywhere because they have no safety net, no Medicaid or welfare. So it was obvious to me from early days that if we can provide them with the same access to goods, education, and awareness, we can make a big difference in their lives.

You’ve paraphrased Jacqueline Novogratz of the Acumen Fund, also a Stanford GSB graduate, about the dignity that choice can give.

Yes, “choice is dignity, dignity is choice.” I’ve always been a big fan of hers. She and I have a very similar philosophy in terms of international development: Use the best of capitalism to address social issues.

What steered you onto the path of social entrepreneurship?

Right out of undergrad, I worked for a nonprofit and saw the limitations of the nonprofit structure. Don’t get me wrong — sometimes this is exactly the right structure to have. But in many situations, the executive director must focus on fundraising, which is different from effecting change. Sometimes there’s a tension that pulls the executive director in the wrong direction while they’re chasing money. In some situations, like Copia, you can actually generate profit and enable social change symbiotically. And I would argue you can have more impact that way because the more profit you make, the more change you effect. It’s a positive spiral.

What were some of Copia’s unique startup challenges?


Use the best of capitalism to address social issues.
Tracey Turner

In emerging markets, people come from a place of distrust. There’s a sense that if you give me the opportunity to rip you off, shame on you. So when we enter a new location, there’s an immediate sense of distrust: Are you going to rip me off? We’ve had to do a lot in terms of building a trustworthy brand, because they’ve never had that before. The good news is that once you have their trust, they’re loyal forever.

Just letting people in poor rural areas know about Copia’s services must be a challenge. What’s your marketing strategy?

The first thing we do is to approach a shopkeeper in a village where we can be useful, somebody who’s already running a restaurant or a hair salon or whatever. Then we recruit them to become an agent for Copia. We give them a tablet device loaded with our app, so when customers come and shop they can show them the app. Most of our base is built through shopkeepers spreading the word or taking the tablet to their church or women’s group. They’re our local “sales team.”

As Copia expands, what qualities are you looking for in your hires, and which quality is the most important in an enterprise such as this?

It’s not all that different than building a normal sales team for a Western company, but there are language requirements and a need to understand cultural norms. We attract the best people we can, but not necessarily people who have some kind of social entrepreneurship bent. To them it’s just entrepreneurship.

What book or books influenced your choices as you embarked on this career?

The Lean Startup: How Today’s Entrepreneurs Use Continuous Innovation to Create Radically Successful Businesses by Eric Ries, which integrates the idea of failing quickly and failing inexpensively. We live and die by that model. We’re constantly running little experiments to learn quickly and on a small scale.

What do you know now that you wish you had known when you started?

It’s really hard to get good technical people in Africa. There just aren’t that many, and those who are there can command huge salaries from multinational corporations. We just never have enough good tech people. But we’re excited about the idea of giving experienced Silicon Valley techies the chance to spend a year in the “wild west” of Kenya, a beautiful country with an opportunity to put technical skills to work in a meaningful way.

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