shifting online

WhatsApp, Instagram, TikTok: Senegal’s informal economy turns to social media

By Théo du Couëdic

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Posted on June 22, 2023 08:55

jad20230616-eco-senegal-commerce-en-ligne-01-1256×628-1686914043 © Nearly 80% of the Senegalese population now has a mobile phone. Sylvain Cherkaoui for TAR.
Nearly 80% of the Senegalese population now has a mobile phone. Sylvain Cherkaoui for TAR.

On social media, which now dominates Senegalese commerce, emoticons and voice messages help to overcome the language barrier.

Normally, Aïssatou Diéne sells beaded belts, nighties, and other “hot” products for married women. However, with Tabaski (Eid al-Adha) approaching, the 24-year-old journalism and communications student has turned her attention to more traditional items.

These days, her WhatsApp status is full of images and videos of sandals, leather bags, and jewellery, as are her Facebook, Instagram and TikTok accounts.

“My suppliers are in Dubai and China in particular. To import my products, I use GPs [for partial gratuity; these are people who transport parcels by plane, by the kilo, for a sum of money] or cargo ships, where I then deliver my items in Dakar by motorbike taxi. I know a lot of people who, like me, trade on social networks to supplement their income,” she says.

From her digital business, Aïssatou Diéne earns between 100,000 and 200,000 CFA francs a month (between $167 and $335), a sum swallowed up by her daily expenses in Dakar, where inflation is galloping.

Rent, for example, has risen by 200% in less than a decade. Inflation rate has been predicted to be close to 10% in 2022.

Emoticons and voice messages

“For some years now, social networks have played a major role in trade in Senegal, and particularly in Dakar,” said Mounirou Diallo, a geography PhD holder who recently defended a thesis on the subject.

Fabrics, second-hand clothes, watches, wigs, cosmetics, vehicles, and foodstuffs, among other items, are mostly imported from France, China or Dubai.

This digital commerce is facilitated by the intuitive approach of certain mobile applications.

“Not everyone who works in the informal sector has had the chance to go to school. With WhatsApp or TikTok, for example, they no longer need to speak English, French or Arabic; they can use emoticons and voice messages to carry out transactions,” says Diallo.

Today, 77% of our customers use social networks as their main sales channels. There has been a paradigm shift since the health crisis

In Senegal, nine out of 10 workers have an informal job and 97% of businesses are in the informal sector, according to the Agence nationale de la statistique et de la démographie (ANSD).

However, it is difficult to quantify the number of traders on social media networks.

The trend seems to be affecting all social classes, according to Diallo, who points out that “some civil servants are involved in informal trade on WhatsApp or Instagram”.

‘Senegal is no exception’

Moulaye Taboure is the co-founder of Anka, an e-commerce platform that brings together 20,000 formal and informal sellers across the continent, including 1,500 in Senegal. “Today, 77% of our customers use social networks as their main sales channels. There has been a paradigm shift since the health crisis,” he says.

“Senegal is no exception; we’re seeing the same phenomenon in Côte d’Ivoire, Kenya, and Nigeria,” says the specialist, who is currently developing a mechanism to centralise customer orders across all social networks. For him, there’s no doubt that “a large part of informal trade has moved to social networks”.

“In Senegal, the trend is now spreading to the country’s secondary towns,” says Emmanuel Bocquet, who supports start-ups at GreenTec Capital Partners.

“Half the population is aged 18 or under, so it’s obvious to them that they need to be on TikTok”, especially as smartphone penetration in the land of Teranga is now approaching 80% (with internet penetration at 58%), according to the independent platform DataReportal.

The Autorité de Régulation des Télécommunications et des Postes (ARTP) is predicting an internet penetration rate of 101.69% in March 2023.

The TikTok tidal wave

The latest en vogue phenomenon is the live auction on TikTok, which can be compared to an auction room. A merchant presents products, one after the other, specifying the material of a fabric and its price, in front of hundreds of Internet users who express their interest in comments.

“These are exhausting sessions that can last three or four hours,” says Bocquet. “For these sellers, they need visibility, and that often means sponsorship.

This shift from the informal sector to social networks should also be seen in the context of the democratisation of mobile payment applications (mobile money) like Orange Money or Wave – the latter is claiming 12,000 billion transactions by 2022.

“Today, these payment methods are very widespread, the numbers are authenticated and it’s secure,” says Diallo. “Online commerce has also led to a proliferation of motorbike delivery drivers, nicknamed tiak-tiak.

“All the more so,” says Diéne the journalism student, “because people would much rather buy on social networks than go to the market, where they risk having their bags or wallets stolen.”

In the absence of up-to-date legislation, the Senegalese government appears to be rather overwhelmed by this phenomenon, according to Bocquet.

“A trader who opens a shop in the Sandaga market is likely to see a man with a briefcase turn up one day to make a tax adjustment, but this is unlikely to happen on Facebook or Instagram.”

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