By Zandile Mthembu, Head of Experimentation
Launched on Facebook in July 2020, “Imakethe Online” (Marketplace online) offers the informal traders an opportunity to trade online, connect with new customers and increase their customer base.
Following the exploration and sensemaking of the informal sector, we gained insights into the everyday lives of informal traders and coping mechanisms especially with the challenges of COVID-19. We engaged with key informants, including representatives of the informal sector mother bodies, informal traders (i.e. through mystery shopping activities), and desk top reviews. One of the things that we found in our sensemaking was that, Digital solution for business continuity would serve as a possible solution for the informal sector. We were excited to start an experiment on digitising their products, marketing and sales.
We discovered locally developed technologies that have the potential to solve some of the challenges identified. The e-commerce solutions identified have functionalities that allow business continuity despite COVID-19 restrictions, such as the restrictions for informal traders accessing their marketplace stalls. We observed that many apparel traders and other small businesses were using social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube to market and trade. We thought that such platforms are low hanging levers of change that we could easily experiment on. Our experiment design used the Nesta decision tree, illustrated below. The yellow highlighted areas of the tree show the flow of thoughts we went through in the design.
Source: Decision tree for running experiments
Experiment design and learnings
Proof of concept: The Lab with the help of the Informal trader governing bodies in the country decided to run 5 focus groups with informal traders in apparel retail businesses in five different small towns in the country. The objective of the exercise was to validate the real-world potential of social media-based marketing and trading solutions for this sector.
Lessons from the focus groups:
- All 5 groups of 10 to 12 participants were only women aged from mid-20’s to 65 years old.
- The women below 50 years old of age have at least 2 social media accounts, namely: Facebook, Instagram or WhatsApp. They informed us that they had experience of either advertising their wares and finding clients on these platforms. It was quite interesting to note that the women above 50 years old know about social media but have not created accounts nor keen in participating for either social or business reasons. Some are hesitant due to anxieties of managing a digital marketing site citing reasons of limited understanding, poor capacitation in managing and administrating the sites. However, at the end of the discussions we noticed that the sceptical women started considering exploring social media after realising that they were missing out.
- As part of continuous communication, a WhatsApp group was established for each town group. The WhatsApp platform allows for sharing of images of wares that can be posted and updated on the Facebook page.
- After a period of 1 month we noted that between 10% to 20% of the members in each WhatsApp group were actively engaging. This behaviour seemed to correlate with the easing of lockdown restrictions as some informal traders were able to reconvene business at marketplaces. Other participants confirmed that they had challenges of stock replenishment as most of their stock is imported from neighbouring countries. The national border gates and customs restrictions do not allow free movement of all goods without new COVID-19 permits. On the positive side, we have been getting requests through the informal trader governing body leaders of new participants willing to participate in the experiment.
The engagements with the participants also gave us an insight that informal traders do know and are willing to try using social media platforms for business continuity. This gave us confidence to test this solution to gain more insights on how women informal traders interface with technology as we address COVID-19 challenges.
We designed the experiment with the following research questions:
- If social media platforms such as (Facebook) are used locally for small businesses e-commerce, then informal trader businesses might also benefit from having presence on such platforms for business resilience.
- If informal traders wares are well advertised on social media, then they can attract clients which they may have not been able to reach previously.
Social media marketing experiment
All 50 focus group attendees agreed to participate in the experiment. Thirty of the recorded participants are from semi - urban towns Nhlangano, Siteki and Piggs peak, while 20 are from rural towns, Buhleni, Siphofaneni. Facebook is the most popular social media platform in Eswatini. The solution experiment began with hiring an expert in digital marketing to support us with services of administering the new social media pages. Monitoring is underway as part of the research questions.
In our next blog of this series, we will share results and lessons of the social media experiment, in the context and lenses of Eswatini informal trader business. Feel free to reach out to us at Zandile.email@example.com or Nontobeko.firstname.lastname@example.org