Ship­ping Ama­zon pack­ages to Africa goes un­der­ground

Orlando Sentinel - - BUSINESS - By Sarah Maslin Nir

In a build­ing on West 147th Street in New York City’s Up­per Man­hat­tan, the mail car­ri­ers know apart­ment 1A.

Boxes ar­rive at all hours, or­dered from web­sites around the world. Throw pil­lows, di­a­pers, car parts, cell­phones, high heels and Air­Pods pile up in the foyer, but none of the items were bought by the per­son to whom they are ad­dressed: Arame Wade.

The true re­cip­i­ents are 3,800 miles away.

Ev­ery few weeks, Wade stuffs her lug­gage with goods and hauls them across the At­lantic to the peo­ple who ac­tu­ally made the pur­chases: cus­tomers in Dakar, Sene­gal, in West Africa, who pay her a fee.

Wade, a for­mer car sales­woman, is part of a thriv­ing low-tech so­lu­tion to a prob­lem that con­tin­ues to be­devil high-tech shop­ping in places where mail de­liv­ery is un­re­li­able and street ad­dresses are rare: Get­ting stuff to the peo­ple who or­dered it.

The round­about ship­ping route is an at­tempt to solve what is known among lo­gis­tics pro­fes­sion­als as the “last-mile is­sue”: get­ting im­ported on­line goods into Sene­gal can be fairly smooth, but the fi­nal stretch is where things some­times go awry.

In­for­mal couri­ers like Wade, 34, are known in Sene­gal and other French­s­peak­ing coun­tries as GPs.

“You’re cross­ing fin­gers that you get th­ese items home safely, and noth­ing breaks and noth­ing gets stolen,” Wade said. “I like the free­dom of it, you’re mak­ing your own sched­ule,” she added. “It comes with a lot of com­fort, but no peace of mind.”

De­spite a rush to cap­i­tal­ize on grow­ing in­ter­net use in Africa and other places with sim­i­lar in­fra­struc­ture chal­lenges, scal­ing e-com­merce is not al­ways easy.

Ama­zon ships goods to Sene­gal and 128 other coun­tries, where it as­sumes the risk and re­spon­si­bil­ity for de­liv­er­ies, much as it does in the U.S., ac­cord­ing to the com­pany.

But the ship­ping com­pa­nies that Ama­zon uses can­not al­ways pro­vide doorstep de­liv­ery. The re­tail gi­ant is mak­ing strides. In the Hi­malayas, for ex­am­ple, it has teamed up with small busi­nesses to de­liver to cus­tomers’ doors.

Still, many peo­ple in West Africa choose the un­der­ground net­work, sim­ply be­cause they pre­fer to use some­one they know.

Alioune Sine’s sis­ter has been de­liv­er­ing Amer­i­can goods to Sene­galese clients for two decades. Sine, 44, a film­maker who helps with his sis­ter’s busi­ness, said that they had got­ten busier with the rise of e-com­merce and re­cruit friends and cousins to help trans­port more suit­cases.

Th­ese couri­ers of­ten op­er­ate on slim profit mar­gins. They hunt for low­priced tick­ets: up to $1,300 is viewed as ac­cept­able for a round-trip flight from New York to Sene­gal.

Air­lines typ­i­cally al­low an in­ter­na­tional pas­sen­ger to check two pieces of lug­gage with a ticket. On a Delta Air Lines flight to West Africa, for ex­am­ple, it costs $200 for each ex­tra piece of bag­gage weigh­ing up to 70 pounds.

On Delta, Sine said, his fam­ily com­pany’s shippers take the max­i­mum num­ber of bags: 10.

Many Sene­galese peo­ple do not have credit cards, so some couri­ers like Sine will buy prod­ucts for their cus­tomers, and ac­cept c.o.d. as re­pay­ment. Most of his sis­ter’s clients are friends or dis­tant fam­ily mem­bers.

“Ev­ery­body has to trust each other,” he said. “That is how we do busi­ness.”

Some couri­ers try to com­ply with cus­toms reg­u­la­tions by re­quir­ing cus­tomers to pay du­ties on the goods that they carry. But they all em­pha­size the need to in­spect and re­seal pack­ages when war­ranted, to make sure that they know what they are car­ry­ing.

The sys­tem is not fool­proof: Lug­gage can get lost, and couri­ers some­times have to re­im­burse clients from their own pock­ets when that hap­pens. Af­ter los­ing a suit­case of ex­pen­sive elec­tron­ics, Wade said that she now fer­ries just one or two iPhones at a time.


Arame Wade uses her great-aunt’s house in Dakar, Sene­gal, as a distri­bu­tion cen­ter for Ama­zon pack­ages.

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