Shipping Amazon packages to Africa goes underground
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.