New Approach To Physical Addresses In E-Commerce

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Delivery Guy With Tablet
Whilst the World is being overwhelmed by the Covid-19 pandemic many nations are putting their citizens on lockdown. There are various models that nations are taking but what is common with all of them is reduction of movement and points of contact for their citizens.

Botswana, on the second of April 2020 declared a state of emergency due to the Corona Virus and has urged its citizens to stay at home. This is a major and difficult undertaking as it means deviating from business as usual.

Deviating from business as usual means breaking old and established habits. Going out to do what used to be usual activities like shopping and banking is now made difficult by the need to keep a distance of at least 1 to 2 meters between the person next to you.

Business has been curtailed to the most essential services. This means shops and services like pharmacies and clinics remain open whilst any other nonessential businesses have to close shop or work from home.

For a nation like Botswana where technological proliferation is low, for most, working from home means working in isolation instead of using online tools. What about shopping? For the same reason of low technological proliferation it means that the majority of people still have to physically go to the shops for their shopping when they are supposed to "stay at home".

The State of E-Commerce In Africa

If Africa had a well developed e-commerce ecosystem, it could better serve people during circumstances similar to the Covid-19 epidemic when people are under lockdown. People could order goods online and sit at home to receive them without needing to be in close contact with the delivery guy who just leaves the package at the door.

In Africa the e-commerce landscape still has a long way to go. South Africa is ahead of the curve than most African countries and e-commerce is relatively established to an extent that even food may be ordered online. 

Two weeks ago, I needed some computer hardware which I could not find locally and had to order it from a shop in the Capital, Gaborone which is just under 800Km away.

The hardware store does not have an e-commerce website but they do have a Facebook page through which I managed to place an order. Our communications had to be split between Facebook Messenger and email from where I received my invoice and sent proof of payment.

To receive my order I had to call a courier service to go and collect the package for me and then dispatch it to me. When the package arrived at the courier in Ghanzi, they called me to collect. As you can see, this whole process of finding the hardware store, ordering, payment, shipping and delivery is something that could have been easily and conveniently handled by an e-commerce website or app.

The Issue of Traditional Physical Addresses In Africa

There are many challenges to developing an established e-commerce ecosystem in Africa. In the blog post Why Hasn't E-Commerce and M-Commerce Still Taken Off In Africa, I discussed some of these challenges. Of those mentioned in the blog post, the biggest challenge is limited or nonexistent traditional physical addresses.

It's not really a question of technology because the technology can be acquired and maintained at low cost. Neither is it really an issue of payment methods because banks like FNB Botswana are offering payment gateways and there are also mobile payment facilities available.

It might be a matter of lack of strong will to implement an e-commerce ecosystem as well. All these challenges are easier to overcome but the matter of the lack of or nonexistent physical traditional address is a tall order. Even if you can efficiently process an order, making delivery is the critical step which is not easy to achieve for almost all African countries.

What3Words Could Be The Answer

Implementing a traditional physical address system has to be planned from the very beginning when cities and villages are being planned and built. It is not so easy to do it when they are already established. What is needed is an approach that is independent of city or village development.

Such an approach is what is being done by What3Words which is a geocode system for the communication of locations with a resolution of 3 meters. Rather than depending on man-made references like traditional physical addresses, it is dependent on the globe itself.

What3words encodes geographic coordinates into three dictionary words, in 36 languages independently of each language, and the encoding is permanently fixed. For instance, in order to find the entrance of the Community Hall in Ghanzi, Botswana the What3Words address is ///determines.shallowest.without.

It is more convenient to remember three words than a traditional physical address or even a set of geographic coordinates. What is even great about the system is that it is bidirectional. The API can convert between the 3 words and coordinates.

Another added advantage is that the addressing is based on an algorithm instead of relying on a huge database of addresses and locations and can therefore work even offline. What3Words has a website as well as Android,  Apple iOS apps and an API. The company makes its money from charging for high volume use.

The system uses Google Maps so it is easy to switch between Map View and Satellite View in order to pinpoint a location. You may also search for either a traditional physical address or 3 words.

I don't know about you but this is awesome. It is a web or app developer's dream. It's just that it is yet to be adopted universally. It means that as an e-commerce website or app, you can find the location of any customer on Earth within an accuracy of 3 meters. And all that is needed from the customer are three words. This is why What3Word's slogan is aptly, "Addressing the World ''.

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