What I learnt from participating in an e-commerce software contest

Friday, April 14, 2017

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Monday 10 April was the finals of the Konga Game of Codes [sic], a software development competition for students in Nigerian universities, organised by Konga.com, one of Nigeria’s largest online marketplaces. My team, Variables, came in second place, and while there wasn’t much for us in the way of cash prizes, the experience was an awesome one. Here are a few insights I got from the whole event.

Problems abound

Here’s an excerpt from the problem statement of the competition:

Background

The entire local eCommerce value chain is ridden with a plethora of rough edges; from placing orders, making payments and delivering orders to managing cash on delivery, cancellations, returns and warranties to mention a few.

Challenge

Your team has been tasked with solving any of the problems with the eCommerce value chain, surpassing expectations to provide an amazing shopping experience for the Customer. You are to use the wide array of open technologies available today (including but not limited to, hardware, public datasets, location information, machine learning) in solving any of these problems.

In Nigeria’s e-commerce scene today, one of the hot stuff is fintech. Payment companies keep cropping up left and right (this happened a lot in 2016), each with its own (ostensibly) unique value proposition. That’s understandable, what with Nigeria’s card penetration still low, the Central Bank randomly instituting insane card regulations and Payment on Delivery leading to several headaches (such as the recent murder of a Jumia deliveryman).

But there are other problems to solve, and seeing the paragraphs above reminded me of that. Seeing it forced us to sit down and think, what really are the factors hindering e-commerce adoption in Nigeria? I was surprised at the multitude of answers that I found.

There’s navigation. Search. Recommender systems. Warehousing. Order tracking. Logistics and delivery. Product management. Merchant relations. Merchant management. Customer service. User experience.

The list goes on and on.

There really are problems to tackle out there; we just haven’t looked hard enough.

Solutions can abound, too

On Monday, the six finalist teams demoed their projects, and I have to say, I saw ordinary yet awesome stuff. The winning team built a chatbot for Konga.com. One team had a site that allowed you to customise the item you wanted to buy. Another built an order-tracking solution. Another built a reimagined e-commerce website from the ground up. Another team I know of (not a finalist) had a realtime chat platform they wanted to use to improve order tracking and delivery. My team built a semantic search engine powered by analytics and big data.

What struck me about all of these, though,wasn’t the elegance or technical finesse of the products. It was that these students dared to step out, with limited resources, and tackle what they saw needed improvements.

I’ll confess, when I first saw the challenge, I was scared. My mind went, what can we do that Konga hasn’t already done, and done better? But when I was able to put my fears aside, the results surprised even me.

We need more of that in our tech scene.

We can all help

Companies like Konga have tried. A lot. They’ve built, from the ground up, solutions to various areas of the e-commerce problem spectrum: logistics, payments, storage, delivery and more. But they can’t do it all alone.

I believe there’s room for innovation. There’s room for specialization. There’s room for open-source tools that make e-commerce better. There’s room for proprietary solutions that make e-commerce more efficient. I’m not much of a startup guy myself, but this lowly coder sees opportunities for startups to break into.

Let’s open our eyes, stretch our minds, and join our hands, and together we can solve the problems in the e-commerce industry and the tech industry at large…and make money while we’re at it. 😉


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