It's funny, even in the Netherlands we feel a (tiny, tiny) bit of this: all foreign websites have address entry systems that always ask for a state/province (and even faithfully produce a list of all our provinces). We indeed have them but locals ignore them entirely, city, street, number and postal code are all we, and domestic companies, use.
Blaming this on shipping and billing forms, as the headline and the article text suggests, is missing the forest for the trees. The deeper issue at play is developer and business naïveté; trying to transplant knowledge and assumptions that work fine elsewhere into a particular market where different conditions exist.
It's sometimes easy to assume that if something works in sunny California, it will be applicable in Michigan, or Germany, or anywhere on the globe, and for large fractions of the globe this breaks down under scrutiny. After all, one of the attractions of doing stuff "online" is to not be bound by physical constraints, but activities like logistics clearly involves moving around physical goods, and commerce is all about markets, so what works on one market may fail miserably in a second. Even old-hat brick-and-mortar companies make these mistakes, even if they don't skimp on a local consultant.
Anyone who's actually engaged in post or logistics in areas with limited government-maintained addressing knows that communication is essential, delivery places tend to be negotiated on the fly, and knowing how to get to the destination is more important than where the destination is on a globe. Newfangled coordinate-encoding systems don't solve this: intelligence and know-how on the ground does.
Make no mistake, few of the companies with these problems value these markets. If they valued these markets, they would've figured this out.
A friend of mine who distributes consumer goods in Congo (yes, the whole of Congo) through an online shop explained that a phone call is an essential part of the delivery process - even more important than the address because it is how the actual delivery location is negotiated.
Of course, this is only a problem for valuable items (one wouldn't trust postal employees with that) - regular mail in Africa ends in a PO box.
Expecting customers to be map-literate or adopt whichever fancy geographic coordinates keywords landgrab of the month is a bit hopeful and far removed from logistical realities.
Online shopping doesn't work in Africa, not because of web forms with an ability to capture localised addresses, but because of the lack of affordable, reliable logistics. Africa is vast and largely rural. You can get reliable delivery at a cost. Cheaper delivery options have a tendency for things to get lost. While I applaud OP for bringing modern tech to Africa in the 'Silicon Savannah', online shopping requires highly efficient logistics infrastructure that goes beyond web forms. Source: I built and operated successful online retail in Africa.
I have also encountered web forms which must validate my address. Turns out, the backing database did not contain my address. I could not order at the store. After contacting the store, they told me that their data was always accurate and therefore I must be a fraud.
I checked out the linked https://plus.codes/individuals
Steps for creating a Plus Code are: 1. Open the Google Maps app. 2. Touch and hold a place to drop a pin on Google Maps. 3. At the bottom, you’ll see an address or a plus code. Tap this section to find all details of the location and copy the plus code.
If the primary use case is creating an address for my current location - e.g. Home. Then, the instructions are too many.
A "click this button" to create a Plus Code for your current location would work wonder.
Or if they had an app, the single instruction above would equally apply.
* I think Plus Codes would fail most Zip Code validation tests.
The first time that I went on vacation to Africa I was mindblown. The concept of city, town or even village broke down for me; one of the places where I was staying was just a streak of houses dispersed more or less close to a single road. Addresses were hardly a thing, people just knew where each one lived, so you had to ask for 'xyz house'.
I don't want to sound PC but this is the kind of reasons why more diversity and breadth of life experiences is good for businesses.
Ah, address fields, the mine-field of l10n.
Japanese addresses also have format not similar to US/European ones: http://www.sljfaq.org/afaq/addresses.html
Google Contacts seems to solve this by just having a big textarea for you to write your contact's addresses, and I guess showing that address in Google Maps is done by just sending the whole thing as a query against their Maps API.
I don't know how many sites I have seen that require state, and some even have a list of counties to select from. Last time I checked only USA, Australia, Canada, China, Mexico and Malaysia use state in address. The other ~200 countries don't use it
This article is a bit ignorant, typically one provides just a rough area and a phone number so the courier can call and drop it off to you at home or at work.
This is why you just need a suburb or area and your cell #. You need to be available to sign for packages in African countries and they typically cannot just be dropped off on the porch.
The problem with buying online is just the availability of things is poor, you don't have an Amazon-esque level of availability & websites that do basically buy from Amazon and sell it to you after an extenuating long timeframe.
Ordering from abroad is a hassle because of customs and duties and ridiculous charges such as the SGR levy (for Uganda and Kenya) because of the new rail line (even though the rail line isn't really used for your package). If you order something small like shampoo its likely to cost triple and a minimum of $30 from abroad.
The only great experience I've seen is from takealot. Jumia not so much. Kudos to those guys who run Takealot.
For someone who has lived in Africa the address system, or lack thereof is just something people are used to - it's still possible to find places without an exact numerically marked address. It's likely a dedicated courier who is very knowledgeable on the local areas & landmarks is to drop the package over a postman so it makes little difference.
It's a bit of a shame when these type of articles come up once in a while that distill a "sort of issue" into the prime issue on why it doesn't work. It's not to say proper addresses would help alot, but it's certainly not the reason e-commerce hasn't really taken off. The last time it was a discovery on how a small fan can get rid of mosquitoes - obviously not the reality either.
I'm betting Nicaragua has similar problems. I remember addresses that were like, "From the third roundabout, take the first exit toward the lake, turn left at Oliveo funeral home, take the second exit, fourth house on the left (it's blue)."
No street names or numbers, and you have to know what "third roundabout" means to even get started (there are three major roudnabouts in Managua, the third one is the one closes to the lake. And "toward the lake" means "north". It's a single word in Nicaraguan Spanish and it's used in place of the usual Spanish word for "north".
Seems like a problem that What3Words is trying to solve.
Many years ago I was in Gibraltar and needed medical assistance (non-life threatening but I was sick as heck). So I called my traveller insurance.
The british-sounding lady at the other end wanted a zip code. I didn't know of any zip codes and looking at letters in the building's mailbox I could not see anything looking like a zipcode.
She said she could not direct me to a 'nearby' hospital if she didn't have a zip code.
Told her to just pick randomly, that took some convincing. How far could you be from a hospital in Gibraltar anyway?
Doesn't what 3 words already solve this problem, and seems to have commercial momentum? http://what3words.com
Always relevant to this kind of thing are the "falsehoods programmers believe about X" lists: https://github.com/kdeldycke/awesome-falsehood
In France (don’t know how it works elsewhere) shops can be a shipping point. It creates a network for transporters and it’s a must have for any online shop.
If the transporter ships directly to your home, you have to be here when he comes (and in France you never really know...).
If you haven’t bought large furniture or fridge or whatever, it’s simpler to go to a shop, it’s open on a wide range of hours.
For the shop owner, it can be a good deal as, well, you are in his/her shop.
In Ireland we only recently got postcodes. The reason was not because the postal service or delivery companies needed them - in fact An Post (national postal service) explicitly said they did not.
Instead it's because:
a) enough online shops assume you have one b) advertising mail providers needed it
Frankly if physical spammers need it, then that's an argument against having it to me, and it's sad that online shops forced this by just assuming we had them :(
haha. great irony: the medium.com site showed me a page with a google captcha. I clicked it, and it asked me to identify cars or something. so I just hit the back button, left this comment and realised I did not have to read such a click baity titled article.
I guess captcha before showing an ad-ridden site is 70% of the reason I don't read bad articles. thanks medium-google-cloudflare.
This might be a component, but it is not the real reason why online shopping is behind in Africa. That would be because purchasing power is low, exchange rates are high, and most companies don't trust the system enough to ship to Africa - even for products with relatively high demand.
Many e-commerce companies operate in my country Nigeria and I have never heard that their major complaint centered on valid shipping addresses. The problem exists true,but it is a relatively unimportant one. DHL, FEDEX and other couriers whose principal business is delivery of goods are doing just fine last time I checked.
Purchasing power and disposable income are low across the continent and for those reasons I am personally bearish about the prospects of e-commerce in Africa in the medium term.
How does mail carriers deliver packages? what do they use?
Kind of had the same issue with post/zip codes for Ireland as up until very recently we didn't have them. I remember it was annoying when companies with their European head quarters in Ireland and they had mandatory post code fields in their forms. I even knew some people that had some issues opening bank accounts in the UK because it was mandatory in the computer system that the teller was using and they had to get a manager to work around it for them.
Much maligned on Hacker News though it is, this is precisely the killer application that what3words is good for.
It works offline on cheap android devices with GPS for discovery, which can also be done with a satellite map. Directions via an intent into another app with nav is now built into the main apps.
In fact, it's already used for doctors finding women in labour in improvised settlements in South Africa.
Disclosure: former employee, who wishes them all the luck in the world getting people to use it!
The solution he's proposing is good because GPS is an accurate model for finding an exact location on Earth. Prior to GPS humans came up with models for describing specific locations by abstracting land mass into regions and sub regions and so on until we finally arrive at a person's house number or box. Why did not Africa? This is a question I ask myself but I guess it doesn't matter in the end as we should all soon be moving to GPS in the future anyway. This would be a difficult jump for Africa to make but it might actually be easier starting with a blank slate that they have. Imagine trying to move the USA to a GPS based system? Unlike Canada our zip codes alone are not accurate enough to find a precise mailbox location. We still require street number and street name. If we made the move to GPS, our legacy systems would still need to be supported, whereas Africa never had these legacy systems in the first place.
This is an issue in Myanmar too. There are businesses in Yangon that provide ship-to locations for a fee (and usually place the orders on behalf of their customers as well since most don't have access to electronic payments). I've never seen the pulse.codes system in real life, but it looks like a very elegant solution.
Also, on the subject of online forms, a major source of annoyance/confusion is the ubiquitous first name/last name fields (most people in Myanmar have just one name since family names aren't a thing). Some split their name in half to fill the two fields, which as you can imagine doesn't work very well when formatted as "last name, first name" or Mr. Last Name, etc.. :-)
This triggers a more general hot button for me. Computers should be there to help,people, not the other way around.
The rigidity of street addresses is relatively new (within living memory)and was designed to accommodate a technological gap (paper maps, basically, and emergency services).
It’s more humane to let people specify things like addresses the way they want (my grandmother refused to kowtow to the imposition of numerical street addresses and continued to use her house name until the day she died).
This is like the Spanish Academy changing the alphabetic sorting rules in the 1990s because crufty PCs had trouble with ch and ll — and then shortly thereafter they became fast enough!
I recall this amazing project, that aimed at simplifying gps locations even further:
(Admittedly, its not very useful for location funneling)
This reminded me of the TED talk "A Precise Three Word Address for Every Place on Earth" . I guess (and this has been mentioned in other comments) the systems he's referring to is known commercially as what3words .
Africa is huge, complex and diverse. Gross generalizations about “Africa” even when made by Africans are not particularly useful, and mask the local problems that stymie development.
As an example, because of private courier companies, South Africa has a thriving online shopping scene, despite the South African Post Office becoming a shambles in recent years due to mismanagement. Addresses are not a huge problem for the sorts of people who would shop online in SA.
Africa is not a country, it’s a continent.
This is a stupid article with a stupid title. Those who wish to sell items to those countries would do their research and consider this problem. If they don’t solve it, it’s because they don’t want to deal with all the mess of international shipping to a country without proper addresses.
Making a population "legible" is one of the functions of a state, for good or ill.
plus.codes seems like an interesting idea, as far as I can tell it's only encoding gps coordinates in a more human-readable format (does your gps use degrees, minutes and seconds; degrees and decimal minutes; decimal degrees or something more exotic like UTM coordinates?). Unfortunately as far as I can tell only google maps supports it. I tried putting it on two common mapping apps: tomtom mydrive and here maps and neither would accept it, I'm 100% sure my car will also look at me funny if I ever tried to use it.
Lack of adoption effectively functions as vendor lock-in :(
On pick-up point: "I think this is an innovative approach to this problem."
Well, a pick-up point is not something that's really innovative and is not something that's only useful in Africa.
Services that rely on post-industrial infrastructure don't work without post-industrial infrastructure.
Or he could just go to his local post office and get a box and ship it there.
Ironic that this article comes out at the same time so many people on the internet are getting angry about "shithole" remark.
Shipping, in general, does not work well in Africa. So much stuff is stolen, lost, or late. Nobody wants to hear those facts because it might mean something negative about blacks.
Interesting - nations full of low IQ people exhibit low socioeconomic outcomes, such as an inability to trust a chain of strangers to cheaply deliver packages.