ZIMBABWE'S ALTECH - MAKING A REALITY OF E-COMMERCE

29 September 2000

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Last year New Update set itself the challenge of finding e-commerce of some scale outside South Africa. So what has it found? There's been a number of worthy but necessary policy documents. There's been no end of small-scale art and craft sites selling work internationally (a trend to be applauded) but its impact remains modest. All the endless trade conference speaker patter about B2C and B2B has not seemed to add up to B-all. So in this issue we look at a Zimbabwean company in the African Lakes stable - Altech - that has been supplying e-commerce solutions for several years. Altech's Bernard Mathewman explains.

Zimbabwe has not lagged far behind the developed world when it comes to e-commerce. Since 1997 African Lakes Technologies (Altech) has been offering a B2B solution to the local retail industry and in 1999 introduced a financial e-commerce facility.

Based on switch technology from General Electric Information Services, Altech used a model from the United Kingdom that has served the giant retail chains, such as Tesco and Sainsburys, so well for a number of years.

RETAIL - IMPROVING EFFICIENCY IN THE SUPPLY CHAIN

In the retail sector, e-commerce was offered as a business tool for improving business efficiencies and reducing unnecessary overheads in the supply chain process. Soon business partners were talking of the "value chain" and recognising that there were ways to remove non-value add processes. What was happening in Zimbabwe was that orders were being generated from the retailer's computer system, printed and handed to the supplier. The supplier then keyed the order data into his computer and in time delivered the goods. With the duplication of effort and manual intervention, what often happened was that orders were not being correctly fulfilled. These errors needed considerable time and effort to resolve and added cost to the supply chain.

The introduction of e-commerce from Altech meant that orders now passed from the retailers' computer systems directly into the suppliers¹ computer systems, with no manual intervention. Errors were almost eliminated and an immediate improvement in management of the supply chain was achieved. In the area of fast moving consumer goods (FMCG) this was a major benefit and in addition to orders, price-updates, statements and invoicing have been introduced as additional e-commerce document types.

Currently four large retailers, including SPAR, are trading through the e-commerce facility with some 65 of their suppliers. The number of retailers and suppliers is expected to double in the next 12 months.

FINANCE - TRANSFERRING SALARY PAYMENTS

It soon became apparent that e-commerce was needed in the financial arena, to complete the cycle of the retail B2B operations. But discussions with the local banking industry pointed to other areas where electronic transfers of financial data were needed.

A Zimbabwean developed e-commerce product was quickly refined and introduced. It was clear from early surveys that the transfer of employees¹ salaries was becoming a major problem. For years, banks had processed salary transfers from printed schedules provided by employers and this had progressed to salaries being physically transferred via diskette in more recent years. While diskettes were an improvement, they are prone to mis-reads, data being tampered with and of course, virus infection.

Altech's Paynet financial e-commerce solution now allows employers to transfer salary details, via Altech's GE switch, directly to the financial institutions ensuring that employees are paid on-time. Validation within the software, the encryption of data and the passing of UN-standard status messages ensure a robust, all-round service. Presently some 400 companies are transferring salaries electronically to six banks and building societies using the Paynet financial e-commerce facility. Salaries in excess of Zimbabwe $250 million are now being processed monthly through Paynet.

Paynet software has been enhanced to incorporate additional modules for handling Direct Debits and Trade Payments, both of which have been well received by Zimbabwean banks and the users of these facilities. These modules will result in millions of paper-based transactions being removed from the Zimbabwean banking systems, with clear benefits to the banks and their customers alike.

Plans are in place to incorporate e-commerce from the basic software at an employer's site to enable him to communicate electronically with the tax authorities (PAYE), national social security authorities, life assurance societies and the medical insurance companies in respect of his employees. These facilities will again provide accurate and prompt data transfers to replace present manual systems.

Altech has plans to introduce retail internet banking and finance solutions that will be marketed early in 2001. Altech's e-business horizons have been widened and both retail and financial e-commerce products are now being offered in Kenya, with a view to entering additional African countries quickly. The main offering is the Paynet financial e-commerce solution, developed in Africa specifically for Africa.

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