The idea that there’s a market out there for African e-commerce sites if only you can get to them seems to be confirmed by e-Shop Africa’s recent experience. Following an article on the BBC Online News web site (which led to coverage elsewhere), the company has experienced a rush of orders from places as far apart as Scandinavia and Canada: turnover is currently around US$4000 a month.

Being an e-commerce site operator in Africa is not for the faint-hearted. Payments are hard to facilitate and fraud is an ever-present problem (see next issue for full story) Payment usually take two forms: by credit card on the site itself for regular, predictable items and by bank transfer when things are more complicated. According to e-Shop Africa’s Cordelia Salter-Nour: "We don’t hold stock but send out the orders to our artisans who are very good at completing to a deadline. We tell the customer whether we can fulfil immediately or how long it will take to complete and ask them whether we can add the shipping costs rather than simply adding it on. Then we process the credit card and ship."

There are small silver linings. Whereas it costs US$13.50 per kilo to the States from Ghana, the same journey per kilo costs US$50 from Italy. Air freight rates have apparently come down dramatically this year. Where shipments are charged by volume, it can produce a situation where shipping costs twice the price of the item itself. For example a Djembe drum costs US$60 on the company’s web site but US$120 to ship to the States. But says Salter-Nour:"It still works out cheaper than the US$3-400 that retail outlets charge in the US."