The Quiet Retail Revolution

I sometimes think that Namibia, my home for more than two decades, suffers from ‘littlest sibling’ syndrome. We look to other – bigger, richer, more ‘developed’ – countries and try to emulate them in a search for economic success, without really questioning whether we have enough in common with them to follow in their footsteps, given our limited human and natural resources, or whether it’s advisable to even attempt to do so.

Furthermore, we seem to think that anything transported to us from overseas just has to be better than the things we can make or grow at home; indeed there’s a certain cachet attached to the descriptor ‘imported’ when added to certain goods, despite the price – in environmental as well as cash terms – of bringing in so many items from elsewhere, specifically our ‘big cousin’ South Africa, that we could in theory begin to make at home.

Every year we churn out a huge cohort of IT graduates – because adopting new technologies is deemed the shortcut to the industrialised nation we aim to be – yet it remains pretty much impossible to do anything online apart from the most basic transactions; the platforms the nation contracts to use for simple tasks such as filling in a form or tracking a parcel are simply unfit for purpose. (Indeed, satisfactory Internet coverage remains just a fantasy when so many parts of the country don’t even have electricity of course.)

At the time of writing, most of the country is now returning to some kind of post-Covid normality, with a couple of welcome new developments that I am happy to see take root in terms of retail activities. The first is that people have been compelled to buy local products as the cross-border trucking industry ground to a halt and this can only be good at grassroots level for an economy that was in dire straits even before coronavirus hit. One international pharmacy chain was cynically selling small boxes of imported single-use face masks at the exact same (grossly inflated) price as the one-off emergency income grant that our poorest citizens could apply for and it was gratifying to see people eschew these for much more economical fabric ones sewn at home by groups such as ‘Sew Good’.

The community where I live – 3 housing developments situated in farmland just outside of Windhoek – initiated a marketplace in the bush one Saturday in June (literally, see the ‘Sew Good’ stall, below) where local producers could showcase their wares once the social-distancing measures were lifted somewhat. Many vendors who had made farm produce, condiments, bread or other baked goods sold out of stock entirely, emphasising the need for the type of locavore consumer mentality that’s been the norm in places like New York for a long time. ‘Sew Good’ sold many smaller items – people are essentially broke here and were not spending on bigger items generally – but also made lots of connections to potential clients that are proving fruitful subsequently.

The ‘Finkenstein Bush Market’ (https://www.facebook.com/finkensteinbushmarket/) was so successful that it is set to be a regular event that will enable community members and the wider public to socialise and shop in ways that had not been possible before, when many folks would just drive to the supermarket to re-stock their grocery shelves or hit the mall for a range of products that are not eco-friendly and do not contribute towards Namibian livelihoods.

Another, linked, effect of the Covid-19 crisis was that young Namibian entrepreneurs set about creating markets for their goods through platforms such as Instagram with, I’m told by one such craftsman, great success. People who wanted to source locally made items were suddenly inspired to link up with manufacturers whom they would probably not have been aware of even a few months ago, through the power of social media These emerging businesses have neither warehousing, offices, inventory nor overheads – apart from the price of a data bundle – and they simply take orders from customers who have seen photos of their handiwork online and offer hassle-free delivery as part of the service. Word of mouth and positive recommendations are the tools they deploy to grown their client base and their income. Good for them, and good for Namibia, of course!

Certainly, a year after ‘Sew Good’ was launched, we have some lessons to absorb from these smartphone entrepreneurs and this week saw the (tentative) launch of our own Instagram account (https://www.instagram.com/sewgoodnamibia/) where people can view and choose products that can then be delivered for free in town. As we take more orders and expand, this is going to be more effective than dealing with individuals via WhatsApp.

We have all realised a lot over the past few months in terms of the value of small-scale but personalised retail experiences. Plus the feel-good factor that arises from getting to know neighbours (in a conducive but decidedly low-tech environment in the case of the Bush Market) and supporting local businesses cannot be over-estimated. It took a crisis to get us all in touch with what really matters – spending time with real people, in real life – and I hope that the connections we have made, and will continue to foster, will prove to be long-lasting and productive ones.

There were ‘cat people’ at the inaugural Finkenstein Bush Market in June 2020 and this shopping bag design certainly grabbed their attention and made it our most ‘in demand’ new product.