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Yebo Fresh: Getting groceries to kasi doorsteps the modern way

No more queues: A Yebo Fresh worker packs bags of groceries. Picture: GG Alcock

                                                                                                                                             No more queues: A Yebo Fresh worker packs bags of groceries. Picture: GG Alcock

Sometimes Cape Town’s Jessica Boonstra wonders "What was I thinking?" when she faces the challenges of running a tech business she never planned to start.

Three years ago Boonstra, who is from the Netherlands, launched Yebo Fresh, a grocery food delivery service from her home in Hout Bay to a nearby informal settlement, Imizamo Yethu.

Boonstra, who worked in online retail, had been consulting to local retailers about fresh grocery delivery opportunities in the township. Then a funder gave her the chance to be the entrepreneur she says she never thought she was.

Three undisclosed funding rounds later and Yebo Fresh delivers food, household cleaning products, fresh vegetables and frozen meat from a warehouse near the Cape Town airport into townships including Khayelitsha, Delft and Gugulethu. It is tapping into one of SA’s most underserved markets.

One challenge is that food, for starters, is the "hardest sell".

"It is time-sensitive, it is temperature-sensitive, it is heavy. The margins are very low," she says.

Yet during the Covid-19 lockdown, Yebo Fresh delivered about 85,000 food parcels to Cape Town townships — some through donations, such as employers sending food to their domestic workers who were forced to stay at home. In other cases, professionals used Yebo Fresh to deliver food to their grandparents to help them avoid queuing for hours and risking contracting the coronavirus.

Queues are one of the reasons Yebo Fresh exists. Township residents queue from early at the taxi rank, then at the mall, and hours later haul parcels back home and pay double the taxi fare to account for the seat the groceries take up.

Boonstra’s business is not yet profitable, as it is investing in expansion, and she has just succeeded at its third funding round.

Yebo Fresh is perfectly placed to draw from a boom in online delivery in townships predicted by GG Alcock, author of two books on the township economy, and who successfully predicted the growth of local informal spaza shops.

It is a mistake to think delivery is new in the townships. But it is now in a growth phase.

"Brown brown, white white!" shouts Soweto resident Fats Maluleka as he makes his way past people’s homes with a trolley full of bread. Maluleka says "trolley pushers" are a common and not-so-new delivery service.

Early in the morning on weekends, these "pushers" manoeuvre trolleys full of vegetables across roads and down streets to people’s doors. The vegetables are often shaded by precariously balanced beach umbrellas.

The lockdown increased reliance on trolley pushers as hawkers in empty taxi ranks needed to switch methods to reach customers.

Maluleka sums up the informal economy. "So everybody makes a business, it’s part of living. Anybody here in Soweto can sell vetkoek, kotas, shisa nyama, you name it and it can be delivered to your house."

Another Soweto resident, Karabo Morule, with a friend, uses bicycles to deliver 50 loaves of bread a day to four restaurants in Soweto that sell kotas, a hollowed out "quarter" loaf of bread stuffed with processed meats, fried chips and eggs, sauces or pickles.

Queues outside a mall. Picture: GG Alcock

                                                                                                                                                                          Queues outside a mall. Picture: GG Alcock

Morule says he founded his business during the first months of SA’s hard lockdown, when many people were forced to stay home.

In his words, he also "opened a mall". But this is not a shopping centre costing many millions to build. Soweto Lifestyle Mall is a Facebook page. Some days he sells only eight to 10 items, from sandals to fast food he has sourced from a range of suppliers. Customers can send messages to the "mall" via a WhatsApp button on the Facebook page to order goods. They can also send their location via WhatsApp, making delivery easy even if the address is confusing.

And this is where the power of technology comes in. All Morule needs to operate his business is WhatsApp, a phone and a bicycle.

WhatsApp is ubiquitous in SA because it is cheap. A WhatsApp bundle that lasts an hour costs as little as R1. A monthly bundle costs between R30 and R40.

Alcock predicts WhatsApp orders and location sharing will be the driver of online sales in the townships. Yebo Fresh takes orders via WhatsApp.

The other opportunity for township delivery, like everywhere else, is prepared food. Uber Eats started deliveries in Soweto in 2019.

Cape Town resident Leon Qwabe started his business, Order Kasi, in 2018 and poured much of his own money into providing delivery from restaurants in Gugulethu to nearby residents. Through the support of a business incubator he has partnered with Jayson Joubert, a logistics expert with years of experience at Takealot and Mr Delivery.

Trolley pushers sell their wares. Picture: GG Alcock

                                                                                                                                         Trolley pushers sell their wares. Picture: GG Alcock

The Order Kasi app is being rebuilt and is currently offline.

Qwabe discovered by accident how much people will pay for township food to be delivered to the suburbs. The older app allowed delivery within a 5km radius. While testing it one day he changed settings, and minutes later a person in Cape Town’s northern suburbs ordered food from Khayelitsha.

The delivery fee was R200. "My mind was blown," he says. "It was double the food order."

The new company is exploring the option of taking township food to suburban residents.

Alcock says another opportunity for local delivery services is to offer credit in "Mampara week". It is the week before month-end where people have cash-flow problems. Spaza stores offer food on credit and on payday customers settle their debt, and shop.

In the end, says Boonstra, people in townships should have the same shopping opportunities as anywhere else — and should not have to spend hours queuing for a taxi and then food at month-end.

This article was first published by Business Day Live on the 19 November 2020. 

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