COVID-19 Unlocks e-Commerce and Digital Finance among Low-Income Women in Nigeria

January 14, 2021

By Jennifer Iwueze, Women’s World Banking Research Specialist

Among Nigerian consumers, spending on e-commerce currently accounts for an estimated $12 billion per year. By 2025, that spending is projected to swell to $75 billion in annual revenues. Numerous factors are driving significant growth in this sector, including an increase in population size and a rise in mobile phone usage. Most recently, the COVID-19 pandemic has spurred widespread adoption of digital finance across Nigeria.

In April 2020, Nigeria’s Presidential Task Force on COVID-19 issued warnings about an increasing number of asymptomatic coronavirus carriers, and it soon became clear that the pandemic was going to significantly disrupt daily life and business routines, as well as local and global supply chains across the country. The Nigerian government’s guidelines instructed the population to avoid crowded places such as brick-and-mortar shopping malls, supermarkets, open markets, banking halls, and other venues where the possibility of contracting the virus was high. At that point, businesses and consumers began to turn to online shopping, digital payments, and virtual transactions that allowed for social distancing. Nigerian female entrepreneurs, in particular, were faced with difficult decisions to adapt or face losing their income.

Low-Income Nigerian Women’s Use of Digital Tools

For four months, Women’s World Banking looked at five low-income women entrepreneurs working in three major open markets in Nigeria to gain insight into how they conducted their business amidst the pandemic. Our appraisal of these five women revealed that they had no choice but to migrate their businesses to digital platforms, even though many were previously unbanked and undigitized, because an increasing number of larger-scale businesses had already resorted to remote operations for shopping. Taking their businesses digital was the only way for these entrepreneurs to retain their loyal clientele and potentially expand their operations during lockdown.

To continue operating their businesses and conducting transactions, the five women turned to digital apps and social media platforms like WhatsApp and Facebook, as well as to bank accounts and other structured forms of payment that allow for remote transactions and to manage their finances. While these tools were available for use before the pandemic, COVID-19 was the motivation that spurred these women to embrace and use these digital platforms for their businesses.

WhatsApp Status and Groups

WhatsApp is a widely used app in Nigeria, and it is typically one of the first apps installed by first-time internet users. During the pandemic, the five low-income women we profiled were compelled to purchase a smartphone, learn how to use it, install WhatsApp, and begin adding all of their customers’ contact information to the app. This allowed the women to use their WhatsApp status to share information about their products and prices, enabling prospective customers to view and order from them remotely. Some of the women also created WhatsApp groups, added their customers, and used the groups to streamline the process of receiving and delivering orders to their clients. Organizing customers into WhatsApp groups also allowed these women to offer a reduced fee for those orders and to send out products via a dispatched driver to their customer’s home.

Facebook Groups

With more than 2.7 billion monthly active users, Facebook is the world’s most widely used social media platform. Nigeria currently has more than 30 million active users on Facebook and ranks 18th globally among countries using the platform. The launch of the free Facebook version in 2016 increased the popularity of the platform in Nigeria, particularly among low-income users who could now access it without paying any data fees. These five low-income women were able to take the opportunity to join several Facebook groups in order to market and sell their products.

Not only did these five women—and many other small business owners—use these two apps to sustain their businesses, they also began to create impacts beyond just their niche. For example, mobile telecoms networks are now relying on stories similar to these women’s as marketing campaigns. Though their reasons for doing so may be commercial, there is a case to be made that this marketing will have a social and developmental impact. Additionally, Nigeria’s telecommunications operators have seen the need to reduce the cost of data as many Nigerians, including low-income women, have increasingly embraced the internet as a necessary tool for business rather than relying on their community to help them get online and manage marketing activities.

Finally, in light of the 2021 Africa Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA) and its implications for the regional trade market, the growth of e-commerce appears poised to directly impact the capacity and competitiveness of small and mid-size enterprises (SMEs) and the quality of services they render. Looking at the success stories of low-income Nigerian women positively impacting their businesses by turning to digital tools can help point the way toward supporting and sustaining stronger data policies, both during and after the pandemic.

In the wake of the lockdown, as low-income women doing business in Nigeria’s markets are embracing e-commerce, they are demonstrating a capacity to triumph over challenges and to make choices that will ensure the success of their enterprises. In the coming months, we plan to profile these five women’s stories to show not only how they have weathered the storm, but also how they are embarking on new frontiers in their respective industries.

Even as strict adherence to COVID-19 guidelines continues to wane in most parts of Lagos and around Nigeria, lower-income women who have adopted digital tools to help operate their businesses during lockdown will benefit from ongoing usage and optimization of these nascent digital transactions. Continuing to conduct commercial activities using digital tools will not only help to contain the spread of COVID-19 and mitigate the impact of the second wave in Nigeria, but low-income women will also have the potential to grow their businesses if they deliberately retain some of the new habits occasioned by the lockdown.