SmartSell Technology is a Point of Sale solution focus on solving problems faced by retailers in West Africa. Some of the main issues retailers face are lack of change for refund at cashiers and security issues tied to only-cash payments. The company integrate Mobile services from carriers at cash registers to allow swift change refund and easy payments for goods.
We had the opportunity to email interview the founder of SmartSell Technology, Adama Thiam, and here it is:
- Tell us about yourself and your business
My name is Adama Thiam and, in 2015, I founded the Startup SmartSell Technologies based out of Abidjan, Ivory Coast (West Africa). I have a bachelor of Science in Software Engineering and over 15 years of experience in software development.
Our startup focuses on the design of Point of Sale (POS) management software tailored for the needs of retailers in our French-speaking country, Ivory Coast.
When you visit a supermarket or pharmacy in most countries in West Africa, and change is due to you after you pay cash for goods, chances are you will hear the clerk say: “there is no change, would you like some candies instead?” Kind customers are forced to accept products they don’t need! Others abandon their goods in the hands of the clerk and leave the store! That’s not acceptable!
We are a predominantly cash society with over 80% of retail stores accepting only cash as payment option for goods. In the meantime, more than 70% of the population owns a cellular phone and therefore have access to Mobile Money accounts. On a personal note, I just got tired of abandoning my change at the register because I was not interested in the candies offered as a compensation! Not to mention potential painful visits to the dentists after consuming all these goods!
I approached a chain of supermarkets in Ivory Coast and they agreed to partner with me for the development of a retail management solution, SmartPOS, that will be tailored for the needs of West African retailers.
The first objective was to build a software that offers all standard functionality retailers need. After a year of intense work, the first version of SmartPOS was deployed at one of the supermarkets which acted as pilot site for our project. While spending countless nights working on improving that first version, I applied and got admitted to Orange FAB, the accelerator program of start-ups initiated by the cellular carrier Orange Cote d’Ivoire. At that time, I decided to formally create the startup with all the required paperwork.
While spending a year at Orange FAB, I assembled a team of developers and we were able to work on our second main objective: integrate Mobile money and airtime services in our point of sale management solution. The second major version of SmartPOS was deployed at the pilot site. Customers were really excited because they had all Orange Mobile services in one place at the register: They could pay for goods via their Mobile Money accounts, make cash deposits into their Orange Money accounts, withdraw cash from their accounts, receive their change via a deposit into their accounts if they chose to pay cash, and buy airtime. The other innovation was the fact that clerks could process all these transactions from our retail management software, without the need of a cellular handset or the Internet!
Today, we are team of 6 persons moving this project forward! We have deployed our solutions at 15 retailers in Ivory Coast.
- How much did you need to start your business and how were you able to raise that capital?
The development of the first version of our solution SmartPOS required $2000. I used my savings to finance this part of the project. For the second part of the project (pilot site set up and follow up for a year, integration of Mobile services, …), we needed around $15000. We got a $17,000 reward from Orange FAB which helped us develop our solution further.
- What are some of the challenges you face in your business and how do you overcome those challenges?
We have starting deploying our solution at retailers since June 2016.
Skepticism from prospective clients was the main issue we have faced since our solution was an innovation to most of them. We realized that these clients have had terrible experiences with software makers in the past and they were very cautious.
All of them wanted to see a demo of all the services. Once past the demo, the question that often came up was: How do we know your system will keep working after you have installed it and left. Two things greatly helped us convince clients: Our stay at the incubator Orange FAB (Orange being a reference here) and the pilot site (supermarket Claire Fontaine) we worked with for a year while incubated.
Finding funds to take our project to the next level is also a challenge we are trying to overcome. We have great expansion plans in our region and we certainly would like to capitalize on our competitive edge.
- Where do you see your business 5 years from now and what steps are you taking today to reach that objective?
5 years from now, our main objective is to have a local office in at least 5 countries in the region. Through our relationship with Orange, we hope to offer our solutions to retailers in countries in the region where Orange Money is available. While we are working hard to establish our solutions in the local retail market, we are building an expansion plan which we hope will be strongly backed by our initial results in Ivory Coast.
- What advice would you give other entrepreneurs looking to start a business or invest in Africa?
Founding SmartSell Technologies is my second entrepreneurial experience.
The most important lesson I learned from this experience (and the first one as well) is: Never, ever let a lack of money stop you or bring down your confidence or motivation. I can recall countless nights where I just wish I had submitted my resume to a company and get a job with enough security. But at the end of day, the entrepreneurial experience is always great regardless of the difficulties along the way. The whole team at SmartSell has bought into our vision and we are working hard to get there.
- How is your business participating to the development of Africa?
Mobile Money is on the rise in Africa as we have over 8 million Mobile Money subscribers in Ivory Coast out of a population of 20 million. Growth will be strong for the next 5-10 years. In the meantime, over 80% of retailers still accept cash as their primary payment option with all the security risks involved. Lack of change at the registers creates unhappiness for customers. We are playing an import role in helping customers have a more enjoyable experience at retail shops in our country. At one place, customers can have access to an array of Mobile Services (Mobile Money, Airtime) as opposed to visiting multiple sites for the same services.