How demand for groundnut in India led this Nigerian to start one of Africa’s biggest e-commerce platforms
Inspired by how Chinese billionaire Jack Ma started his online trading platform after his frustration of not seeing Chinese beer online, she launched TOFA to serve as a platform for trading groundnut. Although she established the business to create a platform to trade groundnut, the platform now deals in food, beverages, apparel, houseware, furniture, beauty and personal care products, packaging and supplies, minerals as well as agricultural supplies and produce. The platform allows potential customers to search for products and to see their availability anywhere in Africa.
TOFA started in Nigeria but has expanded to other countries in Africa. “I wanted to start with five African countries – Uganda, Rwanda, Kenya, Nigeria and Ghana,” said Uzo-Ojinnaka. “We went from Lagos, Nigeria, to the other four African countries to recruit merchant acquisition directors who would source and onboard suppliers.”
According to her, the platform also collects and analyzes sales data to better understand the spending pattern of buyers. The data, Uzo-Ojinnaka noted, “will be very important for governments and organizations in terms of showing what’s needed in different regions in Africa.”
The platform is built on the back of Africa’s agricultural potential. The continent is often regarded as the breadbasket of the world but inadequate infrastructure has led to massive food losses. Also, most farmers in Africa are not connected to the global economy, thereby depriving them of the opportunity to trade with buyers from other parts of the world.
Uzo-Ojinnaka launched the business in 2017 with 9,000 suppliers sourced from five African countries. Despite the high number of suppliers on the platform, one of her major challenges was trust. According to her, buyers and sellers didn’t trust each other, and nobody was willing to make the first move.
To build trust, she created an offline version of her platform, which is accessible to buyers and sellers. “Through this, we were able to facilitate the building of trust between them,” she told IncAfrica.
And according to her, she extended it to her company’s culture. “I need to settle my home first, and I tell my staff the same thing. Before they come to work, they must settle their homes first. If their home is not settled, there’s nothing they can do at work,” she added.
“I want TOFA to be so successful that it outgrows me and to the point that I can’t handle it anymore. If, when that point comes that I have to leave and I’ve sacrificed my family, where will I go?”
Prior to starting TOFA, Uzo-Ojinnaka was working in the banking sector. She also joined her family to run a business importing construction products from China and elsewhere.