This online grocery store uses trucks and tuk-tuks for same-day deliveries in rural KwaZulu-Natal

  • E-commerce is booming in South Africa, but townships and rural communities are often ignored by delivery services.
  • Siyanda Mthethwa, born and raised in rural Eshowe in KwaZulu-Natal, had his first experience ordering groceries online overseas.
  • The entrepreneur has strived to bring this level of convenience home.
  • But rural households lack official addresses, making navigation and home delivery difficult.
  • So Mthethwa developed mapping technology and assigned delivery numbers to thousands of households.
  • Since its official launch in early 2020, Kuloola, which means “easy” in Zulu, has made over 25,000 deliveries.
  • The online grocery store and delivery start-up uses small trucks, tuk-tuks and local drivers who know how to navigate dangerous roads to bring same-day orders to rural households.
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South Africa’s first rural online grocery store and delivery service navigated degraded roads and rough terrain to fulfill more than 25,000 orders in KwaZulu-Natal.

Online shopping and food delivery services have exploded over the past two years, driven by the Covid-19 pandemic, which has kept people at home.

Traditional retailers in South Africa, such as Shoprite and Pick n Pay, have expanded their home delivery services. Fast food giants Uber Eats and Mr D are expanding into other areas as demand grows. Similarly, Takealot, the country’s largest e-tailer, recently announced an increase in sales, with foreign competitor Amazon now eyeing the South African market.

And while these e-commerce services are growing, large parts of the country are still not served by big business.

South African townships are regularly neglected by these e-commerce giants, leaving the market open to innovative local entrepreneurs. Rural parts of the country, home to around a third of all South Africans, are also ignored. But the demand for convenience for online retailers is there, as evidenced by an online store and delivery service launched in Eshowe, KwaZulu-Natal, shortly before the Covid-19 pandemic hit.

“I grew up in rural Eshowe and my grandmother was an entrepreneur. She owned a local spaza store,” Siyanda Mthethwa, the 36-year-old founder of Kuloola, told Business Insider SA.

“Working at this spaza store was my first job, so I always grew up in a family of entrepreneurs, and that definitely rubbed off on me and had a big impact on my life.”

Kuloola, rural delivery service (Image provided)

Mthethwa’s first experience with an online grocery store dates back to 2017, when he was staying with his wife in Norway. “It was an absolute game changer in terms of convenience.”

“I actually thought about how it would impact my home, where I’m from, because we spend so much money going into town, waiting in line, paying for a bus or a taxi,” explains Mthethwa.

“So it was quite a harrowing experience to shop, and I thought I could really export that level of convenience to South Africa.”

But compared to urban delivery services in Norway and South Africa, serving the rural market posed significant and complex challenges. Chief among these challenges is the lack of official addresses for households in rural villages.

“It’s very difficult to reach the threshold of every home without being able to navigate. I spent about two years working with friends in the tech space in Norway, and we developed mapping technology that allows us to map rural households and issue them a delivery number and be able to do it at scale,” says Mthethwa.

In partnership with the local municipality and tribal authorities, Mthethwa has begun mapping over 50,000 households in and around Eshowe. This technology could one day extend beyond grocery delivery services, Mthethwa says, and be used by emergency services.

Once these rural households received delivery numbers, addressing the critical issue of navigation, Mthethwa launched Kuloola, as a pilot project, in July 2019. Mthethwa hired a delivery vehicle, hired a driver and is procured inventory while living abroad. .

“Getting groceries delivered to your doorstep is extremely difficult. Getting inventory delivered to your store is just as difficult, so we wanted to give you something that makes your life easier. [and] Kuloola is a Zulu term which basically means easy,” says Mthethwa.

After the pilot proved to be a “huge success”, Mthethwa launched the business, in full, in early 2020, just months before the Covid-19 pandemic hit South Africa . And while other industries languished under the pandemic and its associated lockdown restrictions, e-commerce, including the recently launched Kuloola, exploded.

“We knew we had a business, before the pandemic hit,” says Mthethwa.

“And then when the pandemic hit, there was a huge demand for grocery delivery, especially for rural communities, which typically pile into taxis or vans in crowded spaces.”

Delivery service in rural South Africa

Kuloola, rural delivery service (Image provided)

In his first two years serving households and spaza stores in the uMlalazi Municipality of KwaZulu-Natal, Kuloola completed over 25,000 orders. Today, Kuloola has over 5,000 residential customers and delivers to over 200 spaza stores, with a customer return rate of over 80%.

A delivery charge of R50 is payable for household orders under 100kg. Larger orders incur a delivery charge of R100 and Spaza stores pay a fixed charge of R50 per delivery. These orders are delivered by Kuloola’s five Hyundai H100 trucks, which make up to 15 deliveries each per trip, and are fulfilled the same day if ordered before 12:00 p.m.

Understanding that rural communities are less likely to have the high internet penetration rates seen by their urban counterparts, orders can also be placed through Kuloola’s call center or even by sending free text messages “Call me please” to which the delivery service will respond.

Local deliveries in and around Eshowe are charged at R20, and groceries are carried by Kuloola-branded tuk-tuks. These orders are usually delivered within two hours.

“We have two tuk-tuks for more local and closer deliveries, for faster turnaround and fuel economy,” adds Mthethwa.

Hiring local delivery drivers has also been key to Kuloola’s success. With rural roads already in poor condition, made worse by recent flooding in KwaZulu-Natal, these drivers, with an innate understanding of the region, are acutely aware of the dangers and know how to avoid them.

“We use local drivers who come from the respective villages, so they know the roads, what they look like and if there should be a shortcut when going to a specific household,” says Mthethwa, adding that Kuloola employs 24 people, including Drivers.

“We’ve also managed to carry so much cash without any theft in the past 24 months, and that’s solely because of our cultural understanding of the communities we serve.”

Mthethwa hopes to grow her business by partnering with big retailers in other areas, realizing, following the devastating July unrest that tore parts of KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng apart, that warehousing stock was a bad plan.

Kuloola hopes to secure seed funding later this year, which it will use to optimize its technology, including improving its dispatch and navigation systems.

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