A startup company launched nearly two years ago to bring e-commerce to township residents via grocery deliveries is now proving to be a lifeline to many of those same residents during the Covid-19 pandemic by ensuring that they remain able to access vital food supplies safely.
The delivery element of the business is, in addition, assisting charities grappling with the idea of how to get food parcels into informal settlements where access and crime raises very real concerns.
A community-driven, technology-enabled operation, Yebo Fresh is an online shopping service that was originally launched in September 2018 in the Hout Bay township of Imizamo Yethu. Since then, its reach has expanded to include the townships of Hangberg, Langa, Gugulethu, Khayelitsha, Mfuleni and Delft.
The concept was born out of a desire to improve quality of life for township residents by bringing e-commerce to their doors through the most powerful tool the majority of them had: their cell phones.
Explains Yebo Fresh founder, Jessica Boonstra: “Our goal was to provide access to healthier, quality food options in an affordable way for township residents. We wanted an innovative technology solution that would support communities where delivery is not a nice-to-have but a necessity in the absence of sufficient food retailing options.”
Recognising the strength of the startup’s logistical network, charities are now partnering with Yebo Fresh to enable food parcels to be delivered to townships, fulfilling a vital service during Covid-19.
Explains Boonstra: “We have been able to expand our grocery ordering model to deliver food parcels directly to people who are isolated within their homes and with very limited access under the lockdown to any other form of retail.”
Since inception, the company has experienced significant growth – a clear challenge to the conventional wisdom that suggests townships are not open to e-commerce offerings. However, Covid-19 has seen Yebo Fresh expand even further, into a new more than 10x larger warehouse space, and its operation continues to create a number of new jobs and partnership opportunities.
Explains Boonstra: “We are currently packing around 1000 food parcels, amounting to 110 000 meals, daily. Soon we’ll be able to double that volume.”
Customers place their orders either via the website, a WhatsApp order bot or a WhatsApp call service but, because not all its customers have access to smartphones or know how to order online, the company also makes use of paper forms, which are then digitized by local agents. In order to keep prices down, optimise delivery planning and reduce both stock levels and waste in the warehouse, Yebo Fresh sources directly from manufacturers and groups orders into packing- and delivery batches. In the meanwhile, Yebo Fresh customers are kept up to date about their order via SMS, informing them when an order has been packed and when delivery is expected.
“We then coordinate deliveries to easily-accessible and centralised locations such as community centres, schools, churches, daycare centres or even stokvel groups, which also allows us to optimise our delivery route,” says Boonstra. “But we also deliver directly to a recipient’s home.”
The network of local drivers and agents is therefore vital to knowing how to navigate the often intricate labyrinth of township streets and ensuring that that delivery reaches the correct address, particularly in more informal areas.
Even before the pandemic, Yebo Fresh had set fundraising strategies in place in order to create further brand awareness and extend the startup’s reach through an expansion of both its logistics and core technology. It’s an initiative that has already born results: originally funded by UK entrepreneur and investor, Professor Stefan Allesch-Taylor, in September last year, angel investors, Bas Hochstenbach and Frederik Gerner – the founders of early-stage investor E4Africa – were joined by WooThemes co-founder Mark Forrester and former Digital Planet CEO Neil Watson, to secure further funds for YeboFresh.
However, it’s the startup’s mission, says Boonstra, to continue to push the boundaries on all fronts and expand its operations even further, on the ground operationally as well as in continuing to develop its technology: “Highly unusual times call for measures above and beyond. We need a consolidated effort to ensure that one of the most basic human rights – access to food – continues to be rolled out to all.”