Cracking the Last-Mile in Africa and the Middle East: an Interview with Charles Brewer, Managing Director of Mara Sokoni.

Charles Brewer is the Lawrence of Arabia of the logistics community, englishman, explorer and last-mile wizard. He worked with DHL from 1984 to 2015, working in Sales, Operations and general Management. He has worked in Europe, Asia Pacific, the Americas and most recently in Africa and the Middle East. Now he works as Managing Director for Mara Sokoni, a pan-African group based in Dubai, part of an eco-system of mobile and tech platforms designed to connect Africans across the continent via e-commerce, m-commerce, and last mile logistics. Sokoni, which means “marketplace” in Swahili, is an e-commerce platform with a focus on B2C.

Could you simplify in a few sentences the most striking challenges you had to overcome as a logistics expert who has worked all over the world?

I have lived, worked and visited more than 110 countries and have had the most wonderful of experiences; meeting world leaders, seeing iconic buildings and landscapes, experiencing so many different cultures, meeting different and for the most part beautiful people living in such beautiful places. I really have been so very, very fortunate. Of course there have been many challenges, but I have always lived my life with a view to how to turn a challenge into an opportunity …

What are the main logistical and human difference between delivering goods in the USA/Europe vs countries like Malaysia, the Philippines and South Africa?

Infrastructure! The customer and the employee’s needs stay fairly constant, the biggest difference is the ease in which you can deliver. A good example would be the customs clearance processes across Africa, or the traffic in Lagos, Nairobi or Bangkok.

Mara Sokoni is planning to sell and deliver goods in Africa, an adventure that is starting from scratch, right now. What are the biggest opportunities and weaknesses of those markets?

eCommerce is just booming in Africa, as it is across the rest of the world, and it’s going to get bigger and bigger. Consumers want choice and convenience and as such I see online growing at a far faster pace than offline … brick and mortar will still have a part to play, but will increasingly be replaced by online and great last-mile services and solutions. Mara Sokoni aims to be front and centre and will quickly deploy to Nigeria, followed by Kenya, South Africa and the top 20 African markets. That said, and as with other more mature markets, eCommerce in Africa does present some challenges; some of these are: trust, counterfeit goods, payment and, of course, logistics.

Dubai's skyline

Is the future of ecommerce and logistics to be searched in the rapidly-developing third world countries?

I think eCommerce is going to grow everywhere, but of course Africa is still very embryonic and as such will represent a faster growth and greater returns for the early adopters and pioneers.

Nigeria and Kenya are hyper-developing new markets: what are the priorities to be solved for establishing a good logistical presence?

Hiring a great team with a solid logistics and last mile background … neither Africa, nor the industry, are “a learn as you go” environment and I see far too many eCommerce companies failing in the last-mile because they just don’t get logistics.

Mara Express (Sokoni’s delivering branch) has just celebrated its first delivery in Dubai.

We are super excited to have launched in the UAE and the Mara Xperts we have hired and trained just can’t wait to deliver! In the short term it is about ensuring the platform is solid and doing what we promised it would do. Then we will rapidly scale and expand adding other UAE cities and then entering other GCC countries. Our goals right now are to focus on employee skills, the technology platform, the delivery options and of course, and most importantly, our customers. The UAE represents more than 10000 orders per day, and we want to be the market leader, renowned for delivering an outstanding, predictable and great customer experience.

mara express firt delivery

Last-mile has become a buzzword: Amazon has created a same-day frenzy that seems hardly sustainable, in economic terms. For Mara are you strategizing in terms of speed, delivery options, Pick-up Points, lockers?

We have to keep pushing the envelope and finding ways to provide greater customer choice and convenience, at a price a merchant and the customer will pay. As such, it is critical we keep moving the delivery away from traditional courier and provide choice through lower cost, innovative and customer-centric solutions. For example, using lockers more and more, using collect points via retail partners or in-house creative solutions like converted containers. The reality is that the courier can only be so efficient and delivers a diminishing return in service levels the harder you work it.

What do you think of the sharing economy model used for deliveries, such as in UberRush or Amazon Flex?

It’s great .. the reality is that it isn’t there just yet for global consumption, but as with lockers and retail, we need to explore alternate options so that the customer gets their order when and where they want it, not when the merchant or delivery company says they can have it.

Is going green an ecological necessity?

Yes. We need to be responsible and ensure the footprint we leave leaves as little a trace as is possible. As an example, Mara Xpress will be the very first last-mile fulfillment company to use electric bikes in the Middle East and Africa and I am incredibly proud that we are taking the first step.