How Ghana based OTI is using digital to grow its business worldwide
Organic Trade and Investments is a Ghana based trading firm and platform, specializing in locally produced organic products, which it exports to over thirty different countries. Among the products in the current portfolio are aloe vera gel, African black soap, raw and purified shea butter, cocoa butter and powder, virgin coconut oil, ginger, moringa, cinnamon and lime oil. These ingredients are used in the food and pharmaceutical and cosmetics industries, and are increasingly in demand.
Organic honey and butter shea available at OTI.
he company markets its products to professional buyers through its own website and e-commerce platform, which incorporates a payment solution and offers shipping through air and sea freight -to international locations.
Founder Esther Asante (Esthy) was educated in Europe, but returned home to Ghana to exercise her entrepreneurial flair, starting a digital services business, Virtual Linguistic Solutions (www.vlsgh.com) in 2009. But what really excited her was the potential she could see in the traditional organic produce of Ghana and how “super foods” such as fonio, a grain that's been cultivated in the West African region for thousands of years, and bambara beans could be successfully marketed internationally.
Esthy Asante, winner of the Best Online Female Entrepreneur award
at the Ghana E-commerce Awards in 2018.
ecomConnect spoke to Esthy about her experience in e-commerce and her evaluation of the impacts of the COVID-19 crisis and what this may mean for the future of trade. She is optimistic about the future, and sees digital tools and e-commerce as the source of significant opportunity.
ecomConnect: Why have you gone to the effort to build an online ecommerce platform, rather than rely on existing marketplaces or use traditional ways of reaching international buyers?
Esthy Asante: The site allows us to control our brand and how we present ourselves to the world. Having our own platform helps us to get huge exposure – once SEO (Search Engine Optimization) is accurately applied: we can be found around the world, which helps us find partners. We still have some of our products on other online platforms for better visibility and as part of our e-marketing strategy. Just as traditional companies will use billboard advertising, we use online platforms and social media pages.
The benefit of being digital is also that we can work remotely – with our team and with other collaborators: this is a healthier lifestyle and is also more ecological sounder than having to come to an office. We are digital natives: my background in setting up the VLS business made it completely natural to want to be online with OTI from the beginning.
ecomConnect: The platform is set up using a cloud based solution, WIX. Is that something you would recommend to other would be e-commerce entrepreneurs?
E.A.: I started to use WIX over 10 years ago with my first company, and have never regretted it. I think it has a good look and feel: they propose many tools to make it easy to set up the site and to manage data. You don't need to be a guru in IT or web design to use WIX.
ecomConnect: Do professional customers (“B2B”) actually make use of your platform to make purchase? Don’t buyers typically prefer non digital ways of buying – such as calling you on the phone?
E.A.: The website itself is important as a virtual shop window – for prospective buyers to get to know more about the products we sell. Over 85% of our buyers subscribe to our newsletter: through which we maintain their awareness and target promotions. Some do prefer to send us an email, but many place orders directly through our eStore page. Local buyers are somewhat different: understandably they prefer to come and visit us. To get Ghanaian customers to use e-commerce, we have had to educate them. We are seeing the fruits of this now; in the current context we see an increase in local orders placed online.
ecomConnect: How badly has the COVID-19 crisis affected your business?
E.A.: Our company was not hit by the current situation. We implemented our internal emergency response plan as soon as we heard the first case of COVID-19 in China. We have focused more on essential products and scheduled a conference call with all our suppliers in that domain to advise them to be ready. Aloe Vera gel and hand sanitizers are two such fast moving essential products. We are producing 5 tons of Aloe Vera gel and hand sanitizers per week. Other articles such as shea butter, cocoa butter, and African black soap are also in high demand. We are getting ready to supply the market (whether international or local) with edible commodities (rice, fonio, sesame seeds, soy beans, etc.) after the crisis. We have already received orders from international importers and local exporters for our crops. We know that there could be a food crisis but if we are well prepared, we can overcome it.
ecomConnect: How are you managing the business in this period of crisis?
EA: OTI is busier than before the crisis. Our brand was known by the international market. With the crisis, we have been able to improve the strength of our brand in the domestic market. Nothing has changed for our support team. We have been conducting our meetings online, using Skype as the medium of communication. Since the crisis, our page clicks have increased spectacularly (from 2.4 to 55.7 clicks in just about 2 days for aloe vera gel).
ecomConnect: How do you see ecommerce in the period after the crisis?
EA: I think everyone is now seeing the essential role that digital has to play – and especially the importance of e-commerce. I am among those advocating for the reduction of human movement after the crisis. Many sectors allow people to practice their work from home. With the crisis, we have seen lots of restaurants and grocery shops exploring the e-commerce model to stay in business.
I think we will see a significant shift to buying goods and services and in general interacting online in Africa. For instance, this is likely to accelerate the trend in mobile money payment and innovations in the Fintech sector. There are likely to be a whole host of related opportunities in technology and its application to different sectors including sustainable organic farming and logistics (delivery services).
ecomConnect: Do you have any advice to offer aspirational e-commerce entrepreneurs?
E.A.: Don't rush. Make sure you have your business plan, marketing strategy, export / commercial strategy plan ready. Use the right person to help you set up your online platform. Don't stop learning; understand SEO techniques in particular. Be in control of your business (content editing, blog posts, etc.). Be consistent (brand color, e-marketing, etc.). Select the right online partners – including payment services.
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