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First e-commerce hub launched in Lebanon

The Wakilni E-Commerce Hub in Beirut, May 3, 2019. (The Daily Star/Hasan Shaaban)

BEIRUT: Consumers in many countries grew used to ordering goods and services online long ago, conjuring up food, clothing, rides, and even helpers to run their errands or clean their homes with a click of the mouse or a swipe on their mobile screen.

The concept has more recently arrived in Lebanon, and while the sector is growing, entrepreneurs said a number of barriers remain in the way of its expansion.

A new e-commerce hub is aiming to smooth the way for new e-commerce businesses by offering a work and storage space and one-stop shop for many of the services they might need to run their businesses.

The space in Dora was officially launched Friday in collaboration between Antwork, which runs another coworking space in Kantari, and Wakilni, an e-commerce business offering errand, delivery and storage services.

Wakilni has its own offices in the new space as well as renting out offices and coworking spaces to others; at present, including Lucky Monkeys, a social media management company primarily for e-commerce businesses, and Creative Olive, which provides services including photography, copywriting and graphic design.

“It’s a sector really flourishing in Lebanon right now but businesses and the sector face a lot of challenges,” said Marie-Carmel Eckert, programs coordinator at Antwork. “And so if they can find support - logistic support, packaging support, creative support, financial advice, etc., in the same place, it can really help them to launch e-commerce businesses and to develop them.”

E-commerce is one of the most quickly growing sectors in the Middle East and North Africa region. A 2018 study of venture investments in the region by the startup data platform MAGNiTT found that e-commerce was the second-most invested-in sector in the region, behind financial technology.

But the Lebanese population has been somewhat slow to adopt online purchases. A 2015 report on the sector by BLOM Bank found that 10 percent of internet users in Lebanon shopped online, as opposed to 40 percent globally. The challenges range from poor infrastructure - physical and legal - to public perceptions.

Rana Nader, an attorney working in digital law, speaking at a roundtable of e-commerce professionals at the launch of the hub, noted that until recently, Lebanon did not have its own law governing electronic transactions and personal data, but as of January the country has enacted one. “Now we have our own legislative framework,” she said.

Likewise, unlike some countries where cash has become all but obsolete, Lebanon remains a largely cash-based economy. Many consumers still do not have a credit card at all or are not used to entering credit card information online.

Tamim Khalfa, CEO of the food-delivery platform Toters, who was also present at the launch, said overcoming consumers’ reluctance is a matter of building trust in the brand. Often new customers elect to pay in cash on delivery the first one or two times they order, but afterward switch to paying online, he said.

Another issue for online delivery-based businesses is the lack of street addresses, which can make finding customers a logistical challenge.

Yusr Sabra, managing partner of Wakilni, noted that there is a wide range in the tech-savviness of customers. Some may be savvy enough to send pins of their locations, while others prefer to simply give a phone number and general area and then direct drivers from there.

To build a successful e-commerce business in Lebanon requires flexibility, she said: “You just don’t say, khalas, they’re not buying it, no - change a little bit, be flexible and eventually people will catch up.”

Ultimately, she said, passion is the key to success in the sometimes challenging field.

“If you just have passion and you just want to do it, you can do it,” she said. “There are a lot of examples of businesses that started small but were able to push through and come up with creative ways ... It just requires picking the right product, picking something the clients actually need, how you’re convenient in their lives and just being creative. Don’t stop at the hurdles, but just try to find ways around them.”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on May 04, 2019, on page 4.

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