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Kenyan online retailer joins vanguard of companies pushing to use drones

Vince Matinde | Nov. 11, 2014
An online retail startup in Kenya is on the cutting edge of experimentation, including tests by some of the biggest companies in the world, to use drones to deliver goods to customers.

An online retail startup in Kenya is on the cutting edge of experimentation, including tests by some of the biggest companies in the world, to use drones to deliver goods to customers.

Kilimall, founded by three local entrepreneurs and a Chinese businessman to bring together a broad variety of vendors onto its e-commerce platform, aims to be the first site in the East Africa region to achieve commercial use of drones, or Unmanned Aerial Vehicles System (UAVs).

Drones have been promoted as effective alternatives for surveillance, agriculture and transportation work. Probably the most high-profile experiment using drones to deliver merchandise has been conducted by Amazon, which is testing its Amazon Prime Air service.

"Joining the 'big boys' such as Amazon, Google and Ebay, who have recently been engaging in testing drones for online orders, we at Kilimall believe this project will transform e-commerce in Kenya and Africa at large," project manager Qin Wen said.

Kilimall's platform was founded by three Kenyan entrepreneurs and a Chinese businessman to bring down the cost of e-commerce and create a platform for retailers to sell their products online.

"It was more of a need than an idea -- the need to access quality and accessible goods and services," says Robin Kiama, Kilimalls' marketing manager. "We learn a lot from other global e-commerce sites like Taobao, JD among others," Kiama said, referring to large Chinese e-commerce sites.

Drones could make goods purchased on Kilimall more easily accessible and boost the site's popularity, Kiama said. Orders can take up to four days to reach customers within Kenya. Drone delivery promises to cut deliveries down to only 30 minutes within the capital of Nairobi.

E-commerce in Kenya has contributed to a dramatic increase in the number of parcels delivered by the government postal service and private couriers, according to a recent report from the Communications Authority. The agency's statistics show a staggering 96.3 percent quarterly jump in items delivered by all courier and postal services, reaching 937,619 items in the Postal Corporation's fourth fiscal quarter ending in June, up from 477,526 items for the third quarter. For the entire fiscal year, the number of items delivered was 2.6 million, up 72.8 percent year over year.

Kilimall is doing a private test run with UAVs sourced from the company's investors in China. The company is using DJI Phantom 2 UAVs from China-based DJI Innovations. One DJI Phantom 2 is priced at more than 125,000 Kenyan shillings, or (US$ 1,400). The DJI drones can carry one kilogram of cargo, but DJI is developing a drone that can carry 10kgs.

Kilimall plans to have several drop-off points across the country where buyers will collect their goods. The company is set to do a public demo test launch next week. "This will mark a major milestone in shaping the rather young but promising commerce industry not only in Kenya but the rest of Africa as well," said Titus Kisangau, PR Manager for the company. "Kenya will join other successful tests from the world."

 

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