Dare to Experiment: Informal traders connected to E-commerce platforms

Reflections: A platform user’s perspective

June 23, 2020

A street vendor sells fruits and vegetables. Image source: Namibian Sun Newspaper

By: Dr Armstrong Alexis, UNDP Namibia Deputy Resident Representative and the Namibia Accelerator Lab team

Science and Experimentation

It was the Enlightenment philosopher, Voltaire, who popularized the phrase that the perfect should never become the enemy of the good.  Ever since joining the UNDP team in Namibia, and in particular, since the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic, I have found myself using this phrase as a guiding principle to encourage my team to put their ideas to the test.  The need to run with a good idea is profoundly etched in the modus operandi of the Accelerator Lab.  Experiments are never perfectly conceptualized and learning from what works and what does not work is a natural part of the journey, so when the lab team approached me with the idea of an online shop to introduce innovations and technological solutions to market retailers who had lost their income as a result of decisive actions to restrict movement and curtail the spread of the coronavirus, I was immediately enthusiastic.  Like true scientists, the AccLab team proceeded to prepare a concept note followed by iterations of improvements to the note, constantly seeking management approval.  After some time, I felt we were trying to achieve perfection in the design, and I urged the team to move on and launch. 

The Tambula Online shop website

The solution

This initiative is an online option designed to keep the businesses of informal retailers in markets going by connecting them onto a digital space.  A small start-up called Tambula Online Shop had recently just launched and the Namibia Accelerator Lab saw an opportunity to build back better through collaboration. The Lab approached Tambula with the idea to create an online portal for consumers who desired items from the market and their usual street vendors at a time when these vendors had been taken off the streets due to COVID-19 restrictions.  The initiative benefits the consumers who can remain in the safety of their home during the COVID-19 lockdown as well as the informal retailers who now have access to customers who they ordinarily would not have had access to by also safely working from home. Having encouraged my team to take the bold step and launch admittedly knowing the idea was not perfect, we have an intervention that all parties are now impressed with. After all, this is what experiments are all about and this is why the lab exists. We launch, we learn, we adjust, we improve but we must never wait until the concept is perfect for us to start.  

A street Vendor sells wood at an Open Market in Windhoek


I have transitioned from being the Deputy Resident Representative who approves concepts into a user of the Tambula Online shop, and I must admit, it is a wonderful opportunity on many fronts. It supports the local informal retail sector and those participating in it to maintain viable business ventures; it supports a technological start-up that is oriented towards social entrepreneurship, and it satisfies consumer demand. Right from my office, I was able to place an order for carrots, onions, eggs, and pears.  Whilst I faced some initial glitches to get myself registered on the platform, my experience was a great one.  I did not have to jump into a car, drive miles, consume harmful fossil fuels, find parking, and expose myself to the coronavirus.  All within 30 minutes, I was able to register on the platform, place an order and have my supplies delivered to my residence. 

The Namibia Accelerator Lab through its experimentation, collective Intelligence and Solutions mapping has brought innovation to a sector that has been left behind. Informal traders have now begun to see opportunities to grow their enterprises. The first phase of the pilot project will soon come to an end and soon, another exciting phase of the initiative will be launched to benefit more informal traders using the lessons learnt and more experimentations. Bravo AccLab Namibia!