How a Kenyan entrepreneur is speeding up snail mail
Why We Wrote This
With email so ubiquitous, the importance of having a physical mailbox is easy to overlook. But the postal service’s significance is all too clear for people who lack reliable access. Can digital services help bridge the gap?
Ryan Lenora Brown/The Christian Science Monitor/File
Abandoned letters spill out of post office boxes in Juba, South Sudan, in August 2017.
August 20, 2020
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By Vincent Matinde
Like many Kenyans, Abdulaziz Omar used to share a post office mailbox with his family. But when he most needed it, the key was 300 miles away, in the coastal city of Mombasa.
Inside the post office box, he eventually found, was a job offer – but he’d found it three months too late.
Five years later, he launched MPost, a digital service that helps Kenyans track and manage mail access, in hopes other people can avoid his experience.
Around the world, more than 4 in 5 people receive their mail at home, according to a report by the Universal Postal Union. In Africa, only 1 in 5 do. And even in a world where snail mail has been overtaken by email and texting, not having regular postal service presents an economic hurdle for individuals, communities, and countries. What’s at stake isn’t just personal correspondence, but payments, official documents, and other services.
But increasingly, governments and entrepreneurs are harnessing online tools to improve and extend offline service. The Postal Corporation of Kenya, for example, is now pushing its own virtual post office addresses. And MPost, which costs just $3 per year, has clocked more than 200,000 users, according to Mr. Omar. But his goal is ambitious: 5 million.
Abdulaziz Omar stood motionless, staring at a gridded wall with hundreds of blue boxes in a post office in the middle of Nairobi. He gripped a brown envelope in his hand – an envelope that had a job offer of a lifetime, but that he’d opened three months too late.
Being selected for a government position is a jackpot, in many Kenyans’ eyes. For Mr. Omar, then a young MBA graduate, securing a job at a state-run company meant coming one step closer to achieving his professional and financial dreams.
But Mr. Omar and his extended family, like many relatives in Kenya, shared one mailbox – and at the time, their only key was 300 miles away. He had to journey from Nairobi to the coastal city of Mombasa to retrieve it, only to come back to bad news.
“I was extremely disappointed. I felt really low. I wondered why didn’t the post office alert me that I had a letter? Why did I have to receive it this late?” Mr. Omar recalls.
That’s when an idea for a business venture sprouted. Five years later, in 2016, he quit another government job to found MPost, short for “mobile post office” – a digital service that helps Kenyans track and manage mail access.
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Even in a world where snail mail has been overtaken by email and texting, not having regular postal service presents an economic hurdle – for individuals, as well as their communities. But most African countries, including Kenya, depend on a centralized physical office system that is not scalable, especially in far-flung areas. Around the world, more than 4 in 5 people receive their mail at home, according to a 2014 report by the Universal Postal Union, a United Nations agency. In Africa, only 1 in 5 do.
For many people, a shared post office box is the norm. Others rely on mail offices at nearby institutions like a school or a church. Either way, the chances of lost or delayed deliveries is high, and a barrier to business, official documents, and simply letters from loved ones.
But increasingly, governments and entrepreneurs are harnessing online tools to improve and extend offline service. Mobile and smartphone access across sub-Saharan Africa has soared in the past decade, lowering barriers to other services, too, like banking. In Kenya, for example, 80% of people own a cellphone, according to a 2017 Pew Research survey.
The benefits of securing post office boxes are high, advocates say.
“Pension payments, e-government and health services are some of the many services that the post office provides to its community. Lack of access to a post office in many ways represents economic marginalization,” says a UPU spokesperson. “Indeed, access to postal services is a contributor” to several of the U.N.’s sustainable development goals, including economic growth, innovation, and sustainable communities.
Mail by text
Sub-Saharan Africa has an approximate ratio of 25,000 people per post office box, according to the UPU spokesperson, as compared with more developed regions with 2,000 people per post box. “The vast geographical size and the low connecting infrastructure makes providing postal services a challenge,” they say. In Kenya, according to government statistics, there are 400,000 boxes in a country of about 50 million people.
MPost, which Mr. Omar built under his company TAZ Technologies, has a partnership with Safaricom, Kenya’s largest telecommunication company, and the government-owned Postal Corporation of Kenya. The service generates a unique address code for each user based on a user’s mobile phone number. When letters or packages are sent to the post office of their choice, users get a text message alert. It’s $3 per year, though for an extra cost, items can be delivered to users’ doorsteps.
Despite minimal marketing, MPost has clocked more than 200,000 users, says Mr. Omar, and is a big hit with younger Kenyans. More than half of people on the platform use it for overseas e-commerce orders, including Reuben Kiarie.
Mr. Kiarie, a resident of Nairobi, has been using MPost since its inception. He runs a business ordering beauty products from online shops, such as Chinese retail giant Alibaba’s AliExpress, and reselling them in Kenya. Previously, he shared a physical post office box with his father. He had to arrange to pick up items from his dad’s house, and visits could be weeks apart. But the virtual system has given a boost to his business.
“With the old system, you didn’t know if mail had arrived at the post office. But with this new digital system, I can be alerted when my parcels have arrived,” he says.
African governments, too, are pivoting toward digital mail services. The Postal Corporation of Kenya is pushing its own virtual post office addresses, titled e-Njiwa, starting at $20 per year. Similar to MPost, users receive alerts when mail arrives, and can pick it up at the designated office. BotswanaPost App originally enabled users to buy prepaid electricity tokens, but aims to add several postal services and other purchases. In 2016, the South African Post Office launched a free mobile app that allows customers to track their parcels.
Post offices across the continent are experimenting with technology to extend services, according to a UPU report published last year. Seven of the top 10 digital mail services, such as tracking packages or offering web access in offices, have been implemented by more than half of African postal systems.
Yet small postal budgets struggle to sustain innovation, according to Hamilton Ratshefola, the general manager for IBM South Africa. Through TradeLens, a shipping supply network, IBM is using technologies such as blockchain to smooth out the global shipping process.
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“The challenge with postal services is that they do not have investment muscle. It is the private companies like DHL and Amazon who can make investments,” he says, adding that public systems can benefit from business innovation. Blockchain and the Internet of Things are the future of shipping and postal services, he says.
For now, back in Kenya, Mr. Omar is trying to ensure other Kenyans won’t experience significant mail mix-ups like his. His company and their partners’ goal? To provide 5 million digital boxes.