Afghan delivery men feel pressure as online sales rise

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KABUL: Afghan courier Sarajuddin stops his motorbike on a dirt road in the heart of war-torn Kabul and calls his customer for directions: “I am in the second street. Which way should I go now?”

As Afghans embrace online shopping, harried delivery men in the capital are increasingly running the gauntlet of security checkpoints, gridlocked traffic, and potholed roads – as well as the near-constant threat of blasts and attacks.

Lost in Kabul’s labyrinthine streets, Sarajuddin often arrives at his destination late, sometimes by several hours. He then has to endure the abuse of angry customers who have been waiting for their package.

“You never know how long it takes to reach an address in Kabul,” the 24-year-old tells AFP as he prepares to set off on what he hopes will be a quick delivery.

“An estimate of time and distance in Kabul can end up being totally wrong.”

It is a problem that is likely to worsen as more and more delivery men fight their way through Kabul to satisfy the country’s nascent e-commerce market.

In recent years a new generation of tech-savvy entrepreneurs has tapped into a small but growing online market – currently around eight million people, less than one-third of the population, can access the Internet.

Countless online stores offering everything from prayer beads to penis enlargement creams have appeared, many using popular social media networks such as Facebook to promote their products.

“We promise to deliver the product to a customer in an hour but then it takes two or more hours to find the address,” says Ahmad Asmar Faqiri, who recently launched Foodbooking, an online delivery service for eateries in Kabul.

“It is a huge headache in Kabul. In most cases, even when you get to the areas it takes our men an average of three phone calls to physically reach the customer.”

Adding to the woes of Kabul’s stressed-out delivery men is the absence of mobile payment, which means customers must pay cash on delivery.

The government says it is working on developing a transaction-processing system but entrepreneur Lais Shujja tells AFP it “has all been mainly talk so far”.

In the meantime couriers must carry wads of cash with them, making them prime targets for robbers in a city beset by violence.

A Foodbooking courier was recently attacked on his way to a customer. The assailants beat him up before stealing his money, mobile phone and motorbike, Faqiri said.

‘Nothing starts perfectly’

The Afghan government hopes the embryonic e-commerce sector – which officials vaguely estimate to be worth “millions of dollars” – could help generate jobs in a country where unemployment hovers around 40%.

Shah Faisal took a huge gamble three years ago, sinking his entire savings of US$3,000 (RM11,700) into an online clothing business. Since then his sales have soared from one or two a week to more than 100 a day and he now employs 20 people.

“My family was concerned that I may lose that hard-earned money, my friends said I was being naive and some even mocked me for the idea,” says the 27-year-old, whose e-commerce venture was among the first in the country.

Despite the many problems facing the sector – including the lack of regulation over the quality of the products sold online – officials remain optimistic.

“Nothing starts perfectly but the success of these first few online businesses is encouraging news for others to get in,” Naqibullah Laraway, finance director for the Afghanistan Chamber of Commerce and Industries, tells AFP on the sidelines of a recent e-commerce and digital marketing seminar in Kabul.

“We have seen that despite the scepticism many Afghans find it tempting, even fascinating, to order online and receive their goods at their doorsteps.”

The convenience of having online purchases delivered to their homes or offices has resonated with some Afghans afraid of being caught up in the violence plaguing the city.

I always preferred to see and touch a product before buying it but I was forced to explore it (online shopping) after some scary suicide attacks that killed a lot of people including a friend of mine,” Madina Sadat wrote on Facebook.

But delivery delays are a source of irritation.

“Online shopping services are good especially when it comes on time,” says Zabihullah Danish after receiving his package from Sarajuddin.

“But sometimes we do not get it on time I hope it gets better in the future.”