Let's talk about last mile delivery in South Africa

by Simon Hartley: Founder at
A booming ecommerce industry and advancements in technology are bringing goods straight to our doorsteps at an increasingly regular, predictable, and accurate manner.

The arrival of Amazon, and the 100% purchase of Massmart by Walmart heralds the imminent arrival of the kind of customer delivery experience that would finally level the power dynamics of Zoom calls with expat family members.

If you’re one of the millions of South Africans who have things delivered to you, you quite literally have never had it so good, and there’s still enormous room for maturity in the delivery space.

So, everything’s fine, right? Well...

You may have noticed that we have something of an energy crisis south of the Limpopo.

On the one hand, petrol prices have more than doubled in five years, and we’re looking at an oncoming economic downturn. The prognosis for 2023’s oil price is up and to the right if the 1970s and late 2000s are predictors of oil prices in global recessions. So, it’s getting more and more expensive to move things that go vroom.

So electric vehicles are the answer here, right? Not only do they not burn petrol or diesel, the limited number of parts between the power delivery system and the wheels means significantly lower maintenance costs. What a win. In the face of predictably increasing fuel costs, you could reasonably expect the market to respond with (not insignificant) charging infrastructure and fleet replacement investments.

Grocery delivery businesses like Picnic in the Netherlands work on an entirely electric truck fleet because an effective mix of efficiencies enable trucks to complete a fully-laden run on one charge. Those efficiencies include real time, two-way automated communication with customers to increase first time attempt rates and minimise handover time, in a very small, very dense operational area. Great route-optimisation helps, but most of the heavy lifting here is owed to the fact that the entire country is literally the size of Gauteng (which is not a very big province as far as square meterage goes), but with one or two million more people crammed into it.

And the whole thing hangs on a principle assumption that the vehicle will have the opportunity to charge uninterrupted once it’s parked.

Which brings us to the other hand: we’re having a hard time keeping the electricity grid electrified.

The shape of our particular energy crisis has a few implications for final mile in South Africa.

First, don’t expect to see a meaningful roll out of fully electrified bulk-consignment (consolidated or large item) delivery vehicles in South Africa until our national electricity generation shortfall is dealt with or cold fusion batteries exist - whichever happens first.

Second, do expect to see South African problem solving and ingenuity in the two wheel vehicle space.

You mean bicycles, right? Well, not entirely. While bicycles may be effective in small, densely populated countries, South Africa’s size means the time between drop offs on a human-powered bicycle (which increases as calories - and thighs - burn) negatively impacts the overall number of possible deliveries in a day, which in turn increases the cost per delivery.

Electric bicycles, however, do move pretty quickly, most of the time. They also enjoy benefits like regenerative braking, reducing or eliminating their need to stop for a charge.

And unlike their fully electric motorbike cousins, if they do run out of juice they still work with a (eskom se) push. And did I mention that they don’t require a vehicle license to operate, which makes them a potentially significant unlock for youth job creation.

Loadshedding starts in 25 minutes, so I have to wrap this up.

Until next time, tip your drivers.

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We’re obsessed with eliminating friction from last-mile delivery in Africa and creating an anxiety-free logistics experience for businesses, individual users, and drivers alike.
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