Back to blog

No physical address? Not a problem.

Thursday, March 10th, 2022

Today we are introducing a simple and seamless way for sellers to request delivery of goods to buyers without physical addresses. It is a significant milestone in our quest to simplify last-mile delivery in Africa, where physical addresses are often missing or poorly supported by Google Maps.

Although physical addresses can have various formats, the purpose is always to identify a physical place. For instance, in the United States, a combination of a house number, a street name, and a zip code is usually enough to achieve that. Physical addresses are essential because they enable the delivery of mail and goods to our homes, from bank statements to utility bills and products purchased from Amazon.

Then, you might wonder, in a place where buildings do not have physical addresses, how does anything get sent to anyone?

For us, this is not a rhetorical question. Due to multiple reasons, most houses in African cities lack complete physical addresses. Google Maps – the de facto navigation tool – often cannot accurately locate some buildings with house numbers and street names. This reality is not unique to Africa but also to other emerging markets, including India and Latin America.

It is typical for a delivery driver to make multiple phone calls to the recipient asking for navigation instructions. The exact number of calls depends on how good the recipient is at communicating their location, the presence of well-known landmarks or features that stand out, and the familiarity of the delivery driver with an area. "Once you get to the local market, you will see another street on the right. Within 200 meters, you will take a left turn. I will be at the third house with a blue gate," such are typical instructions to a delivery driver. All those phone calls disturb whatever the recipient is doing and delay the delivery of goods. It is not just bad for the recipient; it is equally bad for the delivery driver or company. For example, suppose navigating a certain distance typically takes 15 minutes with a motorbike in a city. Without precise navigation instructions, the delivery driver must stop a few times for further instructions, which may delay the delivery to 30 minutes or longer. That is twice the amount of time for typically the same delivery fee. As an on-demand, last-mile delivery service operating in Kigali, Rwanda, we face these challenges daily.

Today we are introducing "delivery links" - special links (i.e., URLs) that enable sellers to provide a seamless delivery experience to their buyers without physical addresses. When a seller wants to deliver goods to a buyer, the seller – with a pre-existing Vanoma account and a known location – sends a delivery link to the buyer via SMS. When the buyer opens the link, they see the name of the seller/business and can use their current location as the delivery address. Determining the exact current location is possible thanks to GPS capabilities built into smartphones. We also provide an option to specify another location different from the current one by choosing a place on Google Maps.

This solution is deceptively simple. All a seller has to do is type the buyer's phone number. The buyer automatically receives an SMS from Vanoma with a delivery link. Then the buyer can tap on "Current location" to share their exact location. With that, our delivery drivers will deliver the goods as quickly as possible without a single phone call asking for verbal navigation instructions. Whether the buyer is doing work, taking a nap, or having a conversation with family and friends, they will not be interrupted. Given how ubiquitous smartphones have become, this solution should work for most sellers and buyers alike.

We have always understood that the lack of physical addresses is one of the top technical challenges when building a successful on-demand, last-mile delivery service in Africa. When delivery drivers are spending twice the amount of time on each delivery because of phone calls and unclear destinations, the efficiency of any delivery service goes down. Because of that and other operational challenges inherent to logistics, it has been historically hard for delivery services operating in Africa to succeed on a large scale. Given our goal to enable local merchants to sell citywide from anywhere, we hope that this solution will turn out to be a key milestone.

-- Anselme Mucunguzi