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  • Jabulile Sonya Ngwenya

WISI-Oi Sets Eyes On Africa’s Fast-Growing E-Commerce Market


PIC CAPTION: Phumi Körber, founder of WISI-Oi, Africa’s first video-based resale platform is passionate about using technology to help people sell their pre-loved clothes on the WISI-Oi platform and create additional income. Image: Supplied / AfricArena


Pre-loved fashion is no longer a niche market, regelated to thrift stores, collection bins and charity stores. Driven by e-commerce solutions and strategies, pre-loved fashion has now gone mainstream. It is estimated that global sales of pre-loved clothes will be a $350 billion market by 2027. That’s a pretty large market, given the amount of clothes sitting in people’s closets, gathering dust in the hopes that they will be loved and worn again. Phumi Körber founder of WISI-Oi, Africa’s first video-based resale platform tells AfricArena’s Jabulile Sonya Ngwenya why WISI-Oi is determined to help people declutter their wardrobes, sell their clothes and generate income.


“WISI-Oi stands for ‘Wear It. Sell It. Own It.’ It’s pronounced we-see-owe-eye,” Körber laughs. Her energy is positive and contagious. “We're a social resale platform focused on pre-loved fashion. Our vision is to be TikTok with a checkout button, where fashion-conscious people can buy and sell high-quality second-hand clothing through short, engaging videos.” An ambitious goal, but not impossible for WISI-Oi, which operates through a peer-to-peer system as in the fast fashion world, Africa is the world’s largest destination for second-hand clothes, proving that there is a viable market for second-hand clothes across the continent. 


If you thought WISI-Oi is an Asian brand given the way it sounds, you would be forgiven for thinking so. But you wouldn’t be too far off the mark as while this refreshing fashion platform is an African bred solution to global challenges, it’s name was inspired by Asian sounding names during the 2020 covid pandemic. Körber smiles, sharing that she was interested in researching the Asian fashion market and its operations at the time she conceptualized

WISI-Oi. 


Körber, who built this unique pre-loved fashion marketplace during the covid pandemic says, “The seed for WISI-Oi was planted in 2020, born from a personal quest to give pre-loved clothes a second life. Working in fashion e-commerce, my overflowing closet from travels sparked the idea.” 


Körber says it all started when she realised there was a need in the market for people to find good homes for clothes that they no longer needed. “A simple Instagram story showcasing items for decluttering was the turning point,” she shares. “Having invested in these pieces, I wanted them to find new owners who would cherish them. Witnessing the wider issue of unworn clothing and fast fashion's environmental impact fuelled my desire for a solution.

WISI-Oi launched just before the pandemic, and while online shopping's surge aided growth, it was in 2021 that we truly gained traction.” 


“The pandemic was a tough time for everyone, but with many people working from home, it gave me a chance to focus on WISI-Oi”, says Körber. “Even though I still had my full-time corporate day job, not having to commute or get ready for a long commute in the mornings and afternoons freed up a lot of time and I knew that I would never have this opportunity ever in my life again after the pandemic is over, so I put all my attention into building the platform before I returned to office life. Since I'm not a programmer, low code tech made it easier to create WISI-Oi without needing to write tons of code.” 


Long before starting WISI-Oi, Körber was in the corporate world with one of South Africa’s largest brick and mortar retailer that was eventually liquidated, and she left in 2021 to join a small e-commerce startup. She chuckles, recalling how her decision left her colleagues astounded, questioning her decision and asking her, “How can you leave a comfortable job with a big brand for a small startup selling things on a computer, no one buys from the computer.” 


E-commerce has since taken off from those nascent days. “Entering e-commerce in 2012 was like being on the ground floor of something revolutionary,” Körber laughs. “It was exciting to see the industry grow so rapidly over the past decade. Back then, it was mostly early adopters shopping online. Today, anyone with a smartphone can experience the convenience and speed of online shopping, with faster and more affordable deliveries.”


Körber wakes up each day excited to engage with her network, community and unlock new opportunities. She says any typical day in her life is busy “because as startups go, you are the head of every department, so I find myself juggling a whole lot of hats. I’m a mom and a wife too, so outside of work, I am with my beautiful girls and my handsome husband. My mom, in her retired age, has also opened up a restaurant in Durban, so I also help her with all the digital marketing, business modelling and financial admin too.”


“I'm passionate about community, empowering people and tech in fashion. WISI-Oi allows users to express their unique style, declutter their lives, and make a positive environmental impact. More than anything, our goal is to change the way we consume fashion.” 


She shares that her obsession with ensuring each user visiting WISI-Oi has a good user experience is at the core of WISI-Oi’s operations. “We all juggle demanding schedules and limited time. That's why making WISI-Oi, convenient, easy and fun to use is crucial. Understanding online shoppers helped me identify their desire for a more personal connection. WISI-Oi bridges that gap, while my digital marketing knowledge informs the user-friendly platform with features like engaging video listings and data insights for sellers. This unique skill set allows me to build a platform that not only works seamlessly but resonates deeply with our fashion-conscious, sustainability-minded users.”


She adds, “Did you know that the average woman only wears about 30% of her closet regularly?” That’s some food for thought, particularly when thinking about the impact fast fashion has on the environment. 


The fast fashion industry is responsible for about 10% of global carbon emissions, often surpassing the combined carbon emissions produced by all international flights and maritime shipping. And it is not going to get better anytime soon as it is projected emissions will increase by 50% by 2030. The fast fashion industry is also the world’s second largest consumer of water. Furthermore, fast fashion encourages a “throw away culture” where many consumers only wear each item up to ten times before discarding it. Because of this, an estimated $500 billion is lost each year due to a failure to maximise wear and recycle clothes. 


This is where WISI-Oi steps in with slow fashion principles to counter fast fashion’s excessive wastage through embracing sustainability and four SDG goals: Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure, Responsible Consumption and Production, Climate Action and 

Partnerships for the Goals.


“What makes WISI-Oi unique is that it's a new breed of e-commerce platform,” says Körber.  Both buyers and sellers are everyday people, driving both supply and demand. Unlike traditional online stores, users crave a more authentic connection with sellers on WISI-Oi. We have the unique privilege of being a platform that taps into people's closets, a very personal space that reflects their style. This builds a community of like-minded individuals who share a passion for fashion, sustainability, and having fun!”


Reflecting on how e-commerce is changing the way we do business, she says, “E-commerce is booming across Africa, transforming every sector! The Internet is getting more and more accessible, payments are getting easier even within the informal sector, and deliveries are getting faster. It's creating new opportunities for businesses of all sizes to reach customers they never could before. Here in South Africa, we're seeing a surge in on-demand and peer-to-peer shopping, making it even more accessible. This growth is exciting because it allows for innovation and caters to the specific needs of African consumers.” The global

e-commerce market is estimated to reach a value of $9.7 trillion by 2027, and the South African e-commerce market is projected to reach $7.9 billion by 2027. 


The key features that sets WISI-Oi apart from similar platforms are video-based listings through which sellers can dynamically showcase their clothes, attracting more buyers with short videos; a strong community of people who love fashion and sustainability; seamless transactions through a secure in-app wallet that makes buying and selling a smooth, trustworthy process; a multi-vendor checkout feature that enables buyers to shop from multiple sellers and pay in one go for a convenient experience and making data for sellers available, helping them to get valuable insights in understand customer behaviour so they can improve their sales.


WISI-Oi was a part of GrindstoneX's inaugural female entrepreneur accelerator programme, and this programme, Körber says, “changed WISI-Oi’s way of doing business! It was a game-changer for WISI-Oi. It opened my eyes to a whole new world! It's a supportive network of inspiring women who understand the challenges and triumphs of building a business. The program offers invaluable mentorship, workshops, and connections that are making a huge difference in WISI-Oi's journey.” 


She also shares that before entering this programme, she didn’t know anything about accelerator programs and everything that goes into building a strong, successful business.  "Nobody in my family has ever owned a business, so I had no reference to any of the above. It was like getting a crash course in everything I needed to succeed.”


Shortly after joining GrindstoneX, WISI-Oi was invited to pitch at the AfricArena Johannesburg Summit 2023 and became the first winner of the inaugural AWS sponsored Fem-Tech Startup Innovation Challenge. WISI-Oi went on to win the Best Fem Tech Startup Award at the AfricArena Grand Summit in Cape Town. 


“Winning the AfricArena Best FemTech Startup Awards in 2023 was a huge honor,” Körber says. “It gave us great validation, significant recognition, and exposure within the investor community. This helped us build partnerships and boosted our team’s morale to carry on doing great things with the circular economy.” 


The Milan-based La Carica 4 Africa mentorship program powered by Boston Consultancy Group invited Körber to participate in their five-month. During this time, she focused on “developing a strong financial model for a profitable marketplace.” Each female founder, she adds, “was paired with a group of mentors who were specifically aligned with our goals. Mine dedicated themselves to helping me refine my financial model to what it is today. This transformed WISI-Oi's business model by creating a clear path to growth and sustainability.” 


The funding winter affected WISI-Oi, as it did for many other startups. “Buckle up, we are in for a long ride,” Körber says. Her eyes twinkling with optimism, she continues, “we are focusing all our efforts on revenue growth and operating as lean as possible. We have drastically reduced our retainers. The low code tech has also reduced our development costs. We are working on automated shipping and payouts so we can allocate those human resources to sales, marketing and user experience. We are not embarking on any further developments until we can secure funding, even then we are treating that raise as our only raise for the next 10 years.” 


A strong believer in sharing both their successes and failures, Körber shares how she and her team were very excited about launching their video-based up last year as “we saw product uploads jump fourfold in just three months! But, we bit off more than we could chew!” 

The WISI-Oi team, she says, “underestimated the resources needed to build our initial, feature-rich marketplace platform. We were excited about a fully custom video-based app, but our limited human and financial resources made it difficult to achieve that complex vision quickly.” 


“It wasn't a failure, but a valuable learning experience,” Körber chuckles. “We have pivoted strategically to a low-code platform. This allowed us to prioritize revenue growth while still offering the core video functionality. It wasn't the original plan, but it was the right decision for our current stage of development.” And she adds, “this experience has made us even more resourceful and adaptable. We're confident that by prioritizing sustainable growth first, we can secure the funding needed to develop that feature-rich video app in the future.”


What makes WISI-Oi’s success remarkable to date, says Körber, “is that so far, we've bootstrapped most of our growth with an initial investment of $50,000. We also received a $5,500 grant that validated our concept and helped us gain traction.” 


This year, WISI-Oi is looking to raise $350,000 in funds to fuel their sales, enhance their technology platform and support strategic marketing initiatives so they can reach a wider audience. 


She mentions that as she is the first entrepreneur in her family, she is breaking new ground and is a role model for female entrepreneurs. The best advice her mentor gave her was “'Keep your eye on EBITDA!” This, she says, “basically meant that while all the other business details are important, focusing on how much profit you make after expenses is what truly matters for a business to grow.” 


Another nugget her mentor taught her was to "focus on solving a real problem for your target customer." This, Körber shares, has kept her and her team “laser-focused on building a platform that truly meets the needs of our users – a social fashion loving community that can earn an extra income or great fashion pieces just by sharing their clothes.”


Women, she notes, still encounter challenges in the marketplace, and much work needs to be done on removing the barriers to entry, particularly when it comes to accessing quality education. “I recently attended a major online marketplace conference in Bangkok. Looking around the room, I was struck by the lack of women - it was almost all men! This wasn't just a South African thing, it seemed global. It made me realize the challenges women face in this industry in not just getting funding, but also building networks, partnerships, and connecting with key groups.”


She shares that this realisation, and seeing how confident men are in approaching each other “inspired me to develop my own confidence and networking skills. I need to overcome these cultural barriers and learn from the successes of others, regardless of gender.”


It is not easy for female entrepreneurs to build a business and be a caregiver at the same time. “This socio-economic structure found in many African communities places a dual burden on founders, especially women,” Körber points out. “We often find ourselves in the role of caregivers for our siblings and extended families, a responsibility that is less commonly observed in families outside of Africa. This caregiving responsibility, coupled with cultural norms surrounding marriage, child-rearing, and gender expectations, significantly impacts our entrepreneurial journey, creating a unique set of challenges to navigate.” 


She thinks for a moment and says, “Put all of that together, and we still need to penetrate a predominantly male space. This adds another layer of difficulty, as navigating the business world where male counterparts overwhelmingly occupy leadership roles and decision-making positions can be daunting. We have to push through not only the usual hurdles but also work harder to be taken seriously and earn respect in an area where women business owners aren't as common.”


Given WISI-Oi’s success, some may wonder if Körber has considered expanding into different markets. “Currently, we're focused on clothing, but we see potential inclusive circular models such as rentals, luxury and perhaps bridal too,” she says. “We're also exploring new markets in Africa with a growing interest in fashion marketplaces.” 


And for some who may be wondering if Körber will create a beauty product line, she laughs and says she should ask her daughters for advice on this as they are more up-to-date on the latest brands. “Personally, I'm a "if it works, don't change it" kind of person when it comes to beauty products. For my skincare, I stick with DermaFix, a proudly local brand. When it comes to makeup, I swear by Fenty because I am a Navy, and for body care, I rely on The Body Shop's shea butter. Oh, and I make sure to incorporate sunscreen into everything! Sunscreen is seriously underrated—it's the ultimate beauty secret.”

 

She ends the interview with some good advice for aspiring female retail or e-commerce founders: “Don’t be scared of being uncomfortable, be data-driven, and don't be afraid to ask for help. Build a strong network of mentors and supporters, and remember, there's power in collaboration!”


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