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This article is part of the series “Conversations on the Global App Economy” which is sponsored by Nokia.

In developing countries, where large numbers of people don’t even have access to electricity, much less the Internet, ecommerce is something of a challenge.

SlimTrader allows consumers to shop for goods and services via text messages (SMS). According to CEO, Femi Akinde, who was just selected as a TEDGlobal fellow, it’s the first platform in Africa to do so. Africa has more than 300 million mobile phone users.

The problem is a familiar one in the developing world. Consumers, especially in rural areas, don’t have ready access to real-time information about different suppliers of goods. Even when they know a suitable supplier, they have to go and buy the goods in cash and in person.

Simple transactions from filling a prescription to buying a bus ticket involve long journeys and long waits. “The most precious commodity for the BOP (Bottom of the pyramid) is time” said Akinde. “If you want to purchase a transportation ticket, you’re looking at a day-long ordeal involving multiple trips to various institutions.” That’s a day on which no work can be done and money earned. Time really is money to the BOP.

SlimTrader links directly into the inventory, ordering and payment databases of participating businesses. Users can query the availability of products and make purchases by sending an SMS. Payment is made via mobile money services like M-PESA, Airtel, MTN, Mobile Money and Interswitch. In fact, SlimTrader is part of the next wave of mobile services in developing countries which build on the payment infrastructure created by services like M-PESA.

Customers range from airlines to fertilizer companies. Using Slimtrader a subsistence farmer can search for local suppliers of fertilizer, compare prices and order via SMS. Although the main access technology is SMS, SlimTrader’s platform also supports interactive voice response and mobile web. Retailers and service providers get access to new customers and have to deal with fewer inventory queries over the phone.

SlimTrader currently operates in 4 countries in Africa and receives a small percentage of each transaction. The service is free for mobile users. Competitors include market information systems like Esoko and sms-based price inquiry services such as M-farm, but no other company seems to allow real-time interactions with the databases of businesses.

SlimTrader was founded in 2009 and operates in Uganda, Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa. The company received an investment from Invested Development’s BSP seed fund last year.

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