Hesham Safwat

The Trailblazing CEO Leading Jumia’s Success

With branches all over Africa, Egypt’s e-commerce company, Jumia, has become a leader in online shopping in Egypt and the region in a span of 10 years, since its launch in a small apartment in Maadi in 2012. Jumia’s dynamic CEO, Hesham Safwat, who has been with the company for almost a decade, has played a big part in its success. With a bachelor’s degree in Engineering and a master’s degree in Business Information Technology from Middlesex University in London, Safwat joined Jumia in 2013, and two years later he was promoted to Jumia Egypt CEO. He has been at the helm of the company, overseeing Jumia’s amazing growth for the past eight years. eniGma’s Ezz Al-Turkey sat down with Safwat to learn about his inspiring journey of success and his vision for Jumia.

Talk to us about your early career. How did you make your start with Jumia?
I’ve been interested in tech since I was a child. I’ve loved the field since its foundation. I became interested in information technology while I was studying engineering, so I started taking certified courses on the side at several IT companies so that I could start working in that field when I graduated. I started work in the IT department of a big retail chain specialized in computing, with a presence in Dubai, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Two years later I started to move more into the business side of the industry.

Back then, around 2002 and 2003, digital retail was not very popular. With time, it started to expand, and I started to work in that field. I spent six months as a retail consultant in Dubai at a big company, and then when I came back to Egypt, I met the Jumia leadership and I got excited about their vision. I joined Jumia in 2013, first as Chief Commercial Officer for two years then I was promoted to Chief Executive Officer. I really loved that Jumia has a vision; that’s what excited me so much about working here. Even during tough times, we still focus on our vision, and that really motivates both me and the team. The vision is to build the most beloved and trusted platform for Egyptians and to be the leading e-commerce platform in Africa. We believe that technology has the potential to transform everyday life in Egypt and Africa, for the better. We built Jumia to help consumers access millions of goods and services conveniently and at the best prices while opening up a new way for sellers to reach consumers and grow their businesses.

What challenges did you face when you shifted careers from engineering to IT?
Career shifts are never easy. When I first announced my interest in this field, I faced some rough feedback from family, friends and colleagues. No one really believed in tech that much back then; especially not in digital retail. It wasn’t something that anyone imagined would become as big of a deal as it is today. So I constantly had to keep persevering and focusing on the future which I could envision, and keep working towards it. I knew that there was something big there, and soon enough, everyone saw it too!

At first, you’re very influenced by what people think and can easily become discouraged and think that that’s not your true calling. But if you continue working hard, harder than ever, you can achieve what you want. You mustn’t restrict yourself by your academic studies. For me, I made the switch while I was still studying, so I had a head start. When I joined the online business in 2013, the resistance was like nothing I had ever experienced before.What has been the contribution of Jumia in its field?
I think our biggest contribution to the field is that we make the empowerment of sellers a priority. We care a lot about creating business opportunities and elevating the opportunities presented to sellers. Not to mention our attention to growing the tech in Egypt, and building a new line of leaders who are mastering the science of e-commerce and technology. We also really supported the logistics sector and helped them grow in any way we could. These things are important to us.

We also pay great attention to consumer behaviour. Consumers follow a pattern, especially with shopping seasons. If you ask anyone at Jumia, even former employees, they will agree that the campaigns we do at Jumia, as well as the shopping seasons that we create, are the biggest part of what we do. For example, we introduced Black Friday in Egypt to accelerate the adoption of e-commerce. No one really believed it would work. We started it in November of 2014, and the concern was that November was not a shopping season. Obviously, we were worried and the brands that we work with were too. We had to get them to agree to give us offers and discounts that month. Eventually, it became one of the biggest shopping seasons of the year, and other platforms online and offline also jumped on the bandwagon and started doing Black Friday! That wouldn’t have been possible if we didn’t have a creative outlook and confidence in our ideas. We insisted on calling it Black Friday because it wasn’t an invention; it already existed abroad. It kept growing until it became a staple in 2017. We have pictures to show that we had the first Black Friday ever in Egypt. We’re very proud of that achievement!

Finally, JumiaPay, our digital payment service, was a great stepping stone. Having JumiaPay as a payment service provider offering payment facilitation for merchants and offering unique payment processing models is huge. That supports the digital economy through convenient, secure and easy-to-use payment solutions which, in return, will help to enhance trust between consumers and other businesses.

What sets Jumia apart from other e-commerce companies?
I think you cannot compete without a team. You can try, but your victory will be short-lived, and you may even shut down. My team is my biggest asset. A lot of people ignore this huge factor that goes into a company’s success. Jumia’s edge is that we have a strong team. We’ve had a strong team since inception; since day one. We have always had a team built of young people. Most of them don’t even have a tech background, but they joined because of their passion. They learned everything they know through Jumia and that’s what really makes them even greater at what they do. Your team needs to adapt to different situations and always be able to work creatively and effectively, no matter the circumstances. More importantly, they must always be open to learning new things about the market and the business. I think I still have a lot to learn as well because times change and you need to be able to keep up with these changes. This company started in a small apartment in Maadi and look at it now!

Our work environment is also very friendly and we’re all very supportive of each other. We help each other, and my colleagues are not afraid of coming to me with their challenges. A former team member once gave a farewell speech that really stuck with me. It summed up working at Jumia. She said, “At Jumia, you learn a science and you meet really strong people.” And honestly, that’s true. We never give people a shallow knowledge of the business. We teach them the ins and outs of this complex science. That’s what sets us apart from everyone else.

How has your leadership style contributed to Jumia’s success?
My leadership style is to empower my team. Not to sound too cliché, I would say that it is “leading through the team.” That’s my approach. Of course, you must have the environment to support that. First, you need to have a company that encourages this type of leadership, because everything starts from the top. You must create the right culture to attract the right talent to work with you. The culture that we created repels anyone that is not down with this culture. So, anyone that isn’t open to this friendly and encouraging environment would not last very long with us. My biggest motto is to coach my team on how to grow. Tech is a growing industry, and companies like us hire based on skills, rather than on experience, which is what we did in the past. Now, we need people who have the skills to excel and really grow. I believe my team has that.

What have been your proudest achievements at Jumia?
Black Friday was definitely one of them. I’m also very proud of the first time we executed a digital transaction through our own digital payment platform, JumiaPay. That’s a big step for any e-commerce company.

Another achievement was the launch of our Tech Center in Egypt. When we launched Jumia, tech was really new in the industry, so the talent wasn’t really there yet. After many years, Jumia finally launched in 2021 in Egypt, the first Tech Center in Africa, serving the whole group. When the developments and products are being done by local talents, especially Egyptians, it is very special, and it makes me very proud. All our services are created in-house here in Egypt and the Tech Center serves the entire region. It didn’t happen easily, either.

Running Jumia means you must be very busy; how do you manage to maintain a healthy balance with your private life as well?
It’s tough, of course; but I think routine is the key. My routine goes like this: I wake up every day at five in the morning, go to the gym to work out for about an hour and a half. Then I get to work at around eight and start my day. After work, I go home and spend the rest of my night with my family. I have children, so I must be there for them as much as I can. I think that’s very important. Spending enough time with your family and loved ones has proven to advance your career as well. We can’t neglect our families because they’re our true support in life. I need to keep a balance in order to achieve success in my work!

Looking forward, what do you hope to achieve at Jumia in the next five to 10 years?
My long-term plan is to have every person with internet access in Egypt have a Jumia account. I want every shop or company that sells a product to have a shop on Jumia. We went through all the initiatives to bring every type of seller to Jumia. For example, we have an exciting initiative with the Bank of Alexandria and the Sawiris Foundation to support the handicraft industry. My ambition is to have all products in Egypt on Jumia and maybe in the future use our platform to export to other African countries through our platform. As for our plans for the near future, we have Jumia Groceries launching soon, and we’re focusing a lot on our digital payment services and expanding in food delivery in Egypt. We’re also signing a deal to have a lot of SMEs open shops in Jumia. Finally, we’re also expanding our Tech Center and we have a new centre opening up in Alexandria!

Photography by Emad Kassem

Styling by Hoda Wahby