First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Charles Dorme Cooper: Thank you for asking. Thankfully my family has not been directly touched by the pandemic. However, we have friends and family who have been affected in various ways.
Tell us about you, your career, how you founded Cookshop.
Charles Dorme Cooper: I was born in Monrovia, Liberia, and immigrated to the USA as a child due to civil unrest. I studied graphic design and visual communication, specializing in branding and web development. My clients have included companies such as Bank of America and Blackboard Inc., organizations such as UNICEF, USAID, and World Bank/IFC, as well as various entities in the Liberian Government.
My co-founder, Mlen-Too Wesley, and I both happened to return to Liberia from the USA with a purpose. Not only did we both see an opportunity in the region for eCommerce businesses to scale up as new consumers go online over the next decade; we also shared a vision to push the ICT sector forward, to catalyze generational change by fostering an entrepreneurial spirit, and to create a space for exceptional youth to develop tech skills. Today, young Liberians on the cutting edge see Cookshop breaking new ground and want to create their own entrepreneurial story.
How does Cookshop innovate?
Charles Dorme Cooper: Cookshop connects farmers, restaurants, processors, consumers, and advertisers in a multi-channel, on-demand marketplace with digital payment options and last-mile delivery. We are Liberia’s first dot-com company and the nation’s online destination for food. Our goal is to use technology to repair the broken food value chain in the West Africa region.
How the coronavirus pandemic affects your business, and how are you coping?
Charles Dorme Cooper: After the first COVID-19 case in Liberia was identified in March, our daily orders fell drastically due to several factors, including general uncertainty among consumers about their safety and economic outlook. Our government also announced a national curfew, which reduced our hours of operation and restricted movement, affecting our last-mile delivery service. Vendors in our marketplace were also impacted due to supply chain gaps, and unfortunately, many would eventually shut down operations.
We understood from experience that information would be a key tool in the battle against uncertainty during the Ebola epidemic in Liberia. So even before the first case in March, we began conducting training with our staff and shared our precautionary guidelines for others in the foodservice space to follow. After the national state of emergency was announced, we quickly launched a ‘Guide to Getting Food During the Lockdown‘ to keep concerned customers and vendors informed of their options.
As we saw the average consumer tighten their belt, we pivoted from a focus on cooked food delivery to local produce and grocery delivery. This allowed us to limit the initial impact to our sales caused by the pandemic and diversify our revenue going forward.
We also took great care to protect our staff, including our last-mile delivery team, by taking such measures as increasing our cleaning regiments, providing private transportation to and from work, and providing free masks and cleaning products to keep their home environments safe.
As a result of our actions, we experienced monthly growth throughout this year despite the restrictions and challenges posed by the pandemic.
Did you have to make difficult choices, and what are the lessons learned?
Charles Dorme Cooper: We had many difficult choices to make this year. For example, our goals at the start of the year included plans for expansion and adding new service verticals, which were ultimately tabled due to uncertainty in the market. In the short term, it appears that we made the right choice at the time, as we have continued to experience growth.
How do you deal with stress and anxiety?
Charles Dorme Cooper: Stress and anxiety are always a factor for businesses in a developing economy. Cookshop has survived through not one but two epidemics by preparing our team with knowledge and tools. We also made a conscious effort to lend our unique skills to the highest levels of the national effort to combat the pandemic.
In early April, we worked with the National Public Health Institute of Liberia (NPHIL) and the Ministry of Health (MOH) to launch a USSD based public health tool for Liberians to easily assess their symptoms. To date, 105,746 users have conducted 162,624 self-assessments using the tool, allowing health authorities to identify potential cases and hotspots. We then expanded the tool for contact monitoring and active case finding, and under the direction of MOH,
trained hundreds of community health volunteers. To date, the tool has been used for data collection during 40,112 house visits, with 217,609 people seen at house visits. Lastly, we worked with health authorities to develop a symptom tracking app for Android and iOS, which was used to track the status of all incoming travelers at the national airport.
These efforts lent us a closer understanding of the steps being taken to ensure our general safety and offered some sense of comfort at the possibility of a better economic outlook in the near future.
Who are your competitors? And how do you plan to stay in the game?
Charles Dorme Cooper: Cookshop holds a unique position in our market by offering services to stakeholders across the food value chain, from the smallest vendor with products priced below US$1 to authorities with national impact. This allows us to maintain a bird’s eye view of opportunities across the food value chain.
Your final thoughts?
Charles Dorme Cooper: In Liberia, the word “Cookshop” describes a local kitchen where a community comes together for a familiar, affordable meal. Our goal has always been to serve our community, which is why for every 10 orders we receive, we provide 1 free meal for a school-aged child that needs it.
We’re thankful to have been given the opportunity to continue our service during this challenging period through our Feed the Frontline campaign, through which we provide thousands of cooked meals for frontline workers while also generating sales for local restaurants.