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Online shopping in Africa doesn’t work because of shipping and billing forms (medium.com)
162 points by oquidave 9 months ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 145 comments

It's funny, even in the Netherlands we feel a (tiny, tiny) bit of this: all foreign websites have address entry systems that always ask for a state/province (and even faithfully produce a list of all our provinces). We indeed have them but locals ignore them entirely, city, street, number and postal code are all we, and domestic companies, use.

Reminds me of the article “Falsehoods programmers believe about addresses.”

1. https://www.mjt.me.uk/posts/falsehoods-programmers-believe-a...

Even in the US stuff like that happens.

I recently refinanced, and the lender kept getting hung up on how they needed to "contact my county" for verification. Well, in Connecticut a "county" is nothing more than a name on a map or an organizational method. It's not an actual government entity, there's no one to contact.

In Virginia it's even worse. There are distinct counties, but we also have cities that are legally different and not contained in counties.

Heh. Yeah in New England (and I assume a lot of the rest of the US), counties are pretty vestigial. I think Massachusetts still has limited county governments in some cases but mostly they're just a legacy organizational scheme. On the other hand, when I lived in Louisiana, the parishes were an important level of government.

I'm under the impression that much of the country uses counties a lot. I know they are quite important in New York (my father owns property upstate). New England seems to be an anomaly there. Even Hawaii has county governments.

In New England, it's probably at least partly that there is such a strong tradition of government at the town level. (Town halls and the like.) I've had friends who moved here from overseas and some of them were really amazed how every sleepy little town has its own town office, police, fire, school etc. Sometimes towns pool some things together but lots of things are town by town.

Massachusetts does organize the judiciary (and some other things like deed registration) by county but in at least most cases, everyone is actually a state employee.

Don't really know how it works in the country as a whole. My impression is that the South generally has more of a tradition of county government.

For contrast, in Maryland counties are the school districts. At which point you need a county government, significant taxes, etc...

The organization of schools plays a big role because, at least in many areas, that where most of the property taxes go. I don't know the exact numbers in my town but I think it's 80-90%. (Where schools are a combination of by town and a regional system with a couple of adjoining towns.)

Here in Pennsylvania counties play an important role in real estate, taxation, and dog licensure, but not much else.

In some places they have "townships" or "towns" (Nassau county has like three such towns, i think) which are like a subdivision of a county, and some have some political structure and officers, but for most ordinary life they are totally ignored.

Same here in Greece, all the post office needs is your street name and postcode. Not even city (the postcode defines that uniquely, same as everywhere else). I don't know why forms get hung up on those.

Technically it's the same in the US.

Street number, name, and zip code is all you need, but even the US postal service recommends keeping the city and state for redundancy.

It sometimes leads to funny situations if you live near city boundaries where you can get mail sent TO multiple different cities that are all your address.

I live in a .zip code that spans eastern Emeryville and north Oakland and most web forms these days force correct my address to Emeryville and won’t let me change it to Oakland.

As an engineer I get it, but damn if it isn’t annoying to not be able to have your real address on your packages...if only for aesthetic reasons.

ZIP Codes are not geographical entities and don't correspond to geographical extent; rather, they are a hybrid between a discrete number of finite delivery-points and an abstract way of capturing a postal delivery route. They are often abused as geographical entities, which the Census Bureau has tried to rectify with ZCTAs [1], but it's unclear whether most informal use of Zip Codes is haphazard, or actually conforms to ZCTAs.

However, Zip Codes directly map to one preferred place name designated by the USPS, and zero or more acceptable alternative place names. These are usually inspired by, but don't necessarily correspond to municipalities and political units that the lots in question belong under.

You're more than likely talking about Zip Code 94608, of whose preferred name is 'Emeryville', but 'Oakland' is an acceptable name [2]. There is a lot of software that takes the shortcut and autofills or autocorrects the preferred name, especially because informal lists of Zip Codes seem to be easier and/or cheaper to get a hold of than through official sources at the USPS [3].

Perhaps a nationally-known example is the Las Vegas Strip, most of whose famous casino-hotels are located in the unincorporated town and CDP of Paradise, but covered by two Zip Codes that only accept Las Vegas as the name.

In rural areas with weak local government, people develop an affinity for the preferred place name of their address' Zip Code, because it's a standardized way of referring to the locale where more specific names are not widely known.

[1] https://www.census.gov/geo/reference/zctas.html [2] https://california.hometownlocator.com/zip-codes/data,zipcod... [3] https://www.usps.com/nationalpremieraccounts/manageprocessan...

I live in a borough that has its own governing council, mayor, and police force. Half a square mile and a few thousand resident. However, everyone's mailing address is the name of the city we're adjacent to, which also has its own governing council, mayor, and police force. Putting in my town's name results in mail not getting delivered. Mailing address != physical address, at least when it comes to city/township/borough organization.

"real address" is a misnomer. There's a difference between who you pay your taxes to, and who delivers your mail. These are two different things, and when delivering mail, the latter is the one that matters.

My mother, grandmother and sister all live in Garden City, ID - which is a small little area enveloped by Boise, ID on all sides. Every piece of mail they get has Boise, ID listed on it - and any time they give someone their address they do the same.

Why on Earth we have zipcodes but still add the city/state is beyond me.

You also have the concept in some situations of 'vanity addressing'.

I worked for a water utility in Melbourne Australia. There were (for but one example), two adjacent suburbs, Box Hill and Mont Albert, the latter of which had a perceived prestige.

We'd always have some people, and more so as you reached the border of the suburbs, who'd give their address as Mont Albert, but with Box Hill's post code. This allowed the system to be functional for our purposes without arguing with the customer.

Is it a problem we should have to deal with or feel compelled to? No, but that was the decision made, in this case.

Encoding redundancy in because of bad handwriting, smudged labels, etc. is generally a good idea.

Yeah. A friend of mine lives in both Long Island City and Sunnyside and Queens. If you get the zip code and the street right, it all works.

It's fairly common in some areas of the US to have "villages" or some other historical place name that's now actually part of a larger town or city. And people routinely use both names.

When my brother moved in, he gave the city part of the address as <neighborhood>. I told him that I've always given the address with <big city> and I've never had problems.

Confirmed, I live in a mess of various "towns" around the larger Green Bay Metro area in Wisconsin. Anyone from out of the area would say I live in Green Bay, but where I live you could say is in up to three different towns. shrug

Oh wow you have streets with names!? I can see why you're so deep in debt with such frivolties. (/s) Up here in Bulgaria, we did away with using street names for (some) addresses back in soviet times. Let me repost an example:

For whatever reason, we decided that naming streets and numbering the buildings on them is too passé, so lots of our cities use District + Number (where the numbers carry no geographic meaning), in parallel with Street + Number, but every building is addressable using only one scheme.

Concrete example with the city of Sofia, Bulgaria - consider these two buildings [1] [2]. They're both next to Vasil Kalchev street. One is a kindergarten, the other is a block of flats. Let's see what the address for each is, if you want to send a letter to them. The kindergarten is, obviously, St. Pimen Zografski street No. 5... well OK, that's the street on the other side of the building, nothing too strange; while the block of flats is zh.k. Dianabad bl. 54. The abbreviations mean literally "residential district Dianabad, residential building number 54". No, the building is not addressable via the street, you cannot send post to that building or locate it on a map via "Vasil Kalchev street, No. X" for any X. There are, in fact, no numbers on Vasil Kalchev street. And the residential building numbers aren't geographically meaningful - directly east of said building 54 is building 53, but directly west of it are buildings 42 and 43. There is no building 44. There are, however, 33, 33A, and 33B. They are just ad-hoc numbers (maybe with letters) that you need to have in a database, like you have the locations of streets and where the numbers on the street are geographically.

[1] https://www.google.bg/maps/place/Kindergarten+49+Radost/@42.....

[2] https://www.google.bg/maps/place/42%C2%B039'53.7%22N+23%C2%B....

Indeed, you can get away with just a post code and number here as well, (this is what I always put as return address on packages) but somehow this is never really used.

Redundant informations are useful to fetch failures.

In the early days of the web, you used to be able to tell NY v. CA dev shops online because all the NY shops only had "search by state" while CA had "near my zip-code".

When you can pass through 3 states in 3 hours, it makes sense to "search for all McDonalds in NJ". However in TX and CA, "all McDonalds in TX" is worse than useless for what the customer is actually looking for.

McDonalds is probably the wrong example here. There are of order 500 McDonalds in NJ.

500 McD's in New Jersey, a state of 8,500 sq mi, ratio of ~0.05

750 McD's in New York, a state of 55,000 sq mi, ratio of ~0.015

1,250 McD's in Texas, a state of 270,000 sq mi, ratio of ~0.0045

1,500 McD's in California, a state of 165,000 sq mi, ratio of ~0.009

Same in France (or at least close).

We have regions and départements. These are formal structures/entities but are never used in addresses (you get a hint of the département in the zip code).

The foreign web firms do list them, usually correctly. Sometimes they mix up the regions and the départements (usually using île de France, which is a region around Paris, and the rest being départements).

This is not harmful (and ignored during delivery) but shows a one size fits all approach

In Magento, you can choose by country if you want this field or not. So I guess it’s true for most of the online shop solutions.

But as stated by others (about Ireland in their example), even companies that had their hq there asked for zip code at a time there was not any.

So I guess if you start shipping internationally, it’s a big job to make a form that fits every cases.

I wonder if someone have made a list of those particularities. Could be a good idea if not.

> But as stated by others (about Ireland in their example), even companies that had their hq there asked for zip code at a time there was not any.

Post codes are not generally used in Ireland. The launch was not really successful and even An Post (the government-run postal service) doesn't use them.

Irish counties are fun, as the traditional 26 counties (in the Republic) don't align with the thirty-something administrative counties that now exist.

Do people on Ireland use townlands on the ground? They could be a more human kind of postal sector. See Townlands.ie

Amazon has a huge base in Ireland, but there's no amazon.ie

Same for Denmark, technically we do have regions but they're not even worth writing on any address. Same goes for Portugal, where I've lived: no state/province/region exists; on forms stupid enough to require that you just end up putting the city name again. Same goes for requiring city and postcode.

But Denmark does require more than just a building number and a postcode.

For the UK, "10, SW1A 2AA" is sufficient for an address [2]. To avoid mistakes, it's recommended to write "10 Downing Street, LONDON, SW1A 2AA", but this can be looked up in the database[1]. It's usual when entering an address online, or over the phone, to give the postcode, the number, and then confirm the street.

The postcode for my workplace in Copenhagen, 2100, covers a good chunk of the city. I have to mispronounce the street name several times when speaking on the phone :-S.

[1] https://www.royalmail.com/find-a-postcode — try something like W14 9NL for a normal street.

[2] In fact, SW1A 2AA is sufficient for the Prime Minister's office. Places that get a lot of post are given their own postcode, it can be as specific as an office within a building.

One of my relatives has a house with 2 postcodes unique to that house.

Technically provinces exist in Portugal. All 11 of them. But they are ignored in the mail.

Postal code and number is sufficient, isn’t it?

Yes, but the city and street are typically provided for clarity / redundancy.

Some fancy webpages fill them in automatically.

Even in the US I typically just address a letter these days (when I send one) with name and zip code. I’ve been doing this for decades.

Blaming this on shipping and billing forms, as the headline and the article text suggests, is missing the forest for the trees. The deeper issue at play is developer and business naïveté; trying to transplant knowledge and assumptions that work fine elsewhere into a particular market where different conditions exist.

It's sometimes easy to assume that if something works in sunny California, it will be applicable in Michigan, or Germany, or anywhere on the globe, and for large fractions of the globe this breaks down under scrutiny. After all, one of the attractions of doing stuff "online" is to not be bound by physical constraints, but activities like logistics clearly involves moving around physical goods, and commerce is all about markets, so what works on one market may fail miserably in a second. Even old-hat brick-and-mortar companies make these mistakes, even if they don't skimp on a local consultant.

Anyone who's actually engaged in post or logistics in areas with limited government-maintained addressing knows that communication is essential, delivery places tend to be negotiated on the fly, and knowing how to get to the destination is more important than where the destination is on a globe. Newfangled coordinate-encoding systems don't solve this: intelligence and know-how on the ground does.

Make no mistake, few of the companies with these problems value these markets. If they valued these markets, they would've figured this out.

> It's sometimes easy to assume that if something works in sunny California, it will be applicable in Michigan, or Germany, or anywhere on the globe, and for large fractions of the globe this breaks down under scrutiny.

See also the falsehoods programmers believe about various things (not even just addresses):


A friend of mine who distributes consumer goods in Congo (yes, the whole of Congo) through an online shop explained that a phone call is an essential part of the delivery process - even more important than the address because it is how the actual delivery location is negotiated.

Of course, this is only a problem for valuable items (one wouldn't trust postal employees with that) - regular mail in Africa ends in a PO box.

Expecting customers to be map-literate or adopt whichever fancy geographic coordinates keywords landgrab of the month is a bit hopeful and far removed from logistical realities.

It's not really expecting much. Most of Africa will be using phones for internet access not computer so they can just get the coordinates for that.

How about google map pins? Would that help?

From being an Openstreetmap evangelist and trainer, I can tell you that most people in the world (not an Africa-specific thing) have close to no idea how to position themselves on a map... Which by the way is why turn-by-turn navigation is so popular.

FWIW, if people can learn to use a cellphone and order things online, they can learn to pin themselves.

Regardless, I understand and agree with your point. I just think difficulty with pinning on maps[0] limits its adoption vs. actually eliminating it.

[0] reasoning about maps in general is difficult for many people, not everyone has well-developed spatial reasoning.

Online shopping doesn't work in Africa, not because of web forms with an ability to capture localised addresses, but because of the lack of affordable, reliable logistics. Africa is vast and largely rural. You can get reliable delivery at a cost. Cheaper delivery options have a tendency for things to get lost. While I applaud OP for bringing modern tech to Africa in the 'Silicon Savannah', online shopping requires highly efficient logistics infrastructure that goes beyond web forms. Source: I built and operated successful online retail in Africa.

> Online shopping doesn't work in Africa... I built and operated successful online retail in Africa

Now that's a head-scratcher! Seriously though, I hate these overbroad generalisations - obviously online shopping does work for some value of Africa. I know of people in Africa who shop, pay for and arrange delivery of second-hand Japanese vehicles all online. It's a multi-million dollar industry.

>..not because of web forms with an ability to capture localised addresses, but because of the lack of affordable, reliable logistics.

Ironically, most African countries have functional postal services that are struggling because WhatsApp has replaced letters. Online shops should partner should partner with postal services instead of trying to "revolutionize logistics" unsuccessfully. Trust me, the logistics are fine: if manufacturers can get their product to even the most remote corners of a country, maybe look into how they are doing it, instead of trying to re-invent it with a phone app.

Isn't the real problem the lack of organization at the state/city level in these African countries? Is a postal code and street address system really that impossible?

> Look at that form. It has things like street address, state/province, zip code? What is that? I can only tell you that I live in Kanyanya, a Kampala suburb. If you need my exact home, then I’ll either have to send you a GPS location via apps like Whatsapp, Telegram, Google Maps or engage you in a long phone conversation in which I’ll try to describe landmarks, building and trees leading to my house. But street address, zip code? Hell No.

I mean GPS coordinates sent by WhatsApp + name + simple description seem like a decent alternative but it too should be standardized then. But it seems bizarre to me to have local governments not attempt to set up a basic system for mail/package delivery.

It's not just bad for ecommerce but all business, law enforcement, and even democracy.

I have also encountered web forms which must validate my address. Turns out, the backing database did not contain my address. I could not order at the store. After contacting the store, they told me that their data was always accurate and therefore I must be a fraud.

The first time I ordered something from Amazon to be delivered to my workplace, I spent like half an hour trying different variations of the address so that it would pass the validation. And my workplace is a university building where 200+ people work, in a European country.

Finally, I got it to work by typing "Campus of <X> Place, Faculty of <Y> Building". It wouldn't work without the words "Place" and "Building", which we don't ever use (we typically just write "Faculty of <Y>, Campus of <X>"). And the form didn't provide any clue about that being the problem.

The address on a letter has always been a free text input field, it still is when one writes private letters, and everything works fine. Why they have to complicate so much something that just works is beyond me.

> Why they have to complicate so much something that just works is beyond me.

Probably because it doesn't Just Work(tm) as well as you think. People in general are pretty bad at knowing their actual deliverable address - if you are someone as large as Amazon having even .1% of your packages returned due to user input address errors is likely quite a lot of money.

Having briefly done e-commerce stuff where we had to ship low value product en-masse I tend to think that .1% is a low estimate - but maybe people have gotten better at this since the early 00's.

I'd actually think that with people using GPSs so much of the time using potentially quirky addresses that require some local context would be a bigger problem rather than a lesser one.

When I moved into my house, I effectively had two different addresses that I had to disambiguate based on who I was talking to. As far as the post office was concerned, I lived on Main Street. But a lot of the local maps and local service people thought I lived on North Main Street based on an older street naming convention. At various times, people would tell me I gave them the wrong address.

I guess in some Asian places the Z coordinate is also required, like Floor 24

To make matters worse, in Chinese the character 楼 can mean either floor or building (though in the latter case it is often but not always prefixed with 号, eg. 3号楼).

Aren't post boxes on the ground floor with names and flat/unit numbers?

Packages that don’t fit post boxes still need to be delivered.

Also some places don’t show names for different reasons, so having accurate numbers refering to the good entities can be critical.

I once needed to replace an expired health insurance card but since I don't live in the same country where my health insurance is registered, I called the company to inquire about whether it's possible to have the card shipped to another country. Of course it is! Just enter your address into a form in their Easy And Convenient Online System. Turns out, their system wouldn't process the request unless it validated the address. It seems the company paid for a version of the database which contained house-level details from my home country but other countries only had cities listed. That meant I could enter the city and then I could use a dropdown to pick one of the zero streets the system knew about. Suffice to say, I didn't get my health insurance card.

As someone who verifies addresses for a public K-12, that's laughable. New addresses show up all the time and often don't yet appear on the tax parcel site or in the USPS address database, let alone Google Maps. There are entire roads that don't appear in online resources the first month or two that the subdivision is open. There have even been a few roads that were re-addressed and those can take up to year to get updated everywhere.

I checked out the linked https://plus.codes/individuals

Steps for creating a Plus Code are: 1. Open the Google Maps app. 2. Touch and hold a place to drop a pin on Google Maps. 3. At the bottom, you’ll see an address or a plus code. Tap this section to find all details of the location and copy the plus code.

If the primary use case is creating an address for my current location - e.g. Home. Then, the instructions are too many.

A "click this button" to create a Plus Code for your current location would work wonder.

Or if they had an app, the single instruction above would equally apply.

* I think Plus Codes would fail most Zip Code validation tests.

I agree with your feedback but even beyond that the "Enter city or plus code" form seems broken. I went to a random place in mongolia, I got a plus code of "5PJF+FJQ" and when I enter it in the form it doesn't work: https://plus.codes/5PJF+FJQ

I think it's a nice concept though, I could see myself using something like that if it became more mainstream, it's a little more convenient than GPS coordinates if you want to meet with somebody in the wild or a large park for instance.

Edit: oh, I got it, the tags at the bottom of the map are not the complete one, they're "local" (you have to give the general location too like "5PJF+FJQ Bayankhongor, Mongolia"). The full code is 8PR25PJF+FJ

I got the full code off the query string.

Southeast corner of the Texas state capitol building: 862477F6+M4X

It works if you append the plus code with a comma followed by the country name.

You may need a bit more than that, the shorter codes are only unique within ~100km.

The first time that I went on vacation to Africa I was mindblown. The concept of city, town or even village broke down for me; one of the places where I was staying was just a streak of houses dispersed more or less close to a single road. Addresses were hardly a thing, people just knew where each one lived, so you had to ask for 'xyz house'.

I don't want to sound PC but this is the kind of reasons why more diversity and breadth of life experiences is good for businesses.

> I don't want to sound PC

Sound however you want to sound, and don't listen to those who use "PC" as a derogatory term. I personally prefer to call it "nice" instead of "PC".

> one of the places where I was staying was just a streak of houses dispersed more or less close to a single road

You were in America actually...

Except in the US those houses almost certainly have a street address and are associated with a town, however small and dispersed that town may be. (At one point, there was a a fairly significant effort to give consistent addresses to houses that might lack them primarily for emergency services reasons. I grew up in a house on a rural delivery route that did not have a house number at the time.)

That's not just in America, part of Europe can qualify too.

Except that they might have addresses.

> Except that they might have addresses.

This reminds me of how when the German zip codes were unified in the 1990s, they forgot about one district.

> Although the Gutsbezirk Reinhardswald is officially uninhabitated, two people inhabit and operate the Tillyschanze restaurant, next to the observation tower of the same name above the city of Hann. Münden, located in Lower Saxony. The border between the states of Hesse and Lower Saxony runs between the restaurant and the observation tower. The territory has no postal code as it was forgotten about when the postal codes were assigned in 1993, as such no mail is delivered to the inhabitants.[2] The official address, as given by the authorities, is Tillyschanze 1, 00000 Reinhardswald.[2]

Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gutsbezirk_Reinhardswald

According to the German Wikipedia they finally got a post code (and mail delivery!) in 2015¹:

    Bierweg 1, 34346, Hann. Münden.
Incidentally, that district apparently has a voter turn out of 100%; both Reinhold and Marlies (the two inhabitants) seem to go out and vote when called upon. I wonder if the voting results from that districts are published as-is or grouped with the neighbouring district for anonymity?

1: http://tillyschanze.de/kurioses/

That's a cool address!

I think maybe many places in Europe has addresses now. When I grew up, I grew up on a gravel road not very far from a capital city.

That road did maybe have a name at that time. I don't know. But our house had a name. So we wrote our addresses like this: My Name Our house name Zip Code Region name

Then some years later EU forced us to get an address, so the gravel road became a street (according to the name) with numbers that are totally messed up and make no sense since the houses are so spread out. But I guess it somehow made something better?

I've tried to map up the house numbers on OpenStreetMap but I honestly don't know more houses than the one I grew up in and the closest neighbor.

This is like 15-20 years ago that this change happened. But if I want to be retro, I can still send snailmail to the house name. The postalservice manage to sort that out.

Ah, address fields, the mine-field of l10n.

Japanese addresses also have format not similar to US/European ones: http://www.sljfaq.org/afaq/addresses.html

Google Contacts seems to solve this by just having a big textarea for you to write your contact's addresses, and I guess showing that address in Google Maps is done by just sending the whole thing as a query against their Maps API.

I don't know how many sites I have seen that require state, and some even have a list of counties to select from. Last time I checked only USA, Australia, Canada, China, Mexico and Malaysia use state in address. The other ~200 countries don't use it

This article is a bit ignorant, typically one provides just a rough area and a phone number so the courier can call and drop it off to you at home or at work.

This is why you just need a suburb or area and your cell #. You need to be available to sign for packages in African countries and they typically cannot just be dropped off on the porch.

The problem with buying online is just the availability of things is poor, you don't have an Amazon-esque level of availability & websites that do basically buy from Amazon and sell it to you after an extenuating long timeframe.

Ordering from abroad is a hassle because of customs and duties and ridiculous charges such as the SGR levy (for Uganda and Kenya) because of the new rail line (even though the rail line isn't really used for your package). If you order something small like shampoo its likely to cost triple and a minimum of $30 from abroad.

The only great experience I've seen is from takealot. Jumia not so much. Kudos to those guys who run Takealot.

For someone who has lived in Africa the address system, or lack thereof is just something people are used to - it's still possible to find places without an exact numerically marked address. It's likely a dedicated courier who is very knowledgeable on the local areas & landmarks is to drop the package over a postman so it makes little difference.

It's a bit of a shame when these type of articles come up once in a while that distill a "sort of issue" into the prime issue on why it doesn't work. It's not to say proper addresses would help alot, but it's certainly not the reason e-commerce hasn't really taken off. The last time it was a discovery on how a small fan can get rid of mosquitoes - obviously not the reality either.

> This article is a bit ignorant, typically one provides just a rough area and a phone number so the courier can call and drop it off to you at home or at work.

But isn’t that what the article says? That a structured address isn’t appropriate and that other means (such as a pick up locator or, as you scribe it, some level of coordination) is what the companies should be using instead?

In China we always write cell numbers. Always. Otherwise stuff goes missing.

Recently a large number of urban single-use electronic lock postbox providers have emerged, which automate away the inevitable phone calls from time-poor couriers and deliverymen by SMS-ing you a code to your local single use postbox. If you go enter the code, you get your mail. Otherwise, after 24 hours or some exceedingly short time they take it away and your parcel enters no mans land, in which case you have to request redelivery.

I'm betting Nicaragua has similar problems. I remember addresses that were like, "From the third roundabout, take the first exit toward the lake, turn left at Oliveo funeral home, take the second exit, fourth house on the left (it's blue)."

No street names or numbers, and you have to know what "third roundabout" means to even get started (there are three major roudnabouts in Managua, the third one is the one closes to the lake. And "toward the lake" means "north". It's a single word in Nicaraguan Spanish and it's used in place of the usual Spanish word for "north".

> "toward the lake" means "north"

Fascinating! Lake Nicaragua (which is what I'd naively assume a person in Nicaragua would mean by "The Lake") is in the south of the country, so that's really unintuitive.

Edit: OH, I see this is in Managua, which lies on the southern border of a different lake. I guess it's like New Yorkers using "downtown" to mean "south" (or rather, southwest)

Right, only applicable in Managua! But Managua is the largest population centre, so that covers a large percentage of the locals.

> It's a single word in Nicaraguan Spanish

What is the word?

Al lago. Two words, I guess.

Seems like a problem that What3Words is trying to solve.


Many years ago I was in Gibraltar and needed medical assistance (non-life threatening but I was sick as heck). So I called my traveller insurance.

The british-sounding lady at the other end wanted a zip code. I didn't know of any zip codes and looking at letters in the building's mailbox I could not see anything looking like a zipcode.

She said she could not direct me to a 'nearby' hospital if she didn't have a zip code.

Told her to just pick randomly, that took some convincing. How far could you be from a hospital in Gibraltar anyway?

Doesn't what 3 words already solve this problem, and seems to have commercial momentum? http://what3words.com

From previous conversations on HN, wasn't the problem that to use What3Words, you have to use their online proprietary system? and thus won't work offline and make you dependent on their service?

Plus Code seems to just be encoded Gps coordinates which seems far easier to integrate.

What3words works offline in a free (as in beer) app. They want to monetise by charging the courier companies who save money in this precise case.

W3W is proprietary, has commercial aims (you can purchase short-codes), cannot be used offline, is completely dependent on the provider, and a simple transposition of words will result in somewhere completely different.

Simply using lat/lng or one of these deterministic systems (geohash, plus.codes, etc) is a far superior option for something to be adopted globally.

They actually refunded everyone who bought a "one word", and are focusing on the (free to use) 3 word addresses. And it works offline too (always has).

What3words is a deterministic hash of the gps coords.

This thing is beyond terrible. Just tried it. It's auto picking my browser language instead of English. The choice of words is terrible, I don't know how to spell half of them, I can't imagine anyone able to write them down or understand them over the phone.

Always relevant to this kind of thing are the "falsehoods programmers believe about X" lists: https://github.com/kdeldycke/awesome-falsehood

Came to share this too. Actually, I ran in to a new one the other day and just emailed the Address Falsehoods guy about it: Town/city names are non-numeric: There is an Australian town called '1770'. The locals have taken to writing 'Seventeen Seventy' as a government-cajoled workaround. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_places_with_numeric_na...

In France (don’t know how it works elsewhere) shops can be a shipping point. It creates a network for transporters and it’s a must have for any online shop.

If the transporter ships directly to your home, you have to be here when he comes (and in France you never really know...).

If you haven’t bought large furniture or fridge or whatever, it’s simpler to go to a shop, it’s open on a wide range of hours.

For the shop owner, it can be a good deal as, well, you are in his/her shop.

You can just make post offices hold mail for you until you come by with identification. Great for travelling!


Well... where I live, the post office is opened from 9am to 12pm and from 2pm to 4pm. On Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday. Only in the morning for Wednesday.

I desperately try to send something since Monday. Without success.

Post delivery at home is a nightmare in France, it is a subject for one man/woman shows :)

Another useful delivery man which appeared relatively recently are Amazon Lockers. They have funny names, though (mine is "falafel")

I agree that delivery at a drop point can be useful to sidestep the post office random delivery time.

In Ireland we only recently got postcodes. The reason was not because the postal service or delivery companies needed them - in fact An Post (national postal service) explicitly said they did not.

Instead it's because:

a) enough online shops assume you have one b) advertising mail providers needed it

Frankly if physical spammers need it, then that's an argument against having it to me, and it's sad that online shops forced this by just assuming we had them :(

I'm glad we finally got postcodes. Now I don't have to waste energy getting pissed off with that defect in online forms any more, and it presumably adds an extra layer of redundancy, a bit more reduction in the probability of a package being mis-delivered.

haha. great irony: the medium.com site showed me a page with a google captcha. I clicked it, and it asked me to identify cars or something. so I just hit the back button, left this comment and realised I did not have to read such a click baity titled article.

I guess captcha before showing an ad-ridden site is 70% of the reason I don't read bad articles. thanks medium-google-cloudflare.

Probably, internets detected malware or spam coming from your IP. Check there: https://whatismyipaddress.com/blacklist-check

(Not the person you're replying to, but) Thanks for the link. I get CAPTCHA's all the time and it turns out my IP address is in the spfbl.net blacklist. Now to work out how to get taken off it...

You’re welcome.

My current ISP doesn’t provide me a public IP address, so I’m sharing the IP with other clients of that ISP. A month ago I also noticed captchas on google and cloudflare. Because half of the internets use cloudflare that was kinda noticeable.

I’ve searched a bit, found the cause (and a bunch of black list checks resources). I’ve e-mailed my ISP describing the issue and linking to that check page, they did something and the problem went away.

If you’re the sole user of your IP address, check the detection details. Some of these honeypots/black lists even tell you what exact malware they think is likely to cause the trouble. Then scan/update your computers (all of them that are using that IP address), and wait a bit. AFAIK, if the spam stops coming from that IP, their entries expire after a while, probably days or weeks.

clean. it was probably because I have firefox for android with adblocker extension and it migth have confused their JS based bot detection.

also, glad to see HN removed the click bait title.

This might be a component, but it is not the real reason why online shopping is behind in Africa. That would be because purchasing power is low, exchange rates are high, and most companies don't trust the system enough to ship to Africa - even for products with relatively high demand.

Many e-commerce companies operate in my country Nigeria and I have never heard that their major complaint centered on valid shipping addresses. The problem exists true,but it is a relatively unimportant one. DHL, FEDEX and other couriers whose principal business is delivery of goods are doing just fine last time I checked.

Purchasing power and disposable income are low across the continent and for those reasons I am personally bearish about the prospects of e-commerce in Africa in the medium term.

How does mail carriers deliver packages? what do they use?

That becomes the real question if websites accept plus-codes as valid shipping addresses.

How will you know whether or not a mail-system in a remote location will even know what a plus code is, and then, be equipped with that technology on an individual carrier basis?

Are these just pie-in-the-sky proposals or are people using them now?

The plus code is basically encoded GPS coordinates. The carrier can use a GPS device to determine the delivery location.

Kind of had the same issue with post/zip codes for Ireland as up until very recently we didn't have them. I remember it was annoying when companies with their European head quarters in Ireland and they had mandatory post code fields in their forms. I even knew some people that had some issues opening bank accounts in the UK because it was mandatory in the computer system that the teller was using and they had to get a manager to work around it for them.

Yes I vaguely recall having to enter a bunch of 0's in fields (when they were permissive enough to accept that).

I still write 'none' in any postcode fields, and am refusing to learn my eircode. I've never had a problem getting things delivered

May I ask why?

As an outsider (and someone who knows nothing about you/your culture) this sounds like "I don't want to accept change" or "noone is going to force stupid codes on to me". So id love to hear the reason!

Seconded. I'm also Irish and the new postcodes are the ultimate in clarity imo. Each dwelling/unit has one code, and each code represents one dwelling/unit.

I live in quite a remote spot, so before, my address was just my name + the general area I live. Thats fine for the postman who knows where I live, but I dont know how other delivery services figured out where I was. Also I'm pretty much at the centroid of 3 towns, and different services would route deliveries via different towns. I had to learn through trial and error to put 'via X' or 'via Y' as my address depending on what service I was using.

Eircode clears all that up.

Much maligned on Hacker News though it is, this is precisely the killer application that what3words is good for.

It works offline on cheap android devices with GPS for discovery, which can also be done with a satellite map. Directions via an intent into another app with nav is now built into the main apps.

In fact, it's already used for doctors finding women in labour in improvised settlements in South Africa.

Disclosure: former employee, who wishes them all the luck in the world getting people to use it!

Why is it maligned? First time I run across it. Sounds interesting, and being accepted by Google Maps is great.

See some of the other comments on this thread. The algorithm isn't open source, seems to be the main (valid) criticism.

The solution he's proposing is good because GPS is an accurate model for finding an exact location on Earth. Prior to GPS humans came up with models for describing specific locations by abstracting land mass into regions and sub regions and so on until we finally arrive at a person's house number or box. Why did not Africa? This is a question I ask myself but I guess it doesn't matter in the end as we should all soon be moving to GPS in the future anyway. This would be a difficult jump for Africa to make but it might actually be easier starting with a blank slate that they have. Imagine trying to move the USA to a GPS based system? Unlike Canada our zip codes alone are not accurate enough to find a precise mailbox location. We still require street number and street name. If we made the move to GPS, our legacy systems would still need to be supported, whereas Africa never had these legacy systems in the first place.

https://what3words.com = 3 words that map to specific GPS location anywhere in the world is intended to solve for this.

You still need to narrow things to a specific mailbox/unit number in any case. GPS coordinates by themselves wouldn't always be sufficient for deliveries,

This is an issue in Myanmar too. There are businesses in Yangon that provide ship-to locations for a fee (and usually place the orders on behalf of their customers as well since most don't have access to electronic payments). I've never seen the pulse.codes system in real life, but it looks like a very elegant solution.

Also, on the subject of online forms, a major source of annoyance/confusion is the ubiquitous first name/last name fields (most people in Myanmar have just one name since family names aren't a thing). Some split their name in half to fill the two fields, which as you can imagine doesn't work very well when formatted as "last name, first name" or Mr. Last Name, etc.. :-)

This triggers a more general hot button for me. Computers should be there to help,people, not the other way around.

The rigidity of street addresses is relatively new (within living memory)and was designed to accommodate a technological gap (paper maps, basically, and emergency services).

It’s more humane to let people specify things like addresses the way they want (my grandmother refused to kowtow to the imposition of numerical street addresses and continued to use her house name until the day she died).

This is like the Spanish Academy changing the alphabetic sorting rules in the 1990s because crufty PCs had trouble with ch and ll — and then shortly thereafter they became fast enough!

This isn't really a matter of computers helping or not helping people. The issue is with the delivery service. They need some reliable way to find the right destination.

My reading of the article is quite different from yours. The author writes,

> I can only tell you that I live in Kanyanya, a Kampala suburb. If you need my exact home, then I’ll either have to send you a GPS location via apps like Whatsapp, Telegram, Google Maps or engage you in a long phone conversation in which I’ll try to describe landmarks, building and trees leading to my house. But street address, zip code? Hell No.

And says that despite that, the web forms ask for nonsensical data. The right thing is for the delivery location validator to take GPS, phone number, list of landmarks, etc, canonicalize it as best it can, and send that info to the delivery company. Not try to fit the delivery info into some Procrustean form.

That is all much more cost intensive. Think of a delivery guy trying to sort through all that crap. List of landmarks? What a joke.

That’s what we pay them for. And there’s no reason why waze or maps couldn’t use landmarks for navigation.

I recall this amazing project, that aimed at simplifying gps locations even further:


(Admittedly, its not very useful for location funneling)

This reminded me of the TED talk "A Precise Three Word Address for Every Place on Earth" [1]. I guess (and this has been mentioned in other comments) the systems he's referring to is known commercially as what3words [2].

[1]: https://www.ted.com/talks/chris_sheldrick_a_precise_three_wo...

[2]: http://what3words.com/

Africa is huge, complex and diverse. Gross generalizations about “Africa” even when made by Africans are not particularly useful, and mask the local problems that stymie development.

As an example, because of private courier companies, South Africa has a thriving online shopping scene, despite the South African Post Office becoming a shambles in recent years due to mismanagement. Addresses are not a huge problem for the sorts of people who would shop online in SA.

Africa is not a country, it’s a continent.

This is a stupid article with a stupid title. Those who wish to sell items to those countries would do their research and consider this problem. If they don’t solve it, it’s because they don’t want to deal with all the mess of international shipping to a country without proper addresses.

Making a population "legible" is one of the functions of a state, for good or ill.


plus.codes seems like an interesting idea, as far as I can tell it's only encoding gps coordinates in a more human-readable format (does your gps use degrees, minutes and seconds; degrees and decimal minutes; decimal degrees or something more exotic like UTM coordinates?). Unfortunately as far as I can tell only google maps supports it. I tried putting it on two common mapping apps: tomtom mydrive and here maps and neither would accept it, I'm 100% sure my car will also look at me funny if I ever tried to use it.

Lack of adoption effectively functions as vendor lock-in :(

On pick-up point: "I think this is an innovative approach to this problem."

Well, a pick-up point is not something that's really innovative and is not something that's only useful in Africa.

"no-brainer... innovative"

These are opposites. Which is it? Pick one.

Well, how does "stuff people have been using for millennia (literally) when faced with the same problem" fit?

Developed countries haven't always been as developed as they are now.

I'd say no-brainer.

Services that rely on post-industrial infrastructure don't work without post-industrial infrastructure.

Or he could just go to his local post office and get a box and ship it there.

Ironic that this article comes out at the same time so many people on the internet are getting angry about "shithole" remark.

The lack of standard address system does not make a place a shithole.


Alternatively, it might show something about people (mainly Europeans) who have driven huge numbers of Africans into terrible poverty for generations where they have no option but to perform jobs poorly, steal, etc.

Likewise, assuming all problems in Africa are due to innate differences in "blacks" rather than considering other possibilities certainly says something about the person making that assumption.

(edited for minor typos/grammar)


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