If you lived in the era of post office boxes, that small box you rented at the general post office near you, chances are you may not have bothered either visiting it or even renewing your subscription in the last 10 years at least. In case you are one of the millennials that did not use post offices nor even know how it works, the experience will soon return, albeit in a different way.
Post offices solved great problems. As a young boy, growing up, there was only one post office in my town. My village also had only one post office box, then rented by the Catholic Church in the community. This box served both the primary school, the church and the rest of us who lived in the village and each Sunday, after Mass, the Catechist would take about 30 minutes reading out names on the address envelopes of all the letters to all the people in the community.
If you were not in church that day or someone who knows you was not in church, chances are you’d miss that urgent letter.
Public sector in Nigeria has been a failure and so went with the Nigerian Postal Services (NIPOST). E-mail arrived, courier companies multiplied, the Internet of Things made exchange of documents fast and almost instant and the post office consequently died of its inefficiency.
So Nigerians moved on. Until ecommerce evolved and those online purchases that required home delivery began to face challenges.
Compounding this is the inefficient addressing system in Nigeria. Streets are poorly mapped. Numberings are not properly captured. A good many other areas are not planned. Delivering material to homes and offices therefore has been facing debilitating problems.
But elsewhere in the world, technology has been developing solutions to challenges such as this. Mapped or not mapped, the world of technology has created a solution that ensures that your post office will come home to you.
This is the world of “what3words.”
Does the name sound like something associated with parcels and mail deliveries? I am not sure. But that is what has slowly been revolutionising the mail deliveries ecosystem. And it is same NIPOST that couldn’t deliver your letters during the years (long forgotten) when post offices were working that is is still behind this coming evolution.
what3words is not a Nigerian project. Matter of fact this technology has been introduced only in two other African countries before now. Nigeria is therefore the third.
what3words is the platform that has mapped the entire world and divided it up into little square metres of space to ensure that all areas of the world are captured. It has been designed, by layering the application on satellite images, Google maps, Esri, OpenStreetMap, Mapbox or Yandex and all other maps existing in the digital world. This means that wherever you are in the world, and in this case, Nigeria, what3words will ensure that your mail arrives your registered address with ease.
According to Anne-Claire Blet, Partnerships Director, what3words; “Around the world, 75% of the countries have insufficient, complicated or even no addressing systems at all. That means that 4 billion people don’t have an address for their homes or businesses. It means they can’t receive mail or parcels to their door, and they can’t shop online, which in turn affects the country’s economy. People without an address also find it difficult to register their land, access government services. Emergency services also struggle to find their homes in an emergency, which puts lives at risk.”
what3words is the solution, she continues. Anne-claire says what3words is a global addressing system that has divided the whole world into a grid of 3metres x 3metres squares and assigned each one a unique 3 word address (hence the name, what3words) made up of 3 dictionary words. It gives everyone and everywhere an address that is precise and easy to use.
“We divided the world in 3m x 3m squares, 57 trillion in total, as 3m x 3m provides sufficient accuracy to locate a specific front door, a parking space or a telephone pylon, for example. Our expert language team then created a huge list of words, 25,000 words to cover every land mass in the world. A (very complex) mathematical algorithm then used this word list to assign a 3 word address to every square. The algorithm made sure that similar addresses were shuffled a long way apart, so prevent mistakes,” she explained
The good thing about this system is that it covers every inch of space, whether you live in Koma, Gwoza, Bomadi or Saki. What3words covers every 3m x 3m square in Nigeria so, urban or rural is not a problem. All one needs to is download the free what3words app, or use the online map to discover the 3 word address of the place you want to send to. You then add this to the label, underneath any other address information you have. Once posted, your parcel will be sorted and sent to the relevant post office using the 3 word address on the label. From there, it will be delivered to the recipient’s door. Even if that recipient has no house number or address, the postal worker will be able the exact 3m x 3m square of the front door.
It may be the existing ubiquity of Post Offices in Nigeria that made the government agency easy partners with this global company. It may also be that NIPOST, under current management has begun to innovate.
Opting in is almost free as has no pre-entry financial subscription requirement or registration needed. Anyone with a smartphone can download the what3words app for Apple or Android and use it to find their 3 word address. They can also use the what3words online map if they don’t have a smartphone. One person can discover the 3 word addresses for their family and friends, and easily share them through email or social media, direct from the app. Or they can give the 3 words over the phone. From the what3words app you can also use navigation apps to find your way to a 3 word address.
With the poor addressing system in Nigeria in this age of growing ecommerce, Anne-Claire believes the new addressing system will benefit Nigeria massively.
It’s the ecommerce age. This much, everyone knows. With a value of over USD12 billion, the ecommerce business has yet to reach its full potential, even while it continues to face the problem of efficient addressing system that will facilitate delivery. Giving everyone an address will therefore enable people to finally receive the goods they bought online at home or at the 3 word address of their choice. This means that all the stakeholders involved in e-commerce will benefit from an improved addressing system and with it, improve customer satisfaction. NIPOST, the partners, will also grow its business by delivering end to end in new areas.
In the words of Anne: “E-commerce is growing rapidly and as more and more people get access to internet, smartphones and online payment systems, they want to shop online. More and more parcels need to be delivered, and 3 word addresses allow for much more accurate and efficient delivery. NIPOST recognises the need to provide for this e-commerce boom, and are aware how it will benefit Nigeria. With what3words, everyone in Nigeria can have access to delivery services.”
If what3words is free, how then do the owners of the system make money? Anne-Claire insists the what3words app and map site are free for everyone to use but added that the company has developed other tools and products, including an API and SDK, which allow businesses to build what3words into their existing online platforms and systems. “These products are sold to high volume users such as companies and government agencies who will be able to improve their operations and efficiency using our system,” she stated.