Daniela Otoya launched her TikTok channel from her home in northwestern Peru more than two years ago. In her third video, she shared a hot tip: If you want to go into retail in South America, you should buy your products wholesale from overseas. Earphones and sunglasses, among many other items, are especially cheap, making for good profit margins, she said. The video gathered over 300,000 views and 400 comments, about half asking for advice on how to use platforms like Alibaba.
Otoya, who goes by Mami Vendelotodo (“Mami Sell-It-All”) on TikTok, told Rest of World that interest in Alibaba from viewers made her start offering courses on how to use the platform. She taught her customers how to recognize verified sellers, and how to use the site’s translation service properly since there is no Spanish-language version of Alibaba. Thanks to Otoya’s how-to videos, her TikTok following swelled. By early 2023, she had over 100,000 followers.
Otoya is not alone in this relatively new business endeavor. Rest of World found dozens of other accounts on TikTok promising similar services. The hashtag #ImportacionesAlibaba (#AlibabaImports) has over 3 million views on the platform. Otoya is one of three TikTokers Rest of World spoke to who are teaching South Americans how to import consumer goods using Alibaba. They also help customers handle the paperwork for their shipments and navigate language barriers on the app for an additional price. Along with these TikTokers, Rest of World spoke to one of their customers, and experts in the region’s e-commerce ecosystem. Despite not being supported or even acknowledged by Alibaba, TikTok entrepreneurs are helping the Chinese e-commerce giant gain a foothold in countries like Peru and Bolivia, where it currently does not have a clear growth strategy.
Alibaba is emerging from two tough years in the Chinese market, mainly due to a government crackdown against tech companies and tight Covid-19 restrictions. The first fiscal quarter of 2022 marked the company’s first-ever quarterly decline in revenue since it went public in 2014. Meanwhile, it is continuing efforts to grow in other markets, including Latin America, with particular focus on larger and more established countries like Brazil and Chile.
For their part, smaller markets like Peru, Bolivia, and Ecuador don’t seem to feature on Alibaba’s priority list — none of the countries got a mention in its Digital B2B Outlook 2022 Latin America report. It so happens that these are also places seeing a boom in local TikTok users teaching people how to buy from Alibaba. The company, however, is not actively engaging with any TikTokers in South America for promotion, an Alibaba representative told Rest of World.
The appetite in South America to buy wholesale on sites like Alibaba is fueled by two factors, Hugo Miranda, head of digital economy at the Fundación Internet Bolivia, a think tank, told Rest of World. He pointed to the highly bureaucratic nature of imports and the high rate of informality in these countries — 85% of Bolivia is employed in the informal economy, which drops to 70% in Peru. It is why selling cheap Chinese items in the streets or makeshift stores for a profit is appealing.
TikTok entrepreneur José Cristhian Lucero Otalora is the general manager at CFC Express, a Bolivian-Chinese import company based in La Paz. He told Rest of World about 70% of his customers are in their early 20s and looking for an additional source of income. They’re mostly from Bolivia, but they also come from other countries in the region, like Mexico. “These entrepreneurs see an opportunity to import from China and sell at huge margins,” he said.
Lucero Otalora’s company has been operating for about a decade, but since joining TikTok in late 2022, he’s attracted new customers with his videos. He charges $22 for a six-hour course, in which he gives tips on how to verify a seller and use Alibaba’s translation service. Around 55 people sign up for it each month, he said.
But the TikTokers do more than just consulting. Otoya now offers two services. The first — her consulting courses — helps funnel customers into her second service, in which she acts as a broker between sellers on Alibaba and her small South American importers. For an additional cost, she handles some of her clients’ paperwork and helps get them better shipping prices. Otoya has her own import company that partners with a seller in China, who guarantees a good deal on Alibaba and even allows Otoya’s customers to buy from sites whose sellers are limited to Chinese users, like 1688.
In fact, all three of the TikTokers Rest of World spoke to said that their how-to-import courses were secondary to their core business, which comprises their own importing and warehouse services. “We teach people how to import wholesale using Chinese e-commerce platforms, then they send their products to our warehouses and ship them in containers we manage,” said Lucero Otalora.
Iver Callisaya is another TikToker based in Santa Cruz. He started promoting Alibaba import consulting services on TikTok mid 2021. He told Rest of World his profile of over 100,000 followers receives between 30 and 50 daily requests inquiring about his services. “When each user completes our courses, we also teach them how to place their orders and rent a space on the shipping containers we manage,” Callisaya said.” His company imports about one standard 40-foot container of goods each month.
Lima resident Jessica Sánchez is one of Otoya’s early customers. She told Rest of World that Otoya’s course was instrumental for her. Without it, she would never have learned how to use Alibaba or gotten access to 1688’s restricted items, she said. Once only a viewer, Sánchez is now an importer herself: She runs her own store for hair and skincare products, all sourced from China.