Njeri Rionge and Joe Mucheru, her then colleague, traveled around the most remote parts of Kenya in 1999 to research the demand for telecommunications. They found that rural communities, alive to the value of the mobile phone, represented the mass market potential for a technology that was relatively nascent in the region.
They reported back to their employer, Interconnect, that the country had a huge latent demand for information. This was well before the massive undersea cables brought broadband capacity to Africa’s east coast; well before the privatization of the crumbling national telecoms operators injected life into the moribund sector and well before the world had woken up to the potential of Africa’s appetite for technology.
Interconnect did not share their view. The two found an angel investor the following year and created Wananchi Online. It was the region’s first internet service provider to offer ‘triple play’—a new concept that combined internet, television and telephone down a single line.
The process of acquiring licenses became tangled as the company refused to slip brown envelopes into their bids. This culminated in an episode that demonstrated Rionge’s mettle. As they waited for approvals, 17 men arrived at her office with the intention of extorting a bribe. Intimidated, she told them, at length, of the need for Kenyans to do business the right way, to work with integrity. After 15 minutes, one said in Swahili, “She doesn’t get it”. They left empty-handed.
More than a decade later, Rionge and Mucheru stand among the founding members of what may be Africa’s most vibrant technology scene. Today, Nairobi is the center of a thriving community of entrepreneurs, incubators and venture capitalists; driven, first by the massive expansion and innovation in the mobile telecoms sector and then by the arrival of undersea fiber optic cables which deliver international data connectivity. Kenya has exported world-leading technology products—most famously the M-Pesa mobile money transfer system—to the rest of the world. The country has moved fast, but if anything, she says, things have gone too slowly.
“We did have a very big vision for the industry. 2000 to 2004 was an amazing time for us and we were constantly ahead of our time. A lot of the stuff we were talking about then is just now happening,” says Rionge.
Infrastructure, policy and knowledge and “understanding what this internet beast, at the time, was really about” has held back the industry.
“Today things are really different. People get it. People have moved on from thinking about connectivity to thinking about what’s going to be on the bandwidth.”
In August, IBM opened its first African research center in the city, the latest blue chip company to put its weight behind the ‘Silicon Savannah’. As the hype around Nairobi increases, Rionge warns that many entrepreneurs are struggling to take the step from great ideas to commercial businesses. That, she says, will take the community to the next level.
So many “techies” lack the commercial skills and acumen to make their ideas saleable. Rionge and her colleagues turned Wananchi into the region’s largest internet service provider, before she moved on to a senior role at the part-privatizing national phone company, Telkom Kenya. “The likes of Safaricom, the Telkoms, any of the big guys, the CEOs or the strategists need to see that there is a pool of experts or a pool of engineers who can actually develop their back office tools,” she says.
A recurring theme in her discourse is the problem of discerning noise from signal in the hype-fuelled tech space.
“You have to be careful where you’re hearing [the hype] from. If you’re hearing it from Google, they’re definitely doing it. If you’re hearing it from [business accelerator] NaiLab, it’s a different conversation. A lot of the techies I know, they’re still sitting on their grand idea and it hasn’t gone to market successfully. If you sit down, one-on-one, you can actually see it’s going somewhere. But if it’s not picked up by Google or Safaricom or Nokia, it hasn’t gone anywhere. It’s still a great idea, but there’s no uptake in the market,” she says.
Today, Rionge works with and sits on the boards of a number of successful enterprises. She has also started an incubator on Ngong Road, the city’s technology cluster, to help those with ideas to take the step to becoming businesspeople. Part of her message is that technology is not an end in itself but rather an enabler of other sectors. The successes in the African technology space have been in areas that plug gaps in the infrastructure or the market—creating solutions for the specific context of the continent. M-Pesa solved the problem of moving money in a cash-based economy with little infrastructure to support it.
Africa, with as many opportunities as it has challenges, needs entrepreneurs who can use technology as an enabler in key sectors, such as agriculture, manufacturing and education, while entrepreneurs need real applications for their grand ideas.
This is sometimes where international investors and observers fail to see the true value in the Kenyan, and wider African, technology opportunity. Measuring existing and potential successes by the experience of Silicon Valley, or other developed world technology hubs, misses the point.
“There will be people who have great ideas and grand ideas on the ground. The difference, in terms of developing them and scaling them, is whether we are creating criteria that have worked in developed markets to identify them, or whether we are going to get on the ground and recreate the criteria, so that the criteria is suitable for the local environment. That’s what’s not there. Because that local idea or local criteria is not structured yet, we continue to completely miss the opportunity. So the reengineering of the mindset in terms of the approach, I think, is what needs to take place for emerging markets or Africa.”
It is for this reason that she is cautiously critical of some of the initiatives in Nairobi, which seem to focus more on attracting international capital to the country than on building the domestic opportunity. The government’s ‘Vision 2030’ lays out an ambitious plan to greatly increase the value and depth of the IT sector. It has spawned ideas such as Konza City, a proposed development backed by Kenya’s ICT Board, which is designed to give a physical home to the country’s technological talent. Rionge is skeptical.
“That’s bricks-and-mortar. The ideas, the technology phase, are not about bricks and mortar. The investments we need are not about bricks and mortar… The bricks and mortar is really for international investors, that’s all it is. The innovators and entrepreneurs need to scale up pretty much on their own through some genius way.”
For all of her reservations, however, she is optimistic. The government support may be slightly misdirected, but it is not misguided. The city is fast becoming a hub for the entire continent and the heart of a technology revolution that is made in Africa.
“Nairobi happens to be the location but when you’re there, you’re thinking Africa. And Africa is the next economic frontier. If that is the case, you want to be in Africa, you want to be investing with Africans.”
Enterprise And Traceable Tea From Tanzania
How this Tanzanian entrepreneur’s tea startup is weathering the Covid-19 storm.
When Tahira Nizari started her social enterprise Kazi Yetu in Tanzania’s bustling city, Dar es Salaam, with her business partner and husband, Hendrik Buermann, almost two years ago, she didn’t anticipate the sheer scope of her big idea.
But she also didn’t expect that, because of an employee’s exposure to the coronavirus in April, she and her entire team would be quarantining for two weeks, stalling work in a year that she had projected growth for her company. With the pandemic’s onset, she lost most of her customer base in Tanzania, albeit temporarily, and was forced to come up with a game-plan and quickly pivot.
“It’s been an economic recession overnight, more or less,” says Nizari.
With family roots in Tanzania, and armed with formal degrees from Dubai and Canada, and experience in economic inclusion in the non-profit development sector, Nizari aimed to set a benchmark in the agribusiness sector in Tanzania through value-addition and by employing local women in her factory based in Dar es Salaam to produce “a traceable product” for the local and international market.
“Right now, tea is just exported in bulk completely (from Tanzania) and then all the jobs thereafter in that value chain are done abroad. So what we said was ‘let’s redistribute that job creation, let’s bring it back to Tanzania and let’s create a facility in which we can hire workers all locally and have a product that is 100% made in Tanzania’,” says Nizari. After extensive research in multiple target markets, both locally and abroad, building relationships with 250 Tanzanian farmers, setting up a factory exclusively employing local and previously-unemployed women, and many iterations of the seven blends of its flagship Tanzania Tea Collection using local flavors and spices, Kazi Yetu was ready to expand its scope in 2020.
“We were following our business plan… but we were really cautious and risk-averse (in 2018 and 2019). And then, we said, ‘you know what, when 2020 hits, it’s going to be growth’.”
Nizari was planning on reaching up to 4,000 farmers, buy machinery from China, grow the local B2B customer base, permanently employ all the women at the factory and begin to export on a larger scale after the launch of Kazi Yetu’s online store.
But when the coronavirus hit the local and international markets, things started looking very bleak, especially since Kazi Yetu is currently fully self-funded.
Not only did it lose almost all of its monthly income, but the farmers stopped meeting in groups for the training, so the supply chain was disrupted.
“In Europe, people are all sitting at home. They’re looking for products to build their immunity – tea is a great solution.”
The factory also had to introduce safety protocols for employees at work and at home, as well as reduce the number of people working at any given time in order to adhere to social distancing.
An employee’s father also died of the coronavirus, which forced Nizari to ask everyone involved with Kazi Yetu to quarantine at home for 14 days.
“So what we said was, ‘look, we don’t want to risk their safety, but we also don’t want to risk their economic well-being’. So we just paid all of them their full-time salary,” says Nizari.
“Generally, our operational costs have been really hard to cover right now… but it’s okay, because it made us pivot.”
It inspired Nizari to expedite Kazi Yetu’s plans to export, kickstart the online store sooner than anticipated and build up stock to send to Germany, rather than just focus on the Tanzanian market, which is temporarily quite small. Exporting has been an issue, given limited shipping at the moment, but the European market proved to be a pleasant surprise for Nizari.
“In Europe, people are all sitting at home. They’re looking for products to build their immunity – tea is a great solution,” she says.
Slowly, the factory is moving back to normal operations and Nizari is trying her best to ensure a steady income for the employees. Kazi Yetu is also now available on local delivery applications in Tanzania, so people can order tea to their doorsteps.
Looking ahead, Nizari hopes to scale up exporting through the online store and retailers, whether in Europe, or also in markets like South Africa where products from sub-Saharan Africa are popular, and North America where innovative African products are in demand.
“We want our product to be competing with products made in Europe, and for example, Sri Lankan tea, Indian tea and Chinese tea. We want Tanzanian products to be well-regarded,” she adds.
Since the teas are traceable, which is a unique selling point, Kazi Yetu is also working on an app that uses blockchain to allow customers to access data on the tea they purchase, from the farm level, all the way to their cups. This way, they will know first-hand the impact the product has.
In addition, Nizari is working on a farm-hub model to build Kazi Yetu’s supply chain by helping them produce better raw products through a no-interest investment that can be paid back with their final product over time.
“The whole ‘economy versus safety’ debate… it’s something we have to think about moving forward… You can’t just operate as a business that makes money, you have to think about… the well-being of your workplace, the well-being of everyone in your supply chain… And I think this is where social enterprises really come in,” Nizari adds.
And a hot cup of locally-produced tea can certainly help take forward any such deliberations.
– By Inaara Gangji
Farmer Forays: ‘Creating A New Line Of Business’
Nigerian agripreneur Shola Ladoja, the founder of Simply Green, says the pandemic-induced lockdown brought with it logistic adversity, but also more local sales.
With the marauding coronavirus disrupting lives and businesses in Nigeria, the financial stability of a majority of the country’s 200 million inhabitants has been severely affected.
The significant toll it has taken on economic activities has forced many small and medium enterprises to reimagine new ways of staying afloat. Covid-19 is also set to radically aggravate food insecurity in Africa. In spite of Nigeria’s dependence on oil, agriculture remains an important cornerstone for its economy, providing employment for millions especially in the informal sector.
The threat of starvation is so present that in a public address in May, Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari, urged Nigerian farmers to produce enough for the country to eat, saying that the country has “no money to import” food.
But every cloud has a silver lining. The food shortage has presented some agripreneurs in Nigeria with serendipitous opportunities.
Shola Ladoja is the founder of Simply Green, which is a farm-to-table company specializing in vegetables, fruits, juices, spices and herbs. The border lockdown has meant that many of the retail and supermarket chains can no longer import foreign produce into the country.
But this hurdle created a new opportunity for Ladoja.
“[Previously], I tried to get my juices into local stores in Nigeria but they all turned me down and most of them wanted to buy imported juices. The lockdown meant that they had to buy a local brand like mine because they could not get them from abroad anymore. We are now able to sell a lot more during this time than previous years,” says Ladoja.
On the logistics side, however, Ladoja has also felt the pinch of the pandemic like most business that require consistent movement of goods and services. The lockdown scenario prevented his workers from coming in and as a result, the company’s daily delivery of juices, has come to an abrupt stop.
Ladoja has had to start thinking outside the box to make ends meet.
“We have come up with a fruit and vegetable box, which we sell directly on our website to our customers. So, they can now buy lettuce, kale and carrots, which we have never done before. So, this period has forced us to think about how we can expand the business and this time we actually created a new line of business, which was not in the plans for this year,” says Ladoja.
According to the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), even before the Covid-19 crisis, farmers had not been able to satisfy the demands of Nigeria’s population.
“I feel like the government should give out grants and loans and support for small businesses so that they don’t crash. I have friends who have complained they are going to shut down their businesses because they haven’t been paid for two months. A lot of people cannot sell their produce in Lagos because the markets are closed which is going to affect a lot of farmers at this time,” says Ladoja.
Nigeria used to import over a million tonnes of rice from Thailand annually. That number has been significantly reduced with the implementation of high import taxes. This has led to an abnormal increase in food prices in Nigeria since the onset of the coronavirus with the UN estimating the number of people facing acute food security stands to rise to 265 million globally in 2020 as a result of the economic impact of the pandemic.
Nigeria has substantially increased domestic rice production in the pandemic but is still a long way from reaching the levels needed for the country to sufficiently feed itself. Coupled with the decline in global oil prices, it is safe to say the adverse economic impact of Covid-19 on Africa’s most populous country is going to be felt for a long time to come.
All For Grooming Future Leaders
Katlego Thwane has had to dip into his own savings, with the Covid-19 crisis, to fund his noble cause, teaching the underprivileged in a South African township.
He is in his twenties, yet turning around the destiny of underprivileged young people around him.
Katlego Thwane, a 28-year-old born and bred in South Africa’s lively township of Soweto, is an educator and founder of the Atlegang Bana Foundation here that caters to primary school learners who struggle to keep up at school and need additional help.
“Our foundation also provides for needy learners from underprivileged backgrounds. One of my biggest campaigns at the foundation every year is to give confidence and motivation to learners for the year ahead,” says Thwane.
He has bagged numerous awards and accolades for his work, as a 2017 Young Community Shaper, 2018 Lead SA hero and featuring on live television show Big Up on SABC Mzansi in 2018.
Growing up, he was a “naughty boy”, as he describes himself, but says many are now astonished at the serious, ambitious young man he has become.
“Teaching has always been a passion of mine. I love seeing change, transformation and grooming leaders, and value their education while being innovative in taking our country forward.”
Thwane has recently established a clothing brand, BANA, under the Atlegang Bana Foundation. He is also currently handing out food parcels to the needy in his community, in partnership with Hollywoodbets.
“The virus has affected us immensely with many parents losing their jobs or taking salary cuts, we are not receiving the financial support as before. This has led to me [dipping] into my own personal pocket and [using it] to buy tutors data for teaching virtually,” says Thwane.
Most schools continue operating online because learners haven’t as yet returned to school, however, this has come with its share of setbacks.
Makosha Masedi, a parent of a Grade 4 learner, says her challenges come with network issues and understanding the tasks given to the child.
“Some of the programs that the work is loaded on to is not friendly for all devices, so submitting and retrieving becomes a problem, as also understanding some of the work,” rues Masedi.
But Thwane powers on, hoping for a better tomorrow, for himself and his country.
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