Technology’s ability to connect is an amazing thing, especially when solutions are inspired by the ways communities already interact. A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of interviewing Kyai Mullei, the CEO of a Kenyan crowdfunding application, ‘M-Changa’.
Though worlds apart, Kyai and I have a few things in common. We’ve both spent many years in the States and are both familiar with London life. Kyai had plenty to say about what it’s like to start a business on the African continent and the current state of the African start-up scene. During our discussion, he spoke about how his global upbringing has aided his open-mindedness to living and working abroad, expressed his belief in the timeliness of entrepreneurs operating in Africa and alluded to success in start-up depending on creating solutions so useful, that they facilitate common behaviours.
Kyai is optimistic about Africa.
When quizzed about the timing of his move, Kyai responds saying, “I don’t think there is a better time…There’s definitely something going on here in the continent.” His tone is intuitive and energetic. It is as if he has sensed the ripe opportunities in Africa for several years and is excited to be operating within the hot-spot he perceives Africa to be.
Despite being born in the US, Kyai had no qualms about moving back to Kenya. His decision to relocate was aided by the fact that Kyai has had a truly global upbringing. The entrepreneur moved with family to Kenya at just 7 and lived there for several years before relocating to Senegal. He completed high school in Tanzania and moved back stateside for undergraduate studies at Oberlin College in Ohio. Afterwards, Kyai studied for a Masters in Computer Information Systems at Georgia State University.
While many are hesitant to relocate, even those with a history of moving abroad, Kyai was up to the challenge, deciding to move back to Kenya after finishing his post-graduate degree because, “Tech was hot.”
“I didn’t want to be at the tail end of the opportunity.”
M-Changa wasn’t his first start- up. When he first arrived in Kenya, Kyai headed an IT consultancy firm for a few years. He also created an online portal, ‘Dev Info Kenya’, which was a go to for anyone interested in the world of Development and NGOs, listing jobs and events in those areas.
His first two start-ups didn’t work out as planned.
Nonetheless, he met his current co-founder, David, at a time when they were both working for other people. David was making apps for public health and Kyai himself was working on a mobile gaming app for a client in Haiti. They put their two entrepreneurial minds together and decided to make something that was theirs. Something that would be successful.
Crowd Funding – a protagonist in Kenyan communities.
They created ‘M-Changa’, a Kenyan based fundraising management platform that works via SMS or online. It is inspired by the cultural practice of ‘Harambee’, where the community comes together to help each other raise money for anything from funerals to weddings to school fees.
It’s not your average ‘Kickstarter’ or crowdfunding website, which tend to host micro-charities or causes to the general public. M-Changa is really about community. Most fundraises on the platform are private and only open to people users personally know. Unlike typical western crowdfunding, repeat and reciprocal gifting is common and the messaging platform on the site is an engagement tool. M-Changa doesn’t just raise money – it maintains communities.
M-Changa doesn’t just raise money – it maintains communities
In short, it facilitates the sharing and caring nature of Harambee but makes it stream lined, transparent and efficient.
Many Africans would agree that the continent values practicality.
For this reason, making applications that are relevant to society is always at the forefront of Kyai’s mind. When he and David brainstormed ideas, they prioritised, “making something public facing that would be used by millions AND be useful.”
Since they are simply streamlining or upscaling a familiar cultural practice, M-Changa has been an easy sell to customers.
“Some start-ups,” he says, “create solutions that change the ways in which people behave and interact with each other, like Uber for example. We’re not trying to do that for now. Instead we want to build on existing behaviours and in doing so, satisfy existing needs.”
When asked if start-ups in Africa would be better off creating new behaviours or exploiting existing ones, he says “it depends.”
“In 2013 we got a chance to present at a lot of conferences across Africa. What I’ve seen in Nigeria, Senegal and in South Africa is that start-ups take advantage of existing behaviours…”
A few years ago there was a flurry of activity in the tech scene in Kenya. “We got a wave of pointless apps that were trying to create behaviours that you simply couldn’t justify here.”
But it didn’t last long. Not all of them had longevity. “The ones that did survive tended to be practical and address real needs.”
“It’s a different situation out here… A lot of business here is based on personality…you have to like who you’re working with.”
His second start-up all those years ago, ‘Dev Info Kenya’, was a success on the surface but failed in practice. He had plenty of users but his revenue model, based on banner ads, was ineffective. Banner ad revenue simply doesn’t work anymore, especially in Kenya. Since then he’s been keen to ensure that not only is the idea good from a practical sense, but that it makes money. Remembering this, he says, helps narrow down all your ideas.
It’s easy to forget about practicalities. It happens often when you’re excited about your idea and even more so when you’re bringing along a different cultural perspective.
As a result of this experience, Kyai learned never to use the West as a benchmark. Rightly so. “It’s a different situation out here.” He illustrates this by going on to say, “A lot of business here is based on personality…you have to like who you’re working with.” That very often isn’t the case in the West. But regardless of the differences, he’d encourage anyone to relocate to Africa. Economies in the continent are developing fast. “There’s so much space here for new things.” With so many gaps in the market yet to be filled there’s always room for talent. “Start-ups are appearing every day and they need your expertise. Your skills, your experience, even your contacts and networks abroad can be valuable.”
The takeaways are optimism, practicality, to get stuck in and to stick with it.
“It’s a perseverance game. With a good idea and hard work, you can definitely make it out here.”