In this segment, I interview Mbugua Njihia, Founder and CEO of Symbiotic Media a mobile/software development company based in Nairobi, Kenya. I’ve it here many times before, I love to interview Kenyan Entrepreneurs who are engaged in non-traditional kinds of enterprises and I think Symbiotic is an example of that. A company founded by a young Kenyan who is looking to exploit the very extensive mobile penetration access in Kenya. Again, these kinds of companies are the future for Kenya because there is simply not enough land left for young people anymore. They have to start making money from other places and with that introduction, I will jump straight into the interview questions and the answers that were provided to me by Mbugua.
1) Tell me a little bit about your background. Where did you go to school, where did you work and did either of these places (school or work) prepare you for what you are doing now at Symbiotic.
I went to high school at Starehe – Class of ’00 and attended Form 5 and 6 in 2001-02 at the Starehe Institute, which was an interesting adaptation of college life while still on a high school schedule that allowed me to do study Management Information Systems. Studying at the institute introduced me to the online world and actually lay the foundations for what are now Symbiotic. We had access to the internet…dial up, that would see me and my classmates stay in the labs late into the night waiting for “descent” access speeds. The one and a half year condescend course introduced me to programming and more importantly entrepreneurship – that reminds me that I owe Mrs Gatheru a gift.
It was in my final year – Form 6 that I started putting down various ideas and concepts in my little red book that I thought I could work on and make some money. Of course most of these ideas were predominantly based on web, the hottest emerging technology then.
Less than a month after final exams I was at my first job cum internship at 3Mice Interactive Media on the production floor, learning and working the industry standard processes of web development. I ended up heading the interactive media division having worked with a good cross section of brands. It was during my time there that we started experimenting with new ideas on this new thing called mobile under a new division that was kinda being formed under the leadership of Ken Njoroge. Soon after Ken Njoroge cashed in his chips as the 3rd mouse and spun off what is now known as Cellulant and I had the pleasure of being in the founding team of 5. Times were tough as we were dealing with a new industry, learning curves were steep and no one would fund the business. Looking back, we had some fun times though. At Cellulant I headed the User Experience and Portal development; some guys may remember the lifeismobile portal.
The learning lessons I got from these two places helped me refine ideas in my little red book. I decided to go back to school to study business and enrolled at USIU for an International Business Administration degree. I still get asked why business and not computer science. For me, it was clear that the fundamentals of IT had been well laid and with those fundamentals together with continued self learning, you can grasp new ideas and learn new technologies as they come.
However, the fundamentals of business have been the same since ages past and it is imperative that I understand them if I am to build a business. In essence, to become a techpreneur, I needed a hybrid understanding of both the technology that will make stuff happen and the business sense that will make me money.
As a 2 week old freshman at USIU I won the inaugural SIFE Business Plan completion with a business plan pitching Symbiotic. With that validation, I was off.
2) I was looking at your website (in preparation for this interview) and I noticed that most, if not all of the services you offer are mobile based. However, none of them struck me as being particularly unique. i.e. all of the things you offer can already be done by anyone who has a mobile phone in Kenya and who’d be using a larger mobile phone company like Safaricom. So, why would someone who already has a mobile phone plan with say Safaricom, switch to your company & end up paying additional fee’s for services they can already get with their current provider?
I would differ with you on that somewhat. We play in the platforms space and while yes, the operators now have unified licenses that allow them to rollout their own internal value added services, there are unique differences in the services that we offer. Being a smaller company also gives us the ability to be nimble and adapt and change to consumer needs. We also work with the operators to roll out some of these services and the relationship is Symbiotic, pun intended.
3) Also, on your website, I noticed you list the companies in Kenya that you have done work for and they’re quite well known companies like Transparency International, Equity Bank and Standard Investment Bank. I want to talk about what you do for them generally, but I’ll begin with what you did for Standard Investment Bank with the EasyHisa system, which allows people to check their trades and accounts using their mobile phones.
We built a platform called Esplanade – which plugs into any stock brokerage backend to allow users to trade shares via web, email and sms. It was a great step for us because the management of Standard Investment Bank gave us the opportunity to pilot our platform and eventually roll it out under the EasyHisa name.
When I was watching the launch of the EasyHisa campaign, one thing that stood out for me was that Easy Hisa will not be able to provide data in real time. However, I know that the technology to provide this kind of data already exists in the west and has been around for the last 30 years. So, if you are a bank in Kenya who is looking to provide this service for your customers, why not just purchase the software from a company in the west that has been using it for 30 years? Why go to a company like Symbiotic and end up with outdated software?
I am afraid you are wrong on this one. At the time of going live with EasyHisa, the new system at the NSE was yet to be fully rolled out and as such, we could not plug the system into a real-time data feed from the floor. Even the “Western” software would be useless without that needed data. Esplanade as platform is very robust and scalable, built from the ground up with a team that understands the local market and are therefore able to adapt it to any enterprise system…bank or stockbroker. And it did have, at the time of launch the said capability and more. This gives us the edge over imported platforms .
4) A more generalized question on technology in Kenya. I’ve noticed that a lot of the software development is not original. i.e. it appears that what many tech guys in Kenya are doing is simply using software that already exists in the west, tweaking it a little, giving it a Swahili name and then trying to re-sell it as an original Kenyan made idea. Do you agree with this generalization or not? Are Kenyan software guys or gals, creating innovative, original software?
What is original in this day and age? Even Facebook is not original in the true sense. Innovation is what is key and if you can address a need with your software and add your own mojo to it and sell it, that is creative. Would you buy school management software developed from the US for Ksh 100,000 with all sorts of features that would not make sense in a local setting or a similar product with local features and support at the same price? Whats new about school management software? Maybe the spin is the swahili feature and use of local admin terms, that would be innovative. My issue would be with the finer things like software quality, user experience and presentation of the solutions, these need to match international standards.
5) Also, on this point about innovation and creativity, do you think that the lack of originality has meant that the software tweaking Kenyans do, has led to an inability to sell their services outside of Kenya? i.e. bigger companies that know about technology will purchase what they need from the west because they are more interested in ensuring that they have the best software that money can buy. i.e. their purchases are not based on patriotic allegiances. They’re based on product quality. What do you think that?
Spot on. We have local software dev houses that are making big-time revenues in the hundreds of millions from software exports. This should be more the rule than the exception. And what are they selling out? ERP, CRM and Retail management type systems, hardly anything new there. Again it boils down to software quality , user experience and presentation of the solutions. Ohh and the support offered.
6) Tell me about the dilemma’s that a Kenyan entrepreneur like yourself would face in terms of revenue generation. i.e. We all know that there are millions of mobile phone users in Kenya. However, it is still a poor country. So, how do you get people to pay for mobile phone app’s, which they may not regard as being “essential”?
You get them to pay by making them essential, but you would be surprised that some of the more highly, locally adopted apps are vanity applications. This is however due to the fact that some of the data needed to deliver these mass market utilities is locked up in silos. Address a need in a simple way by leveraging the technology. There are also various business models around mobile apps that can be adopted as opposed to paying X shillings to get app B.
The biggest barrier to growth as I see it, is a lopsided revenue share model with the operators, where they would take upto 50% of the revenue on services created and marketed by the value added service providers, but again, there are ways of addressing this as well as pushing for alternative business models, billing models and terms of engagement. The operators can be the best partners around.
7) I’ve always said that the mark for whether or not a company produces good software will be it’s universality. i.e. If you produce something that has value, anyone, in any part of the world will be able to use it. The best example of this is Skype, which was created by two guys in Estonia and now everyone in the world uses it. Do you think Kenyan software engineers understand this point? i.e. until they start being more innovative, their basic tweaking will mean that their software will be confined to a place like Kenya. It will never be cutting edge and thus, never be exportable outside of that confine. What do you think of this?
Two sides to that coin yet again. It would depend on one’s business model and resources. The software companies that export software also have access to resources to polish and refine their offering. I do know of smaller software dev houses with small teams and turnovers in the region of Ksh 20 million, targeting SACCO’s and MFI’s. I bet their products would sell well in markets like South America, but how do they get there? We can have a whole discussion around this issue.
8) I want you to give the readers some advice here based on your entrepreneurial experiences in Kenya. If you’re a person looking to exploit the mass usage of mobile phones in Kenya, what ideas would you offer them in terms of achieving maximum revenue generation?
Partnerships work best. Develop partnerships with strategic players to give you access to markets or capital to roll out your product. A super product or service that the market knows nothing about is useless.
9) Finally, where do you see mobile phone usage headed in Africa? How do you see this medium evolving over the next few years?
I see higher penetration of handsets with more features that will allow us to extend solutions further. Africa also has the highest growth in the mobile space (with mobile being the first point of interaction for many, especially with the internet). I believe certain verticals such as mobile search and government services are yet to be exploited in Africa. That said, access, to services needs to be looked at and continued market education to ensure the market understands services and handset capability.
I hope you enjoyed reading the answers and feel free to expand this discussion about mobile phone usage, Africa, Entrepreneurship, Ecommerce and all those good things.