ICTVILLE

Kenya female techies share what it’s like to run a technology business

Posted In NEWS, Technology - By admin on Friday, March 13th, 2015 With No Comments »
AkiraChics co-founders from left Angela Oduor-Lungati, Marie Githinji, Judith Owigar and Linda Kamau at their office along Ngong Road in Nairobi

AkiraChics co-founders from left Angela Oduor-Lungati, Marie Githinji, Judith Owigar and Linda Kamau at their office along Ngong Road in Nairobi

A tech business is arguably the easiest to start, provided that you have the prerequisite skills. Unlike other businesses, the starting capital is not cash, but rather your specialised skills.

‘Techpreneurs’ leverage those skills to create solutions in an increasingly tech-reliant world.

They do not have to think about overheads like rent because majority work from the free, shared and networked spaces at places like the iHub and NaiLab, the tech pulse of Nairobi, or at the office of the client, or even from home. They only need move out to their own space after their businesses are established.

They rarely need loans to finance business growth or operations because the business finances itself; the client pays first before the techie develops a solution and then he pays for implementation.

We talked to women running three tech enterprises to show us how they do it.

Akirachix is a social enterprise to teach tech skills to girls

The girls sit around a cocktail table prepping for their photo shoot. At first glance, it looks like a casual meet for four girlfriends on a lazy afternoon. They laugh and chitchat as Marie, the most boisterous one of the gang, shares a gripping story with  the others.

We are at the iHub, where the UN-recognised and award-winning Akirachix is based. Akirachix is a training centre for disadvantaged girls. It was co-founded in April 2010 by 12 women. Only four remain: Marie Githinji, 31, Judith Owigar, 30, Angela Oduor, 25, and Linda Kamau, 28.

Each runs a separate arm of the centre: Marie runs the outreach programme for high school students. Judith runs operations. Angela, marketing and communication. Linda, the training programme itself; she liaises with the staff of seven teachers to develop the curriculum.

Since theirs is a grant-based enterprise, sourcing for funds is a continuous and shared role amongst the co-founders. We sit with Linda Kamau for this interview.

Akirachix started as a simple idea sparked by a desire to fill a visible gap of women in tech.

“There were only a handful of women in this industry at that time. But we (female IT graduates)had a shared passion of pushing as many women into tech as we could,” says Linda.

“Our plan was to teach disadvantaged girls from the slums of Nairobi who’d just finished high school basic tech and entrepreneurship,” she adds.

Linda and her co-founders borrowed a bus from Craft Silicon, set it up as a classroom cum computer lab on wheels, then drove it into Dandora to teach 20 girls and a boy. Progress was just starting to show when the bus was withdrawn without warning. And with it, went their mobility, their classroom and a large chunk of their positive energy.

“It was huge a drawback. Our lowest moment,” says Linda.

This first hurdle saw a few of the 12 co-founders opting out.

“We moved the classroom to an office space donated by Infonet.”

The programme was thus far being financed by all the co-founders. Pockets which weren’t deep enough to sustain it.

“Aside from the learning materials, the girls needed lunch and bus fare daily. The Sh100, 000 of personal contributions we started with was running low.”

So they aggressively sought for donor funding in mid-2011. A few more co-founders opted out. Linda and the remaining three pushed on.

Akirachix’s combination of disadvantaged girls and teaching tech worked in their favour. After only one rejection, their first grant, from Google, came in early 2012 and the grants haven’t stopped pouring in since then. Relocating to the iHub in October 2013 also helped because of greater visibility.

Operating on donor funds is a risk the girls are willing to gamble with. To date, 62 girls have graduated from the programme. Some of the girls have gone on to become entrepreneurs, others are mobile app and web developers. Aside from the intial hurdle of premises and funding, the other challenge is that Akirachix isn’t a government-accredited learning institution yet. To work around this challenge, Akirachix has partnered with Institute of Software Technologies to issue graduates with certificates recognised in this industry.

Running and expanding the organisation has also demanded that the co-founders focus their attention in sustaining the programme for the long-term. The flipside to this is that who they are at their core – coders and developers – is fading away in the process of refining their new entrepreneurial skills. To counter this, says Linda, each of them have maintained their solo purely-tech projects on the side.

The five years of Akirachix has bonded these techies in a way they didn’t imagine when they started out. They’ve learned how to forget themselves for their greater goal.

Kate Kiguru runs Ukall, a technology company that focuses on helping businesses run more efficiently through automation

UCall founder Kate Kiguru. Picture taken outside her office in Karen, Nairobi

UCall founder Kate Kiguru. Picture taken outside her office in Karen, Nairobi

Kate Kiguru’s relationship with her maiden app, Akida, has been a labour of love. Kate, 28, co-founded uCall Limited with  a partner (who prefers not to be named) in June 2011 to develop and sell this app.

At her office tucked away in the folds of Karen, Kate is surrounded by her team – three developers she works closely with, and two in business development and finance. The client-support staff of three is out in the field.

After graduating from the Kiambu Institute of Science and Technology (KIST) in November 2008, she worked as a software engineer in Tracom Kenya developing systems for use in banks. She was the only girl in the team. The idea for her app found her here, in late 2011. She desired to do more than developing banking solutions. She had an idea that the way security firms recorded data for their guards could be improved, and her co-founder, who has been in the security industry for over 19 years, confirmed this.

“There was a gap in the way security firms collected data for the guards. It was a manual, resource-intensive and tiresome activity. My app Akida would ease this process. The supervisors would capture guards’ data on the ground and send it to head office in real time.”

It worked wonderfully on paper, but there were two present challenges. One, most guards didn’t own phones, let alone the smart phones this app needed. Second, the security firms did not already have HR and payroll databases that could be linked with the app. With over 10,000 guards in their books, keeping straight records was a tall order. “I needed to first build a solution for their HR and payroll before working on Akida,” says Kate.

So Kate – on a fully-paid development contract – spent the next six months doing only that. She called the system uPay. Throughout 2013, Kate customised  uPay for five other firms in security and manufacturing. Her business was hosted at the NaiLab, a tech business incubator.

Akida, meanwhile, marinated in the background. Waiting for its time to shine. She picked it up again in December 2013. She customised aspects of it for marketing and non-governmental organisations who use it to track field workers and get real time data from the field.

Luckily, the business was profitable from the start, and by 2014 it was generating enough revenue to support her and her fulltime staff of eight. She moved office to Karen in August 2014.

Has becoming an entrepreneur asked that she put a pause to her tech skills to focus on her business skills? “No, it hasn’t,” says Kate. “My skills as a developer are the core of this business, it’s what clients are paying for. Finding developers with the attitude I look for has been a challenge though.”

That aside, Kate says that she likes to be at the forefront of business operations because she is the constant in the business.

“Staff come and go, so if anyone leaves, I have to keep the business running so I have to be up to speed with every aspect of it. I do a little bit of everything: coding, business negotiation, meeting new clients… we work as a team,” she says.

Her other challenge has been pricing her products, which she says in the tech business may not be so straightforward, especially if you are dealing with both big and small companies.

“You have a baseline but sometimes you lower the price because working with a particular company will give you useful insights, and that’s the only way to get in.”

Her medium-term plan for the business is to focus more on customising Akida and less on uPay. So far she has managed to sell the system to companies in Nigeria, Ghana and Kenya and sheehopes that in future, it will be the preferred app for marketing firms and NGOs.

One piece of advice Kate would readily give to any budding techpreneur is to aim for simplicity and  developing solutions.

“I have seen start-ups come and go because they focused on creating nice, cool apps that nobody would use. This is pervasive in our local tech space.

“It’s easy to get so wrapped up in being innovative that you forget to offer a simple solution. There’s no purpose for your sophisticated app if it can’t give a solution to your client’s everyday problem; it doesn’t make business sense,” she says.

Linet Kwamboka runs DataScience Limited, a data analysis and research company

Linet Kwamboka Nyang'ao at Data Science offices off Riara road

Linet Kwamboka Nyang’ao at Data Science offices off Riara road

Linet Kwamboka is data personified. At 26, Linet has chewed, swallowed, preached and embodied data from when she graduated from the University of Nairobi at 21 with a degree in computer science. In those five years, Linet hopped about the data industry doing her time. Her most prominent role was as a data coordinator handling government ICT projects. Linet, among other things, structures policy on how to use public data.

She spent 2012 on a fellowship as a software engineer at a university in Pittsburgh; her focus was how to engineer data for businesses. Linet returned home in 2013.

“I got several job offers with renowned companies. But I realised what it was they were after – my skills, my connections in government and my network. So instead of working for them, I turned them into my clients,” she says.

Her decision led her to start her company in November 2013. Linet and her team of nine collect, analyse and present data in simple and fun ways. She says of her decision to go into this niche:

“I knew there was a need for someone who could process data that businesses could then use for their own benefit.”

DataScience was a self-financing business from the word go. She entered a six-month consultancy contract with her first client which set her off in the right direction.  While there were bigger corporations like IBM targeting large firms, Linet went for the small and medium enterprises. But she recalls those early days as tough.

“Most of the people I approached did not see the need for data analytics. They had the ‘if it ain’t broke, why fix it?’ mentality. I worried about where the next payc heque would come from … I started asking myself if the local market was really ready for this but I did not quit. It made me work harder at leveraging my network to grow my business.

Once I got the first client and they saw how data had helped, they became my marketers, by word of mouth,” she recalls.

One thing that those early days taught Linet, is the need to change her model and diversify to meet the needs of her clients.

“When I look back at how I had envisioned DataScience, the model has certainly changed. I had to listen to what they wanted and meet that need, rather than doing things the way I had visualised them. That is the way I was able to grow my clients.

“However, there are things that remain constant based on the big picture I have for DataScience,”Linet explains.

Linet is self-taught; she manages HR, marketing, communication, strategy and client relationships, while her team develops and deploys the products. An outsourced accountant manages her books.

She says she gets lonely sometimes, running the business solo. “I wish I had two other co-founders. A sounding board for my decisions.”

“What helps me is delegation. If anyone notices something to be fixed, they address it. No one has to call me to make day-to-day decisions. It is a mutual responsibility and the team knows how I like things done so it works for us,” she says.

Speaking about the five-year plan for her business, Linet says it’s a question she’s been asking herself lately. And? “I want to develop subscription-based packaged products,” she says.

How has being boss at DataScience changed her approach to things? “I am more responsible and more aware of how things work. There are people who depend on me (for a salary, for personal and for career growth),” says Linet.

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