On a quiet evening in December, 2010 while walking from Kenyatta University main campus towards Kahawa Wendani (students’ preferred residence), a thought rushed through my mind — I partially remembered a computational trick I read from a recreational mathematics book in High School. Problem, I couldn’t remember the title nor the author — Google couldn’t help either. I went over to my nerd friend Elvis to discuss whether we could build a system to find information that’s generally not easy to find. He was fascinated by the concept and we spent the rest of the night hammering the idea. Next day on our way to campus, Elvis stopped a lad and asked him how they say ask in his mother-tongue, he responded ‘KWETHA’, and Kwetha was born.
Kwetha endeavored to transform the information search experience through an ask and find format. We figured my problem could be broken down to a series of questions which can lead to getting the answer. Fresh from studying a course in Advance Artificial Intelligence, I was eager to start building the algorithms. Elvis emptied his bank account, rented an office space, bought furniture and hired a programmer. The coming week, he contacted a lawyer and registered Doban Africa Ltd . In under a week we had an MVP, a registered company, and an office space. There was a lot of excitement of what the product could become, I pitched it to fellow students who loved it and were eager to join the employee list.
We had a unique proposition, instead of returning a webpage as with normal search, we returned just an answer (Google instant was not available and ask.com was manual). The concept and product went viral, within 2-months we were the 8th most visited website in Kenya.
At that point we set to capitalize on the growing visibility and launched two new products, NaiRoutes for matatu directions and NaiTraffic for giving traffic information utilizing Swift Global and Access Kenya cameras. This significantly increased the employee number and I had to take the role of Operations Manager. In this period we had focused on building awesome products and not revenue, given the rising wage bill we had to find a revenue stream. We didn’t have an advertising module built into Kwetha, and didn’t have ready advertisers to pitch to them. So we built another product, pricelist.co.ke , a product listing website for comparing prices across different stores – vendors would pay a fee to list their inventory.
Marketing the new product also turned out to be a uphill battle, a lot of merchants feared losing customers because of higher prices, their inventory was in printed papers and they didn’t want to commit time to enter the records to our database. Dead End! Remember at this time we are running 3 products with a staff of 10 employees. The solution was to find another hot product – we settled on D-trail, a parcel tracking android application that allows companies to manage delivery logistics easily and cheaply. The application utilized QR-codes to embed parcel information as well as location, enabling security, tracking and confirmation of delivery when they are done.
This had a mild success, two companies showed interest in piloting the project with a firm commitment for paid service if the pilot went well. At this point, we made a decision to kill all products that aren’t raking in revenue. So we solely focused on D-trail. Doban Africa was now a Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) entity, the technical team focus would be maintaining the back end, and a marketing team would bring in client. The setup was easy to scale and required minimal manpower – retrenchment time :( . All was well until a client dropped and the cost of replacing smartphone skyrocketed. Back to the drawing board.
Since cash was the problem, we opted to get into hackathon competitions to win price money that could sustain the company. We spruced up one of the project Elvis was working on part time – Zahanati, a mobile application that can detect malaria by deducing a narrative of symptoms. After spending 48 hours without sleep (mostly Elvis and other developers), we lost the competition to our good friend Nick Hargreaves. The mood was somber, we were sure we would win the competition, we even included a translation module that would switch response to Swahili if a user used more than 50 percent Swahili in the descriptive text. A consolation we were featured in Reuters, Al Jazeera and CCTV.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wFN3q5PRru4
The final straw was to convert Doban Africa to a data analysis company, we ran this for a while – encountered problems with big companies hesitance to pass their data to a start-up despite our track record. After two years in the company I opted to exit. So many lessons learned, so many nights spent in the office, and a lot at friends’ houses to call home.
Elvis is on to his next startup, MobiAds, a mobile marketing company, their flagship Royalty King is an Android application that displays an ad every time a user get a phone call. The users get points for each ad viewed which they can redeem for airtime or data bundles. For me, I currently work for iHub Research as Data Lab manager where I’m in-charge of Data Science projects.
Musings at blackorwa.com