Tuesday, December 09, 2008

One more stab at online business

I first discovered Microsoft Encarta in 1997, and what a joy that was. A digital repository with seemingly endless ways to satisfy my hunger for knowledge. Being a rap obsessed teenager it did not take me long to check what Encarta said about hip-hop. I found an article on Grandmaster Flash considered the grandaddy of hip-hop (at least by Encarta). In the article there was an audio clip of one of his most popular tunes 'The Message' which was later popularly resampled in 'Can't nobody hold me down' by Puff Daddy and Mase. One line of that great song in particular comes to mind right now "can't nobody hold me down... ohh no I got to keep on movin"

And so it is with me, I have continued with my dream of promoting online business in Kenya. My latest effort is Incorporator, an online company formation service I have helped design, create, market and manage for a business services company. I consider this one of my most comprehensive works in e-commerce: with aspects of cookie-based shopping carts, payment processing through m-pesa, ordering through a secured web, and shipping and handling of products using courier firms. In brief, technically the product works.

The real test however is whether the business model works. One thing I am hesitant about is the issue of payment. I am yet to see whether Kenyan shoppers would be comfortable paying KSh. 15,000 (about $190) online with their order for a product that they have yet to touch, feel, and see physically. Some alternative ideas I am entertaining in case this doesn't work out are: cash with delivery, or setting up of branches/drop-off money(pick-up package) zones.

Right now though things are looking up, and the low cost barrier flagship product (1-day company name search) which costs only KSh. 200 ($2.50) has been getting a lot of activity. Hopefully it will help build the trust and customer relationships that such a business necessarily needs to build.

Watch this space for updates.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Jobs in Kenya

Recently I checked my google analytics page and with shock discovered that the most popular pages on my blog were those of job vacancies.

So if you've come to this page expecting to see a job vacancy, I apologise. You are one of my guinea pigs in my research to see whether indeed this is a recurrent theme

Friday, November 21, 2008

Of Circumcision and Taxes

With Barack Obama's successful election and the hope and inspiration it ignited in Africa, it was only inevitable that forgotten conversations would be remembered, radical arguments would be renewed, and people would have more enthusiasm in proposing and debating ideas.

It is with this background that I recently found myself in a hearty discussion about the greatly flawed (italics mine) notion of black inferiority. And by black I mean people of African descent. As conversations go, ebbing and rising with the passion of each speaker, changing course rapidly as new insights or defeated rationale are encountered, so did this one. Eventually we ended up on the very delicate topic of female circumcision.

Now, I was having this discussion with a very smart, very liberated lawyer who also happens to be a woman. Needless to say, such discussions can very quickly and very easily go off track unless the words that are coming out of one's mouth are considered carefully and sensitively before their utterance.

The precursor to the discussion on female circumcision was a statement to the effect that "The white man helped Africans by causing the abolition of practices such as female circumcision."

It is an oft repeated statement varying only in the degree of praise accorded to the 'white man'. As stated previously I was having this discussion with the enlightenment of the AO (After Obama) era. I therefore started thinking harder about the statement. What would we feel about the practice had the white man not colonized us? Was the practice inherently abhorred by women? What was the actual raison d'etre for the practice?

With this discourse I share with you my surmise, warning beforehand that it was conceived in the over-active imaginative part of my brain and that I do not forward it as an argument but rather as the result of me challenging myself to think harder about things (even if the conclusion is not necessarily right).

Most citizenry accept taxes as a necessary although, not enjoyable obligation owed to the state. Tulipe ushuru, tujitegemee broadcasts Kenya Revenue Authority from their website. A neat argument which goes on to say how there would be: no roads, no hospitals, no schools; were it not for taxes. Simple enough and thus every year billions of shillings are collected from wananchi and funneled through the state coffers towards public expenditure.

Of course it helps that there are massive structures and institutions set up to facilitate collection and dissuade avoidance. From ensuring the employer pays his employees' taxes before he pays them their salaries, to banks insisting that companies wishing to open bank accounts have a Tax PIN certificate, to the ETRs, upfront custom duty payments, and a host more set ups. And where these don't suffice, a prize is always at hand for the top tax payers.

And for the wily, uncooperative, or just plain evasive we (through our "elected" representatives) have passed a number of laws to punish those that do not adhere to this "self-evident" tax argument.

In summary, we have a practice that is institutionalized, accepted though unwanted, suffered by the individual for the good of the community.

Of course it would be incomplete if I neglected say that the tax regime is not free from abuse, and by broad consensus most of us believe it is designed by and favoured for the rich and powerful.

So what does all that have to do with female circumcision?

Is it possible that female circumcision was designed with a similar rationale?

Picture this:

It is 1805, the Ameru community has been living on the Nyambene hills, growing bountiful crop and protected from their enemies by altitude and geography. Water is plenty, streaming down from the snow capped mountain where Murungu resides. Yet their community is waning, year by year, becoming smaller and smaller, forgetting their customs and losing their identity.

The Njuri Ncheke (council of elders) are constantly worried in their deliberations. It was not long ago that their people escaped from bondage from Arabs at the coast and migrated to this place. Others came from the North, pushed by Oromo warriors whereas still others came from farther south, seeking arable land. They managed to cobble together a community who called themselves the Ameru. Although there are now five clans who are part of the Ameru, their diverse origins mean that it is a loose coalition. Looser now as wandering Borana from the hinterland with their herds of Zebu and Chuka from the south with their bronze hoes are marrying Meru girls.

Girls are leaving Nyambene to go and increase the clans of others. Whole generations of future Ameru never to be, as the women shun their Meru men in favour of the warriors from other tribes.

Soon the Njuri Ncheke fear, there will no longer be a Meru identity, once again the Ameru will be dispersed like the wind to the four corners of the earth to suffer the same wandering homeless fate as their bajuju (ancestors.)

They need to do something quickly, to come up with a way of coalescing the community, of making sure that the vessels of the next generation (young women) marry within the community and abide by its tenets, of perpetuating the customs and beliefs of their people. They consider many options, and realize that the best option would be something which the whole community can participate. It must have a reward and punishment mechanism to induce people towards it and penalize those against it. It must require personal sacrifice yet ensure communal benefit.

The Njuri Ncheke love their community and would like to see it live on for many more years, strong, proud and self-sufficient. Their decision is made, even though they know that some will come to say it is designed by men to favour them.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Kibaki is a joker!

What?

A national holiday to celebrate the election of a US president? Am I the only one who sees this for the asinine decision it is? So what if Barack Obama's father is from Kenya? Is it justification to lose KSh. 3.8 Billion (on an economy of KSh. 1.4 trillion)? You don't see the US making tomorrow a holiday, even though the election of Barack Obama is much more historic and relevant to them.

This Kibaki government is a bunch of lazy, work-phobic, selfish, politics-first fellas who are totally unsuited to meet the challenges of Kenya's economic growth. That's what you get when you elect a bunch of doddering old men!

Disgusting.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

An entrepreneur's adventure: Part I

I frantically clawed at the dirt with my free arm, hoping for a jagged rock I could hold, a branch, a tuft of grass ... anything. My left arm hanging from a protruding tree root was weakening and hot from lactic acid. The warm blood sliding down the inside of my elbow felt almost cool to the strained muscles. I could still feel the frames of my glasses on my face, "at least I haven't lost those" I thought. But the glasses were of no use now, it was dusk, for me the hardest time to see.

"Shika hio mti, Harry", a voice fell from above. I strained and turned my head up. Although I couldn't see him, I knew Collin was there. He must have been petrified, already feeling the unbearable guilt he would have to bear for putting his nephew in a life and death situation. "Heh heh", I managed a chuckle, imagining the comic expression on his face right now, his face wasn't suited to tragedy.

"What" I scolded myself back to reality. I was making fun, and certain death was waiting for me 200 feet below unless I did something now. I turned my eyes up again. I could now see the extended tip of the branch poking through the uneven face of cliff. This was it, there was not going to be an easy way out of this situation. I couldn't think my way out of this mess, no time to come up with any fancy gizmos, no chance to code a solution in visual basic.

I figured if I missed grasping the branch with my right arm the momentum to bring up my arm would almost certainly make me lose the grip with my left arm. But I was past tired and I didn't know how much longer that left arm could hold. Would this be the end of my journey as an entrepreneur? Would all the ideas and hopes for starting up business come crashing down with me, from this bleak, cold and wet cliff face.

"Come onnnnn!," I muttered under my breath, psyching myself. I looked up again at the branch, I can do this I thought. I moved my dangling legs closer to the cliff face, in case I missed I wanted them to be where I could easily get something to step on to slow down the fall. Knowing that I couldn't wait any longer I let out a yell, channeling all my ki into a swing and stretched out my right arm towards the saviour branch...

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Thinking in Black and White

I recently joined a group called toastmasters, whose objective is to help its members improve their speech-making abilities. Here is my first speech called the icebreaker, that is supposed to introduce me to the other members.

Thinking in Black and White

Madame toast master, fellow toastmasters and guests.

My form two English teacher was Ms. Koch, an American with a Belgian ancestry. She asked us to call her Ms. K as her name did not lend itself easily to pronunciation by an African tongue. During one group session where we could move around the class interacting with other students and the teacher she asked me what kind of writing I liked most. Wanting to give an impressive answer I furrowed my brow a while and replied “creative writing”. Ms. K reflected on my response, and I smugly awaited praise for my clever answer. “But Harry” she replied “all writing is creative.”

I stood there feeling dumb, my smugness worn down by her simple logic. I half-grunted, half-mumbled to acknowledge her correction, and quickly shuffled away. She smiled patiently after me, as a teacher who knows more than her student would.

She was right of course. Writing to me was creative and fun. I had started writing outside school at an early age. Sometimes it was a story, but more often it was just a random jumbling of ideas that I wanted to see in paper.

Writing was a behaviour I picked up from my environment; I grew up surrounded by publications and journals written by my lecturer father and scientist mother. While I was still in primary school I remember being punished many days for running around and generally causing a ruckus while they worked on a paper or thesis.

My mother would sometimes ask me to proof-read her writing, perhaps not so much because she believed a 10 year old could really edit a scientific paper, but because she probably knew I easily got bored and the task would help me stay out of trouble or noisemaking. Proofing had a secondary and more lasting effect. I came to appreciate communicating difficult concepts in my mom’s simple, orderly writing. Scientific ideas were broken down into understandable points and even with fourteen-lettered words, the meaning came across clearly.

Academic journals and books formed a large part of our modest home library and took precedence over most other forms of entertainment. I remember one holiday, my father coming home with many large boxes. I jumped around them excitedly as he opened them thinking that he had finally bought a VCR and colour TV, so that I didn’t have to go to Robert’s place to watch movies. It turned out that he had purchased 3 sets of encyclopedias; over 70 books with tens of thousands of pages of text.

Over time, I came to realize that this was his greatest gift ever. The information between those pages helped me immensely with my thinking and writing. I was able to reference others’ knowledge and improve my writing. The articles showed me the form that well researched writing could take, and provided an incredible catalyst to generate more ideas and thoughts.

I am not surprised therefore that I eventually ended up as an entrepreneur. Business provided me with a testing ground for my thoughts. Not only did I have to channel my ideas into reasoned business plans, but I would have to test them out in the real world and determine their viability. Making money was obviously an added benefit.

I began my entrepreneurial behaviour at an early age; setting up a distribution system to supply bread and snacks to my high-school mates when I should have been studying geometry. Although this business made me a lot of money, sometimes as much of my teachers I still wasn’t sure of it as my career path. I dreamed at times of being an engineer like my father, or an architect as I enjoyed drawing, or a even politician who could change the world.

Going to college while waiting for university admission, helped me clear some of this confusion. I studied information management systems for two years at Strathmore college. It was here that I discovered a new type of writing, writing programming code. I went wild with the ability that programming gave me; to create software that could do anything my mind imagined was incredibly exciting. Not only did this skill help me further explore creative writing, but it was a resource that I would later use in entrepreneurship.

Information Technology was fun, but I soon grew weary of the academics and ditched IT to study law instead at the University. Again I was exposed to a new kind of writing, and my fascination with airy sentences in formal writing would be replaced by crisp, factual, and non-committal prose. Legal writing provided a wonderful addition to the different styles of writing I had been exposed to.

School is now behind me, yet I continue putting down my thoughts in writing. It may be for a proposal for an exciting new business venture. At times, it is a piece of code for software that that will make sales reporting simpler, or it could be for my blog where I will have no restraints and wander from writing of my weekend adventures to critiquing products from Safaricom. And at times it is for a speech that I hope to give at a meeting.

It is through writing that I am able to give form to my thoughts. Written thoughts which force me to crystallize my dreams and ambitions; to express who I am and what I believe in a way that is clear to others; to turn ideas into reality. Writing to me is thinking with clarity. Putting pen to paper, I am able to think in black and white.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Literary Hacks at Business Daily

First of all, I would like to thank all those who I meet on the street, in the office, on the road, who are readers and followers of my blog. You give me the motivation to keep at this. Now, some of you have mentioned that I seem to have deviated from writing "startup" posts, like the rural cyber chronicles in my recent postings. Heck, I guess that's true somewhat, but the mind of an entrepreneur is fickle and unrestrained. Whatever catches my fancy at that time is what I would blog about, so today I am putting on a critique's hat and aim my sights at what I feel is woefully bad journalism.

My target of vitriol is the headline story on the Business Daily of October 7, 2008, titled "Internet theft hits a new high" Naturally I was attracted to this story because I am an avid Internet user and a promoter of its potential as a business tool. Considering the very serious nature of the paper's allegation, I expected a fact-laden article with detailed testimonies, statistics, and warnings. Instead what I read was a vacuous, sensational, and rambling article that relied on unsubstantiated claims, wildly inaccurate headlines, false syllogisms, and a lack of understanding of the internet, internet banking and banking in general.

Is my criticism too harsh? You be the judge.

Let's start with the title, "Internet theft hits a new high". From this title you'd expect:
  1. Testimonials of victims of internet theft
  2. Statistics showing how the cases of theft have increased from a previous period to the current period.

The author goes on to give two examples, of a woman who 'lost' her entire savings over the Internet, and of a man who spent a lot of money to extricate himself from allegations of criminal activity.

Let's start with the case of the woman. The article starts of well enough; Veronica received an email. After that, its all downhill, the author writes that Veronica unsuspectingly provided her banking details and later found out that all her savings were withdrawn "through the Internet" and that the bank cannot be name for legal reasons.

Is it just me or does everyone see the sheer volume of BS in this? Let me break it down.

  1. The author fails to explain what nexus there is in Veronica supplying her account details and her savings being withdrawn ‘through the internet’. Is the mere availability of your bank details enough for a criminal to withdraw your funds? To the best of my knowledge all banks require proof of identification AND bank account details before they authorize a withdrawal. Proof of ID is usually a Government ID and/or a signature on a bill of exchange issued by the bank and/or physical presence. Exactly which method did the perpetrator of fraud use to have the steal the funds?
  2. Apart from that what exactly does the author mean by ‘withdrawing through the internet’? I assume that she can only mean that the funds were transferred to the fraudster’s bank account. In light of strict know your customer (KYC) practices of banks worldwide, the fraudsters identity should be known and it would only be a question of where to find him/her; and not the helpless resignation of her sentence “the money has not been recovered”
  3. Lastly, as a lawyer I know that her claim that the institution cannot be named for legal reasons is a load of bull crap. Exactly what legal reasons is she talking about? Defamation? Well, well if that’s the case then she should not fear as the number one defence against defamation is TRUTH. Unless of course the story is one BIG FAT LIE. Does Veronica even exist? The credibility of this story would be greatly assisted if the author could at the very least had some screen shots of the alleged email/website.
In brief the Veronica story does nothing to further the outrageous headline.

We move on to the second story of Paul Oduor, a Kenyan in the diaspora, who was ‘tricked’ into giving his credit card details which were subsequently used to sell drugs. This led to his arrest and him spending a lot of money on ‘bailing himself out’ and on his lawyer.

Let me pause here, as my heart beat settles with the fury of having had to pay for this miserable excuse for journalism.

The Veronica story at least had a chance, this on the other hand is totally unredeemable. Again I will break it point by point.

  1. First of all why did Paul send his credit card details by email? The author does not even attempt to answer this and leaves the reader to connect the dots between Paul winning a lottery and Paul sending his credit card details via email. In addition to this non sequitur by the author we are supposed to believe that Paul is really, really, really dumb that he would send his credit card details over email.
  2. If Paul sends the credit card details in order that he gets the $1 million dollar prize then he is just a greedy sucker who got what he deserved. Someone rightly said that you can’t con an honest man.
  3. On the claim that the credit card details were used to sell drugs, the author does not attempt to explain this. Anyone with a decent understanding of the internet knows that having a credit card alone does not make it possible to sell items on the internet. You need to have a merchant account (and a bank account) or PayPal account which will require you to provide more than just a credit card number.
  4. And not to belabor the point but exactly what Internet theft took place here? Paul gave his card details willingly (probably with the expectation that there would be some withdrawal against it). Paul doesn’t claim someone withdrew money from his card (which is what I expected when I started reading the Paul story). Unless the author means that the ‘lot of money’ Paul ended up paying to his lawyer qualifies as Internet theft.
I need to stop here for now as my temperature recedes before I proceed with my ventilation

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Closet Zain Users and the Vuka Phenomenon

What are the three most common things you expect to find in a Kenyan's wallet?
  1. National ID
  2. ATM Card
  3. Cash (if it's between 28th of previous month and 5th of new month).

I think that we can now add a fourth... a Zain sim card. The pink card from the Mombasa road fellows is now a must-have for any sophisticated mobile phone user (who probably are in the millions), even if it spendgs most time in the wallet.

For too long we have watched the rapid release of products from Celtel/Zain with the frustration of a teacher having to severally repeat a point to a dunderhead student. Uhuru tariff, Pamoja tariff, 6pm-6am 3 bob tariff, Unlimited talk time tariff, have all been excellent products in their own right, but not good enough to get a mass exodus from green to pink. However things may now be changing with the new Vuka tariff.

Vuka represents a brutal price war tactic on the part of Zain, intended to convert greens to pinks by making Zain the cheapest network to use, regardless of who you are calling. This price and Zain's superior network make the product a formidable challenger to Big Green's dominance. From the dramatic 1000% increase in the 073.... numbers now calling me, I think Zain is making inroads.

Should Safaricom be scared? At the moment I don't think so. As stated in my title, most of these new converts are closet users, meaning they only whip out the pink card when they are making the call, but keep their green card in the phone most of the time in order to receive calls. Because of this, most users will continue to give Big Green the bulk of their airtime shillings.

So does this means another wonderful Zain product dies an ignominious death?

It doesn't have to. This time, I'm going to jump in the pink corner and give Zain some unsolicited advice on two things they can do to make sure they finally get the market share they crave.

In giving this advice I've theorised that Zain's biggest problem is that Safaricom users, as much as they would like to vuka, fear that many people who are familiar with their Safcom number will be unable to reach them. So...

1. Instead of spending 1 billion shillings on advertising put that money and effort in lobbying for Mobile Number Portability (MNP) from CCK. MNP allows mobile phone users to retain their phone numbers when they move to another network (Even Safaricom acknowledges the risk to its earnings posed by MNP and warned subscribers to its IPO about it). Below is an extract from the prospectus under the headline "Risks relating to Company's Business and Industry"

In addition, the CCK has considered the implementation of mobile number portability (“MNP”) as a measure to reduce barriers to entry for new operators. Recently, the CCK announced that it does not plan to introduce MNP at this time. However, it is possible that it may do so in the future. MNP would permit the Company’s subscribers to change to another network operator
without having to change their telephone numbers.

CCK in the past has shown to be malleable in the face of constant pressure. Without a doubt, Celtel/Zain's hardest working employee was Claire Ruto, the former Corporate and regulatory affairs director who knew how to work the regulator (CCK) to Celtel's benefit. Its too bad they lost her to Safaricom because they can use someone like her for this task.

2. And hey, look if you can't get MNP to work, just use the 1 billion shillings to buy everyone a mobile phone, so that they don't have to keep their pink card in the wallet. With a good Chinese supplier you should be able to get 1-1.5 million phones, and tonnes of free publicity for the 'humanitarian' act. With time (hopefully) people will realize which is the better network and come out of the closet to Vuka completely.

Friday, October 03, 2008

Products I want to see from Safaricom, Zain, Orange

Ah, the uninhibited joy of wishful thinking. After Safaricom introduced Voice SMS - a product that I had dreamed of since I first used a mobile phone - I started thinking "hey, perhaps I can voice some of my other fanciful mobile phone product ideas, and someone may just take notice"? Well, here goes ... the following list are some of the next products I'd like to see from the trio of Safaricom, Zain and Orange.

  1. An SMS autoresponder. Everytime you get an SMS you can optionally send back a response like "Thanks for your SMS I'll get back to you", or "Sorry I'm not able to respond to your SMS right now but I'll do so as soon as I'm able" It would be quite useful, especially when your phone is off/out of reach/on divert.
  2. The ability to convert unused airtime back to cash (although I know this makes absolutely no financial sense to these companies, it would be really cool!)
  3. Free voicemail depositing.
  4. Mobile Number Porting, just let me use my Safaricom number on the network I prefer whether its Zain or Orange.
That's all I can think of now, feel free to add your own

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Stepping out of the closet... for Barack Obama

My first title was just "Stepping out of the closet" which I thought would be catchy and provocative. On further thought however, I decided to add the latter part, as there was also a danger that some might not read further than the title and proverbially judge a book by its cover. No offence intended to those who are in/out of the closet in the narrower sense of the word. I'm quite open-minded and I don't judge any one by how they like their eggs.

So back to the topic, yes, Barack Obama.  Finally writing that makes me question whether I shouldn't just retreat back into the closet. You see Obama is undeniably the biggest news story of 2008, a historic candidate for POTUS, an inspirational story of achievement, and a potential 'leader of the free world'. Let's not forget that as a Kenyan I share some heritage with him (sarcastically: heck I could be his cousin!). These circumstances should require... no ... demand that I spend a respectable amount of time talking, writing, and discussing Obama. 

However, when in presence of others I have done the exact opposite. I avoid blogging about, invoking, or referencing Obama, I extract myself from conversations which bring him up, I change the channel when he comes on TV; all in the pursuit of an outwardly nonchalance about him. However in my 'closet', I voraciously read news stories about him on NY Times, CNN, and occasionally, Fox News, I wake up at 1 am to watch Situation Room on CNN, I have read Dreams From My Father, I contemplate his story and wonder, if I could be as dedicated and inspirational in the pursuit of my dreams. 

Why the charade you may ask? 

Well upto this point, I have - like many others - fallen into the false belief that "whether he is elected as POTUS or not, it won't add any sufurias of ugali in my house" In short, it doesn't matter to me. 

I'm coming to doubt that notion, and I think it does matter to me and that's why I'm stepping out of my closet today, waving my Obama 08 flag proudly. I now believe that whether or not Obama is eventually elected, his quest for the most powerful office in the world has profoundly shaped the course I'll pursue to fulfill my own dreams. If I would be so corny as to use two proverbs in one post, his case is one where its the journey and not the destination that matters. Of course, if he is eventually elected, it will add more weight to his story's influence on millions of people, but as is, Obama has inspired me to see and believe that I can be much much more.

Monday, September 29, 2008

...I can't complain

Back in 2001 when I was still in college, had one pair of overworn jeans and was hustling this Nairobi for web design jobs I had the good fortune to be introduced to a senior executive of a leading Kenyan company who is now its very powerful CEO.  Needless to say, I was intimidated, and not just because of 'Bob' my erstwhile pair of trousers (which with its worn denim looked more of an attempt at covering my nudity rather than a rebelious 'geek culture' fashion statement); but because I didn't have a clue what I'd say and this executive was widely travelled and widely knowledgeable. 

Fortunately I realised that I really had nothing to lose and with that confidence I pitched my services as I walked with him (and his entourage of assistants) from his office to the basement car park. It wasn't easy; we met three different people (colleagues and building-mates) along the way each of whom wanted to 'seek his counsel' or just make pleasantaries. This meant that my pitch was broken  more than once and I had to fight to keep on message. I guess I can't blame those individuals though, I think they were just pandering as they might have known he was next in line for appointment as the CEO. One comment from one of those fellows however has remained with me since that time. It went something like this:

PANDERER: Hi Mr. Soon-to-be-CEO, how is business?

MR. SOON-TO-BE-CEO. Well, you know... I can't complain.

Now lets put it in perspective, this was the year 2001. All everybody was doing was complaining.No jobs. No business. Bad politics. Thuggery. Poor infrastructure. It was also tough for me, I was just coming of age and had a desire to take off like a rocket, but business was really hard to come by. I used to be so broke, that I actually became anemic from a daily diet of chips (which was the most affordable meal). 

With this mindset, I was amazed that there were people who 'can't complain'. Such was the significance of this short reply to the question "how is business?" that I decided it would become my own mantra. I started using it, every time impressed by its effectiveness. It sounded modest without sounding complacent,  it deftly sidestepped without coming off as rude, it could be used both when doing well and when doing badly. I employed it every time I was faced with that question, and was always pleased with the effect which resulted. 

Today that response is as relevant as it was in 2001. Times are tough right now, food is up, electricity, fuel, rent. People are hurting, businesses are hurting, employees are hurting, the unemployed are hurting. The glaring disparities that are resultant from capitalism can hide no longer. The rich get richer, the poor get poorer. People are getting fired from their jobs, evicted from their homes, having their electricity disconnected, leaving their cars at home, getting their property auctioned off. If we were to come up with a list of things we'd find that right now in Kenya (and probably in other places) there is plenty to complain about.

But should we complain?  Should we complain if we know that as bad as things are, they could be much much worse? Should we complain when we know that at the end of the day, we still have the rejuvenating beauty of tomorrow? Well, I'll choose not to complain. So if you meet me today, and ask how business is, you know what I'm gonna say "I can't complain." Have a non-complaining day won't you?

Incidentally Mr. Soon-To-Be CEO did give me a contract to develop his website, and that allowed me to finally rest Bob in peace.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

You read it here first

Well well well... once again here I am, the self-appointed critic and fan of the m-commerce industry in our beautiful Kenya. My fly on the wall has been working very hard and I have gotten further confirmation about the burial of Sokotole, but wait there's a surprise....

Yes, sokotele is as dead as a dodo but it is to be resurrected with a new name, new features who aims to become a formidable competitor to M-pesa. Very keen to see what those Zain Kuwaiti oil dollars are going to crank out. 

Watch this space for details.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Sokotele is DEAD!

A reliable fly on the wall says that this venture from Kencell/Celtel/Whatever is drawing its last breath. I guess they had it coming considering the business model they took. 

One of my favourite business books "An Innovator's Solution" says that the key to successful products is to find out what job consumers are trying to get done, and develop a product that gets that job done. Hate them or love them, thats what M-PESA did, and what Sokotele failed to do, and now they will be punished for it.

I believe Sokoteles biggest mistake was tying-in the service to K-Rep (although I hear that this was because the service was actually a K-Rep idea!), and making the service simply about money transfer instead of the more job-I'm-trying-to-get-done 'liquid money storage' service that M-PESA is.

Oh well, lets see if a rejuvenated Telkom can create some waves with their own moribund money-transfer service (any body know what its called) under an Orange brand.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Cheers and Jeers for M-PESA

What a juggernaut this Safaricom has become that I find myself unable to get myself excited to blog about anything else but Safaricom. I'll keep this short though:

First the cheers.

Anyone with a new Safaricom sim card would have noticed two additional menus under the M-PESA section: 'Buy Goods' and 'ATM Withdrawal'. Very exciting stuff, I can already see myself buying groceries at Tusky's with my phone and withdrawing cash from my M-PESA account at the ATM (24 hour availability of cash, the last frontier for M-PESA withdrawals!)

Now the Jeers

There is a service known as 'Pay Bill' that has been on the M-PESA section for a long time but is grossly under-exploited. The Pay Bill service is the key to e-commerce in Kenya and can operate similar to PayPal, but Safaricom are being a real pain in the a** in opening this service to merchants. I applied for this back in April and was asked for nearly 10 documents (company certificate of incorporation, pin documents, CR-12, VAT certificate etc.) which I managed to secure after almost 3 months. One more request however stumped me, Safaricom asked for a 'license that permits me to collect money, and not my trading license' WTF??? Does one need a license to sell goods. Safaricom really need to get their act together, otherwise someone is going to steal their thunder with a 3rd party service, maybe that will be me... hmmm.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Safaricom Bank

As one of the new owners of Safaricom (granted that I get at least some 100 shares after the massively oversubscribed IPO) I take a keen interest in its (Safaricom's) financial future. I'll try not to repeat what has probably been written, blogged, sms'ed, posted etc. a thousand times over in other fora and instead give my own two sumunis on what I believe lies in wait for this behemoth.

I'll warn you first that most of what I write here is speculative and should not form the basis of your investment decisions.

In my last post I mentioned I would talk about how Safaricom is transforming itself into a financial company. It seems that now everyone else is sitting up and taking notice. For anyone who followed the release of S'coms spectacular financial results released a couple of days ago you would have noted how their trumpted their M-PESA product yet at the same time tried to assuage banks that they were not in competition with them.

Give me a break!

Now that I will be attending AGMs (which might probably be online ;) since the estimated shareholders number 750K) I would really put to task the board if they did not convert themselves into a bank.

Picture the economic landscape and make your own conclusion:

1. M-PESA is fabulously successful, notching up over 2M users in a short period of 12 months, with another potential 8M in line to become users.
2. The margins for M-PESA are fantatistically high, e.g. when you are charged KSh. 30 for sending KSh. 100; Safaricom's only direct cost is the cost of the SMS which they send to the recepient and to you (about KSh. 1 cost). Since they have partnered with dealers to undertake the actual cash handling they need not worry about branch overheads.
3. Safaricom's Average Revenue Per User is dropping as they approach saturation in urban areas and extend their network to rural areas, and they will be looking to increase revenue through other products.
4. The GK has promised that calls will be KSh. 2/minute this time next year, which means that Safaricom will need another cash cow.
5. In March Business Daily reported that Safaricom was trying to extend M-PESA into UK but were restricted by a number of conditions, one of which was the need to have a banking licence.
6. Safaricom has set very high standards for itself both financially and innovatively, and the only direction its new shareholders will allow them to go is up.
7. Kenya is severely underbanked (about 10-15% of the population banks) and there exists a huge market for easy to access banking services (my house help already asks me to deposit her wages into her M-PESA account)
8. Competition from Telkom and Econet (and the resurgent Celtel) this year will mean need to create more revenue from elsewhere.

I'm sure that if I thought hard enough I can come up with plenty of other reasons why becoming a bank is a natural progression for this company.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Selling stuff online to Kenyans

You might not know this but my love of entrepreneurship is fuelled majorly by my love of computer programming. My first exposure to computers was in 1988 when I played shuffleboard on an Atari. Having been raised in the boondocks I was utterly spellbound with the concept of a video game. In 'shags' we hardly ever got toys from the shops; instead we would create our own toys using locally available material. For toy cars we twisted and shaped wire coat hangers and cut out rubber tires from old (and sometimes mom's new) bathroom slippers. For planes, we stuck a stalk of grass through a dried maize leaf and made our 'propellers' rotate by holding them out in front and running into the wind (incidentally this was my all-time favourite). For marbles we hunted for used and discarded bottle-tops (beer bottle-tops were coveted). In fact we had so many toys that our game time never felt inadequate. That was until I discovered video games.

Hard as I thought I didn't see how I could recreate the video game using local material. My wait however was not to be long. One year later I started my first computer class on an Apple Macintosh; and in barely less than one year I was already into BASIC programming. It didn't take long to discover that with BASIC I had the material to create video games. It was like a door had been opened to a whole new world for me. I stepped into this world and saw endless opportunity to create. Even at that age, I realised that the only thing that could hold me back was my creativity.

BRAKES....Now I'm getting excited so allow me to stop here and save 'My Life with a Computer' (soon to be written post) for another day; let me get back to topic. I find my love for start-ups and programming intricately linked; in fact most of the new products I have come up with involve some level of computer programming i.e. SoftLaw Citator, LawsofKenya.com, Genius Executive Centre.

One area of netpreneurship however has always eluded me and that is selling stuff over the Internet to Kenyans. The problem as I've seen it as been two-fold: settlement and delivery. However with the abundant variety of courier firms that have sprung up recently and with a new and easy way to transfer money I see a light at the end of the tunnel.

At the risk of giving away a perfectly good business idea let me say now that online purchases/settlement (Kenyanised for mobile phone use) is the next big thing. The next E-bay or Amazon or even Google is just waiting to be launched; and the platform will be driven by M-PESA, Safaricom's rapidly growing money-transfer service (note to self: remember to write post on how Safaricom is transforming into a financial services company).

I tried Sambaza for online purchases on LawsofKenya.com with some moderate success but its problem was always convertibility of airtime into cash. With M-PESA however, this is not a problem and I've already started experimenting by selling an e-book online. The response so far has been encouraging and I'm now working on tweaks to improve the buyers experience.

M-PESA is a runaway hit, and when a smart entrepreneur starts selling a basic commodity through M-PESA it will be the beginning of a revolution. So popular is M-PESA that it has totally eclipsed its rivals from Celtel and Telkom ($1,000 for anyone who knows what the competing products are called!) and I plan to be in smack in the middle of the gravy train.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

A solution for hawkers in Nairobi

Congratulations to the new Nairobi mayor and deputy mayor whoever they are. Let's hope they make something of their office over the next two or so years. However unless there is a radical overhaul of the Local Government Act, the man(woman) with the power to change the face of Nairobi remains the Town Clerk, currently one John Gakuo.

Today I have some unsolicited advice for Mr. Gakuo. I'm sure he is quite excited about the new Muthurwa market for hawkers recently setup by the Government at a cost of Sh. 1 billion plus ($14.3M). But I doubt that the market will achieve its primary goal, removing hawkers from the street. There are many reasons for this:

  1. Hawkers go where the market goes, and many buyers who give life to the street hawkers will not go to Muthurwa market
  2. Muthurwa market with its limited spaces is already grossly insufficient for the swelling numbers of hawkers
  3. The KSh. 100 daily entrance fee will appear prohibitively high for some hawkers vis-a-vis the expected fall in sales from relocating.
My solution came to me while considering new ways on marketing some training CDs for one of my companies Genius Forex. I considered whether hawking on the streets of CBD would be a viable distribution model. After studying hawkers and their buyers I saw that my K.Shs. 1,000 CDs might not make it in such a market which is dominated by fast moving 'luxury' items of between K.Shs. 20 and K.Shs 200.

These fast moving 'luxury' items (hereinafter FMLIs) are things bought on the whim which the buyer doesn't really need but buys because they are cheap enough. If the item bought does not satisfy the wants of the buyer there is a low risk of buyer disappointment since the item was relatively cheap. Such things include: clothes and shoes(almost entirely of the female kind), bootleg DVDs and CDs, beauty accessories and mobile phone accessories. Of course in addition to the FMLIs we have the fruits and vegetable hawkers, but I'll consider these separately.

The FMLIs are bought mainly by: the working class leaving their offices starting from 5 pm; and by evening students in the several Nairobi colleges/campuses leaving their classrooms around the same times. Most of these buyers will make impulse purchases from the hawkers as they walk towards their bus stages, which are concentrated between Globe Cinema Roundabout, River Road, Railways, and Tom Mboya Street or Kencom Bus Station. This explains why the most coveted hawking streets are Kimathi Street and Moi Avenue: still in the 'respectable' side of CBD yet near enough to the bus stages (so less opportunities for muggers and less distance to walk with luggage); and away from the hustle and bustle of matatus and their conductors.

Based on these observations I present the following solution. Instead of chasing hawkers to where they do not want to go, why can't Gakuo and co. regulate hawkers to where they want to be. This can be done in the following way.
  1. Designate as hawking zones, those streets with highest pedestrian traffic and lowest vehicular traffic. e.g. Kimathi Street.
  2. Designate 6 pm and 10 pm as operational times for the hawking zones
  3. Ban vehicular traffic in the hawking zones during operational times.
  4. Have foldable stalls available for daily rent from the city council by interested hawkers
  5. Ban any hawkers who do not have a city council stall.
  6. Require food vendors to get health certificates
  7. Install sufficient lighting in the hawking zones
  8. Use rent fees to make sure there are adequate facilities for waste disposal.
  9. Have a tourist corner where items targeted at tourists can be sold
I'm sure my rough solution could do with a lot of polishing up. Would be glad to hear your ideas, and perhaps we can forward it to Gakuo and see whether he takes a fancy in it.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Genius Heal Kenya Initiative

Yesterday was a proud day for me. Our business incubator Genius Executive Centre launched the Genius Heal Kenya Initiative. This initiative's main objective is to assist families displaced by the Kenyan crisis through prayer and material donation (foodstuffs, clothes, blankets, toys etc.). With over seventy entrepreneurs as members of the Centre we are confident that this initiative shall make a real and positive difference in the lives of fellow Kenyans.

We have partnered with the Karen branch of the Red Cross to distribute the donations to the displaced families. Any contribution you can make towards this initiative is welcome.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Because I love Kenya...

Because I love Kenya, because I love Kenyans and all its peoples, because I love peace, because I believe in dialogue, democracy, fairness, and justice, I am setting up a new blog http://amanikenya.blogspot.com as a platform for practical and peaceful solutions to our situation. A blog to capture the goodness and neighbourliness of Kenyans even in these times of turmoil. A blog that champions the cause of only one party - the party of the Kenyan people.

This is a blog about restoring peace, harmony and unity in Kenya during these times of unrest. While there are other important issues in Kenya arising from the December elections of 2007, peace remains the most important, most urgent, and most universal issue to all Kenyans.

Let us reject tribalism, hatred, bigotry, intolerance, intransigence, and incitement.

Let us embrace peace, dialogue, unity, prayer, compromise, and neighbourliness.

I know I cannot make this initiative a success on my own and I appeal to all who share my cause to join me as contributors on this blog.

Is Compromise a Four Letter Word?

It saddens me that my absence from blogging has not been broken by innovation or entrepreneurship - those things that I love so much to write about. But today I am forced to I write about something I love even more, and that is my country Kenya.

On December 26th 2007 I broke my vacation upcountry and drove two hundred kilometres in order to get to my polling station early the next morning to cast my vote. My enthusiasm to exercise my civic duty ensured that by 7:30 am on voting day I was done and was only to wait for the results.

Confident that my subscription to SMS election updates would keep me adequately informed of the results and with my phone on roaming I accepted an invitation to spend one week abroad at a friend's house. My vacation has since turned into an unplanned exile from my country as I watch in disbelief as Kenya disintegrates at an alarming pace.

I cannot stand by and watch as my beautiful Kenya is destroyed by the pride of two men. Kenya is bigger than both actors in this current crisis. The intransigence of these leaders will not endear supporters to them in the long run. The solution is compromise; making equitable concessions that bring them to a middle ground.

I preach compromise because it is the surest way to resolve conflict. I have had conflicts as well in business; I have had to deal several times with dissatisfied clients, unsatisfactory service/products from suppliers, angry creditors, mteja debtors, unreasonable landlords etc. and I have found that however bad any situation seems it can be resolved where there is compromise. I've had to compromise where I feel aggrieved and where I am perceived as the instigator of the conflict; and where necessary I have actively sought compromise from my antagonist.

I therefore make a passionate plea to Hon. Raila Odinga and Hon. Mwai Kibaki not to act like compromise is a dirty word, and instead to embrace it for the sake of millions of Kenyans.

I also challenge Hon. Kalonzo Musyoka to rise to the occasion. Kenyans are looking for a leader who will aggressively pursue the path of peace and reconciliation. A leader who will desist from empty rhetoric and instead act pragmatically to quell violence and sow harmony. Hon. Musyoka this is your opportunity to show us what you're made of; don't waste it.