Ready to scale

My last post http://asemota.posterous.com/failure-to-scale took me down memory lane a bit. I remember a lot of attempts we made to diversify our client base, some were successful for a while and others were embarrassing failures. With hindsight we actually saw certain trends coming but took the wrong measures to address them. The most embarrassing instance for me was when we just came to Lagos in 2000 and had no office.  We were operating from my uncle’s house in Ikoyi at the time and I made the mistake of giving the house number to a client (there were no GSM cell phones in Nigeria by 2000) who called and got the cook.

I remember a good friend and MBA classmate from UNIBEN telling me that our business model was flawed because we had only one client. He said “you only have one source of income and it is not regular”. He was right because our cash cycle was tied to the palm nut harvest cycle as our client’s main product was oil palm. We also had the added risk of processing payroll monthly for thousands of angry plantation workers with dangerous implements. Anytime there was a software or hardware issue we had a life and death situation on our hands as riots often occurred for the flimsiest excuses. We learned from that site how to provide 99.999% hardware availability and almost zero software downtime partly because it was our only source of income and partly because we were afraid for our lives.

We recognized this fundamental problem with the business model and we thought the best option was to diversify. We created a bespoke 3rd party software implementation and training business for Microsoft products, a hardware business and a website development company. Remember the Y2K bug and the fear drummed into people in the last part of the 90’s? We capitalized on all that but all we really had, was an opportunistic business model based on hype which was not sustainable. This was the very reason why reality hit us in 2000 when like the rest of the world; the corporates in Africa also realized that Y2K was a big excuse to sell new stuff. We somehow managed to have all these three new business units being run very profitably for a while as we moved from “the BQ” into our own offices in a prestigious and upscale part of GRA in Benin. We moved from there to Awolowo Road in Ikoyi which was a high street location in Lagos as we felt location was important for business. Maybe it was then but now it is totally irrelevant now that the Internet and cell phones have fundamentally changed the way we do business.

The first casualty was the hardware sales business was which was killed by Otigba computer village traders and their adverts in the dailies. Competition was fierce and they had to reach the customer directly and cut out middlemen. We were basically the middlemen as most entrepreneurs in the Nigerian technology business were. A seller’s market quickly became a buyer’s market because the information was readily available to end users and corporates via the newspapers. You could hardly justify your margins with service and it became clear that we either had to become traders, own our hardware brands or leave the business. We left.

I still think not much has changed with the hardware market in Nigeria as it is all ruled by Otigba the Lagos computer village coined Nigeria’s “Best Buy” by Sarah Lacy in one of her articles on Nigeria http://techcrunch.com/2011/05/06/strolling-through-nigerias-best-buy-a-photo-essay/  

The adverts no longer have prices on them but the middlemen still exist. I had a very interesting conversation recently about Otigba and the future of the retail hardware business in Nigeria with my friend Chinedu Oguegbu the founder of www.smartbuy.com.ng. Chinedu is one of the most dynamic young men in the Nigerian tech space doing great things without great fuss. This guy is a Harvard trained Otigba trader with a world class portal providing service that Best Buy or Amazon would envy in a difficult terrain like Nigeria. I wish Sarah Lacy had met him too.

Smartbuy still does good business by cash on delivery “in spite of” our payment and trust constraints. It seemed to me that he had solved the logistics riddle and Smartbuy could easily evolve to “Smart Delivery” for all other merchants.  Our discussion was centered on how he can scale his model and disrupt the traditional commodity style of hardware distribution in favor of getting directly to the base. This commodity model exists because the distribution model predominant in Nigeria is the Ibo trader’s value chain. That value chain exists in Alaba, Otigba and all markets. The commodities may change but the players and the model remain the same. Jason Njoku used the Internet to bring Nollywood to the world with a disruptive new model for content distribution; Chinedu wants to also do the same for Otigba but this is harder as you cannot “stream laptops” over the Internet.

The Internet is changing the hardware game again just the same way newspapers changed the game last decade. He does business already all over Nigeria and opened offices in Abuja and Port Harcourt. From the discussion it became apparent that that payment is one part of the equation, sustaining good service and meeting the needs of the customers you really don’t know is the biggest challenge. Data is the game changer when it comes to scaling this type of business in Nigeria, it is not just payments. Data to the merchant and information to the customer is what will separate the winners from the losers. You need to be able to have demographic information, purchase preference and a whole lot of stuff which the cell phone companies may have at their disposal but are either not aware of or legally cannot provide. You can advertise but how do you know who to target? How exactly do you create a market from a jungle?? We know there are 150 Million+ people but the model for hardware sales has been “pull” and Chinedu wants to change that to “Push”.

He is a rare breed of Nigerian entrepreneur as he prefers to discuss and share ideas openly rather than let them die in stealth. He understands the market and he understands collaboration and the power of many. He even provides sub-domains on Smartbuy for others to showcase their products. He realizes that he is building a platform instead of a closed business and he knows the benefits that will come from being the arena where the battles are fought rather than be a gladiator. He has solved the logistics riddle, he is also adding Smartfix, a repair service similar to Geek Squad in Best Buy to his portfolio and that has made me believe that he really gets it.  I asked Saheed Adepoju the founder of one of the new Nigerian tablets recently why his products were not yet sold at Otigba or Smartbuy?

The market is at Otigba and not at Silverbird or Genesis, Smartbuy is succeeding where giants like Kalahari have failed. If he succeeds in fully solving the riddle in Nigeria, Smartbuy may be the next big thing in Africa and Chinedu is ready to scale.

Failure to Scale

I am a movie addict and a very bad one. I can spend whole days detaching myself from the world and immersed in "movie land". I find that life imitates art in many ways and I draw a lot of inspiration from movies in many ways. One movie that inspired me to move away from Nigeria and my "rich uncle's" safety umbrella was "Failure to Launch" by Sarah Jessica Parker and Matthew McConaughey.: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0427229/

I had not heard of that term before the movie came out in 2006 when most of our MSc Class decided to go on a social outing at the end of our course.  I will forever thank my classmate Raj Singh for choosing that movie (even though we initially complained it was a chick flick) over other testosterone powered options. It made me re-think my personal situation and the comfort zones we had settled into as a company. It allowed me to make far reaching decisions about life and business.

Human beings love comfort zones and businesses are not any different. I was lucky to read Andy Groove's book "Only the Paranoid Survives" and "Who moved my cheese" by Spencer Johnson also in 2006 and became brutally honest with myself in assessing if we were approaching the flat end of a sigmoid curve or eating stale and fast depleting cheese. We used both texts as reference material at our first team strategy session and I still recommend them to any emerging market entrepreneur.

2000 was a very harsh year for us. It was harsh because we ultimately had to face the reality of firing everyone in the company and pressing the reset button. This decision could have been avoided and we probably would have been a much larger entity if we had learned one fundamental thing: Startups exist to scale and not be successful in comfort zones.

Startups need to find new zones of discomfort and conquer them. If you don’t find new cheese, one day you will wake up to find out that the cheese is gone. That was the case of Hyperswift which was a subsidiary of Swifta, our company founded by Salil Narayanan and myself while we were both still in school at The University of Benin.

In the 1990's Before the Internet and "app era" We developed an ERP solution named "MicroFarm" around source code from a core accounting solution provided to us by SBT software which was later acquired by ACCPAC. Hyperswift had one of the best team of developers in the region and the legacy was established by one of the best developers on the face of the earth - Salil. As you can guess from the name he is Indian by origin but African by birth. He moved to South Africa then later Australia leaving us "Nigerians" to run the shop.  You can guess what we did after that.

We had over a dozen developers building and supporting this product for the largest agro-allied company in Nigeria at that time. This we were able to do because the CEO of that company an English man I will forever have respect and admiration for, decided it was time to let the local software ecosystem grow. He felt it was best to give local software developers a chance to succeed and it was a phenomenal opportunity but we did not see clearly what we had. We could have used this as a base to scale to similar organizations all over Africa but instead we remained there for 7 years customizing the product out of existence.

We grew alright; we grew fat sitting on one site. We did not realize that real growth meant scale and in year 2000 the agro based company was acquired by a larger European group who explored the possibility of scaling our software beyond Nigeria to their other holdings. It never happened and instead they decided to use a solution from India because the Indians not only had the resources to scale and support their products beyond borders, they also had developed the product to be flexible enough to be adapted to multiple scenarios. We lacked the experience and the resources to do that then and didnt even know where to start.

By 2000 we did a sharp pivot into providing consulting and professional services to 3rd party ERP providers like SAP. Swifta swallowed up Hyperswift and we decided to team up with a group of Nigerians under a JV for the first public sector ERP implementation. That implementation was largely successful until the "Nigerian factor" set in and we were forced to separate Swifta from the JV and did another pivot into providing services for transaction platforms.

We still made the same mistake yet again with professional services and did not scale beyond Nigeria until I saw that movie and read the books in 2006. I realized that our problem was the love for familiar comfort zones, we were not moving fast enough or taking enough risks to allow us grow, all classic symptoms of "failure to scale". We decided to kill our "failure to scale" and do something about it. Today we have subsidiaries, partners and clients in a number of African countries.

Scaling for an African technology company does not mean growing big and fat in one spot but lean and fast around the continent. We learned that from the South African partners we were working with and actively helping to scale around the continent.  The Indians and the South Africans were first and probably are the only ones still to see clearly the vast potential of Africa as a market. Sagcious, the South African company Salil left to become lead developer and a shareholder in, scaled their product SFI to 47 sites in 17 countries with only a small team.They had huge clients like Barclays and Standard Bank.

We partnered with them and learned well and fast, today we are in a number of African countries and our goal is to be in all 53 (or 54) by 2015. We have also found out an important secret, gaining knowledge and experience from diverse locations means we can work more effectively at solving local problems without “reinventing the wheel” each time.

I hear a lot of talk about the constraints in Africa, lack of funding, lack of infrastructure etc... My belief is that those are just excuses and we will always find justification not to scale beyond our comfort zone. Someone from Nairobi mentioned something poignant at the last MobileWeb East Africa event. He said that "Africa is diverse and people are different but one thing we all share is common problems". If you can solve a problem in one part of Africa, chances are that you will be able to solve many more all-around if you know how to scale and reach those areas.

I was inspired recently by the story of the Malawian boy William Kamkwamba  http://williamkamkwamba.typepad.com/  who built a windmill to provide electricity and I still don’t understand why that his solution has also not scaled across Africa. We have power issues all over Africa and someone collaborating with him maybe in Nigeria or Kenya could have created something even better.

There are many Africans that inspire me and one of them is Paul Onwuanibe the founder of Landmark. His TED Video was the inspiration behind our move to setup Afrinnova  (http://afrinnova.com/) our African focused unique startup accelerator . We decided change the game again and to do more than just provide professional services but actively collaborate with "partners" all over Africa who want to scale across the continent with the first startup under this model: “Afrinnova Services”.   Paul says you can’t do tomorrow’s work in yesterday’s office and “Afrinnova Services” believes you also can’t build tomorrow’s Africa with yesterday’s business models. The key is to solve common problems all across the continent and ignore the colonial boundaries. Afrinnova Services has started the process of collaboration with other African startup clusters to make this possible.

On the local ERP front, to prove conclusively that we made blunders, some of the people we let go in 2000 moved on to companies like SystemSpecs who got help from South African partners to standardize and scale their product “HumanManager” . I don’t know how well they are doing now but I recall a major Oil Servicing company getting rid of their JD Edwards solution and replacing it with Human Manager. I also hope they learned to scale beyond Nigeria.

I have decided to share our story and others as my own contribution to young technology entrepreneurs and software startups all over Africa. The best way to grow fast and quickly in Africa is to scale across boundaries. If you are not scaling you are dying. We made Africa our primary focus for now but like the Indians we also hope one day to scale beyond the continent. According to Daniel Stern of HiveColab in Uganda "A wise man learns from his own experience but a wiser man learns from the experience of others". Learn from us now and kill the "failure to scale" syndrome.

"The Merchant as Change Agent"...and no I don't mean coins or spare change

Neil Ahlsten of Google Africa is one man I have been trying to have a sit-down with for a long time now. He gave a talk at a Mobile Money event (MMT Dubai) last year and his observations on the changes in the African (or emerging market) payment landscape were profound.

Neil mentioned that while all players in the mobile financial ecosystem (MNOs, mobile money technology vendors, agents, merchants etc) were busy thinking that they were competing against themselves they miss the whole point. They are not competing against themselves but against cash.

He highlighted the problem with confusion in the market place caused by the different players and the need for interoperability and simplicity to effectively fight cash. Neil asked who the next Visa or Mastercard of Mobile Payments would be? He probably asked too soon as Visa and Mastercard are now present in the game as themselves with significant acquisitions and strategic alliances.

Ben Lyon of KopoKopo put it even more clearly in his presentation at the recent AITEC COMESA banking event. Ben basically stated that “while cash was a frictionless mechanism of transaction for the customer it was a huge burden for the merchant” Especially for those merchants in the service industry where there is no inventory.

At the same MMT event where Neil gave his talk, another speaker from Pakistan correctly noted that Mobile Banking and Mobile Payment initiatives are largely “Behavioural Change” initiatives and it is important for solution providers and MNOs to realize that when attempting to build ecosystems.

Recently I started reading the book titled “Difussion of Innovation” by Everett M Rogers and it is a book I recommend for anyone involved in a project that involves behavioural change, which is in fact all projects.  The book has the ability to alter thought processes the same way books from Don Tapsott and Malcolm Gladwell have done to me.

As someone who has been on all sides of the payments process, the first chapter of the book for me was full of epiphanies and wow! moments

Two observations stand out. First is

“An important factor regarding the adoption rate of innovation is its compatibility with the values, beliefs and past experiences of individuals in the social system”

The second is

“Uncertainty is the degree to which a number of alternatives are perceived with respect to the occurrence of an event and the relative probability of these alternatives”…..

…”Information is a means of reducing uncertainty. Information is a difference in matter-energy that affects uncertainty in a situation where choice exists among a set of alternatives (Rogers and Kincaid, 1981)”

He goes on to mention a fundamental premise that a lot of payment providers or players fail to realize:

Diffusion (of innovation) is a kind of social change, defined as the process by which alteration occurs in the structure and function of a social system.

Diffusion of the innovation called MPESA occurred at the rate it did simply because there was overwhelming social acceptance as it fit into the culture of remitting money home in Kenya. Someone from Malawi said the remittance model will not work in Malawi because the relatives in the cities expect those in the villages to come out and actually ask for the money (or  in other words grovel) because it was the socially accepted norm.

One can argue that the adoption rate of MPESA was quick because of the compatibility with the existing social system, norms and practices in Kenya. These will sometimes differ from other parts of Africa or the emerging market and makes it certain that you cannot use a cookie cutter approach for mobile payment deployments.

The similarities with Kenya made MTN Mobile Money also a runaway success in Uganda with 19% of all household expenditure in the country currently made via MobileMoney. Uganda is also even more interesting because the statistics mentioned “household expenditure” which includes purchases and basic expenditure and not remittances alone.

I am sometimes baffled when new initiatives first focus on remittances in MobileMoney without looking at the existing social system and also the existing commerce ecosystem. In a place like Nigeria I don’t think you are not likely to succeed if you ignore the existing commodity distribution hierarchy of merchants. I have seen projects almost collapse because they tried to bypass this hierarchy and existing value chain.

A lot of the marketing for MobileMoney in Uganda started out at bars where the merchants also quickly saw the benefit of reducing the pain of cash. These merchants at the level of basic needs of the individuals in a society are the best change agents in the fight against cash.

Bill payment is another feature a lot of m-payment operators like to implement first but when I look at the society in most emerging markets, they are mostly prepaid economies without well developed subscription models. It therefore surprises me when scheme operators first go for the larger retail merchants without a significant footprint and also content subscription companies focusing largely on the middle class. It is a game of numbers and the numbers are at the bottom of the pyramid

Education was one area all operators were totally blind to until small innovative companies started integrating MobileMoney platforms with schools and examination bodies. Education is a fundamental need while the need to watch movies is not. Education also has a significant footprint as well. The schools can also be viewed as merchants and also significant change agents in the fight against cash.

I agree with Ben Lyon that cash is still currently the transaction mechanism of choice for customers because it currently has the least friction and acceptance is ubiquitous. In Nigeria however, if you look at the case of how debit cards and ATMs were diffused, the banks played a huge role in making both the cards and transaction points available to their customers. This ubiquity and the realization by the customer of the convenience it provided also led to a cultural shift where people no longer carried large amounts of personal cash.

Merchant transactions in Nigeria however are still overwhelmingly on a cash basis. It is not unusual for ATMs at a mall to run out of cash when there are POS machines in every store in the mall. People will still go and collect cash to pay when they can actually swipe their cards. I asked a couple of people why that was the case and the issue of “trust” came up as well as the fact that the POS machines were always unreliable.

The increased cases of fraud with the magnetic stripe based ATM cards almost reversed the faith in cards and ATMs completely until Visa and Mastercard came in strong into the market with more secure pin and chip cards. The merchant POS infrastructure is still largely unreliable and non-existent and it will be an uphill task to implement the current “cash lite” initiative driven by the Nigerian Central Bank without doing a lot of work at the merchant level.

The answer to the cash problem lies with the merchants. All the merchant wants is to do business in a simple and effective way with the least amount of friction as possible. Even if it means having 8 POS machines in one location or having several cash management arrangements with banks, they just want the headache of cash to go away.

If you look at current card payment mechanisms there are 5 parties in a transaction, the card association, the issuer, the acquirer, the merchant and the customer. The card association guarantees interoperability and acceptance because of “trust”. All other parties are present and don’t mind investing in the process or parting with fees because of that “trust”.

Cash on the other hand has only 2 parties, the merchant and the customer. Cash itself provides its own trust and interoperability because it can be exchanged very easily.

For Mobile Payments I feel that if we can get to a stage where we reduce it to a trusted transaction between merchant and customer without all other parties like agents, aggregators, operators etc not getting in the way, there will be phenomenal progress made with Mobile Money 2.0 initiatives.

We need to focus on the merchants at the point of basic need and use them not only as agents in the sense of mobile payments ecosystems but also as agents of change. The merchant can provide information about alternatives and reduce confusion and consequently make change happen. The merchant is the most valuable change agent in the fight against cash.

Merchant points need to become not only “Points of sale” but also “Points of Service”, a friend who works at Craft Silicon in Kenya coined that. The mobile wallet and traditional POS systems have to be able to cater for all these different services and also provide a mechanism the merchant uses as an agent of change rather than another burden. The merchant needs to be able to serve the customer and run his business better because of the technology provided and become an evangelist. Square is making significant progress with that in America already. They have also simplified the transaction mechanism and fees for the merchant as well.

If you look at the picture above taken at Serena Hotel in Nairobi you will realize that African payment providers actually help to confuse merchants and increase their pain with unbridled competition instead of looking for ways to simplify the experience for both the merchant and customer.

The winner of the game against cash is the one makes all this confusion go away and makes the process as frictionless as possible while providing maximum value to the customer and merchant alike. It requires some thinking along the lines of value innovation rather than maximization of profit. The big players like Visa, Mastercard and Google can still be arbiters in this arena but the provider closest to the merchant and customer has the greatest opportunity to make this happen. They need someone who really understands the pain and wants to make it go away.

Don Tapscott predicted the success of companies like Google because they make the transaction cost for searching for knowledge simple for the user and adverts simple for the advertiser. The same must happen for payments.

The Billion Dollar question is who will that entity be? Will it be the banks? Credit unions or technology providers? Will it be a hybrid of all those entities collaborating for the good of all?

I like what Kopokopo and others are doing but this is just the beginning of Mobile Money 2.0. There is a lot more to be done and Afrinnova will be more than happy to be a partner in this transformative process with innovative African companies who want to make cash a relic.

Independence Day

I wrote a long post on previously using Posterous about my feelings after hearing of the grenade attack in Kenya and the recent bomb blast at St Finbarr's Jos, Nigeria. I lost it because Posterous has no autosave feature for web posts. It now seems very clear that Microsoft Word is the best and most reliable editor for blog posts.

I decided not to go through the pain of trying to recollect what I wrote and just repost a personal post I wrote after a similar incident last year. I had not wanted to bring my personal religious beliefs here but only my thoughts on tech and business but perhaps busioness can learn a thing or two from religion as well.

Here is the previous post below:

I was waiting for the 3rd Mass at 10:30am outside Christ The King Catholic church Accra when I decided to check the Twitter app on my Blackberry.

First it started as a rumor that people were asking others to confirm. After several tweets it was now confirmed that a bomb had exploded inside a Catholic Church at Madalla near Abuja in Nigeria killing several people.

I went through the rest of the mass absent-minded only pausing to listen to the beautiful sermon about a newlywed couple that suffered an unfortunate accident, which left the beautiful wife deformed.

To show his love and to calm his wife’s fears that he would leave her, the husband amputated one of his hands so they can be the same. This story was used to illustrate what Christ had to suffer to show his love for us.

The story was very touching and brought the entire basis for my faith to focus, an immortal Christ suffering mortality to show his love for us.

My mind kept on going to Madalla and poor simple people who had paid the ultimate sacrifice because they came to celebrate and be thankful because of this gift of eternal love.

I try hard not to be bitter because our faith is built on love but it is very difficult. I imagine young children looking forward all year to Christmas celebrations and the meal at home after Mass but instead got pain or death.

I look around me and see happy people obviously unaware of the bitterness that has suddenly been brought to the lives of many just less than two hours away.
I remember the sermon and again I get another meaning from it. Christ also became like us to show that he will never leave us even in times when things are the most difficult.

My heart goes to the families in Madalla as I also remember this quote from the movie “Independence Day”:

“Perhaps it's fate that today is the Fourth of July, and you will once again be fighting for our freedom. Not from tyranny, oppression, or persecution… but from annihilation. We're fighting for our right to live. To exist. And should we win the day, the Fourth of July will no longer be known as an American holiday, but as the day when the world declared in one voice: We will not go quietly into the night! We will not vanish without a fight! We're going to live on! We're going to survive! Today we celebrate our Independence Day!”

For us it is fate that it happened on December 25th, which is also the Independence Day for all Christians. We are going to live on and will forever continue to celebrate our Independence Day.

Mobile Money as a Startup

I read a post recently on the GSMA for the unbanked blog titled 

Mobile money technology: not easy, but why? - 

http://mmublog.org/blog/mobile-money-technology-not-easy-but-why/

My response to this post is below and it ideally should be a blog post of its own and that is why I have put it here:

This is a very interesting post and the perspectives provided in the comments even much more interesting. It is good to hear the views of competing providers, customers and those who are actually in the arena and are in charge of getting mobile money platforms to actually work.

As consultants working closely with several MNOs and a number of partners on a lot of Mobile Transactions projects, the diversity of scenarios we have seen and the reality of what is possible and not makes me have more respect everyday for consultants and all players in the arena working tirelessly 24/7/365 on one of the most transformative initiative the emerging markets has experienced.

I always boast to people that in terms of having actual experience in the field deploying, implementing features and providing day-to-day operational support, we probably have put in more hours in the last 10 years than any single entity in the world. I think based on our experience I have earned some credit to address the areas you stated in the post and provide some suggestions.

My thinking is that each MobileMoney project should be treated as a startup in their own right, the principles governing all other startups from consumer web to enterprise must apply. Startups can be on their own or also be initiatives within larger organizations like the tax applications project at Intuit or Mpesa with Safaricom and MobileMoney within MTN.

Startups are initiatives that exist under conditions of extreme uncertainty but they exist to scale while providing maximum value to the customers and stakeholders.

There is no cookie-cutter remedy or “one-ring” to rule them all, as requirements or situations will always differ. One product or MNO cannot rule them all but same principles can govern them all. Those principles should be the principles enshrined in the “Lean Startup Movement” made popular by Eric Ries

My thoughts on the post are below -

Throughput and reliability:

I think as elusive as this may seem, both can be achieved but it requires painstaking attention to detail and teamwork. There are demands from all parties and expectations that have to be managed as you go along but the key is carrying everyone along and making the goals very clear from the onset.

This is never an easy project and nobody from vendors to internal MNO champions should ever give the impression that the goals will be achieved overnight just by putting a bit of code in place. As I always tell everyone this is not at all like “installing Microsoft office on your computer”. Sadly that perception is prevalent.

Customization:

This is where “Lean thinking” is very important.

 

According to the Lean Enterprise Institute:

 

“The core idea behind lean thinking is to maximize customer value while minimizing waste. Simply, lean means creating more value for customers with fewer resources. A lean organization understands customer value and focuses its key processes to continuously increase it. The ultimate goal is to provide perfect value to the customer through a perfect value creation process that has zero waste”

 

Understanding and applying lean principles on both sides (vendor and operator) will reduce as much waste of effort as possible.

From what I have seen, sometimes the operators really want to start small and get the low hanging fruit but when they get into the arena the realities are different. Problems from user inertia over previous assumptions to competitive pressure or even high demand can change the scope very quickly. This is where Change Management and Project Management are very vital but Lean Principles and methodology even more of an imperative.

It is important to know that having all the features in the world on a platform will not guarantee widespread uptake and from the vendor perspective a product can also die from over customization.

A well-managed project must anticipate all contingencies while having a robust roadmap. Managing multiple versions of a product or agile development is the current reality of the world we live in today and as much as we may wish it to be simple it will not be. What is most important is knowing the features that will provide the most value to your customers and implement them first while putting all the others on a realistic roadmap.

Iterations or pivots will occur as with any startup but they must be as a result of strategic imperatives and not whims or fears.

Planning for peak is costly:

This is the very reason why Mobile Money or other Mobile Transactions initiatives must be treated as startups because they exist under conditions of extreme uncertainty. Everything is speculative with a startup and it is a risky venture but it exists to conquer uncertainty and conquer it must.

Startups will not survive if they don’t scale and scaling should be anticipated and ability to cope with large transaction volumes must be in the DNA. If that capability to scale quickly is not in the roadmap then the project was doomed to fail or experience all the classic signs we see in most implementations today.

Dependencies:

This is where the argument of airtime and money is important.

A long time ago (about 10 years) we worked on an airtime vending and transfer project with several dependencies. We had a platform that would rollback a transaction if any connection to the dependencies failed and really struggled with 3rd party dependencies. This airtime-vending project was built way ahead of its time with money transactions in mind because it was part of the bigger vision of one of the most visionary CIOs I have ever met and one of the most reliable vendors in the market. Airtime and money can be treated the same way if the vision is bigger.

A lot of the issues with other dependencies have to do with people. Sometimes it is with change control management or issues with philosophy. The philosophy of supporting airtime transactions is sometimes very different from supporting mobile wallet/payments transactions in most operators but it really shouldn’t be.

With airtime an individual or at most two suffers effect of downtime but for wallets or payments this is magnified, as there are more players in the value chain. Losing ability to transact with your wallet is like losing a physical wallet with everything inside.

It is important to have this at the back of the mind when planning for support and response times to downtime. Watertight SLA’s with vendors or 3rd party service providers are an absolute necessity but most importantly pro-active support is crucial. Downtime must be anticipated even before they occur and all possibilities must be considered from sunspots to anchors cutting off submarine cables.

I have seen projects almost die because the SMSC was not stable and messages were not delivered, prepaid platform not optimized or even simple things like DBA and network connectivity issues. There are many reasons for a project to go wrong but the most important philosophy to have on projects like mobile money is “leave no dependency behind”. That is our philosophy at Swifta.

One way to go is to have as many dedicated resources as possible this a very costly option but inevitable eventually when you reach a certain level of transactions but it is best to plan ahead.  Another step is to have a better understanding of why those dependencies don’t come to the party and take pro-active measures. That is the principle behind “leave no dependency behind”. It requires a lot of coordination and team effort to pull this off but it is possible.

People:

This is where we have excelled. We realized from experience with supporting airtime platforms the importance of the “team” over the “individual”. A well-balanced team with diverse experience and expertise supporting a platform is in exponential magnitudes more valuable than having a few people managing a platform that is expected to scale.

Smart vendors and operators know their limitations and know when to outsource the implementation and support for projects when it comes to scaling across geographical boundaries or within a large market with potential to scale.

I remember a very memorable quote from Hannes Van Rensburg the CEO of Fundamo, he said “sometimes some operators who implement Mobile Money platforms are like airlines buying maybe the latest Airbus A380 and putting a classifieds advert on Craigslist looking for pilots or walking on the street and looking for who can fly the plane”

We have a team of 31 consultants dedicated to mobile transactions projects implementation and support and that is what we do and don’t sell products. We have also been able to ensure that the entire team works on each and every project as one entity. We also have a philosophy we believe in, we leave no dependency behind and we have never been part of any failed project.

The problem with lists and awards in the African tech space

I could not stop laughing after I read this post by Loy Okezie on his personal blog

http://www.loyokezie.com/2012/02/28/cnn-gaffe-african-tech-voices-list/

This was in response to the recent CNN post on 10 African voices to follow on Twitter

http://edition.cnn.com/interactive/2012/02/world/interactive.africa.tech/

This vindicates my position on spurious lists and awards in the African tech space. Because CNN, Forbes etc said it, does it mean that it must be true? Why encourage and propagate it?? It is poetic justice that they are now also doing this to the King of lists himself Techloy!! :)

Ndubuisi Ekekwe highlighted a dangerous trend in African technology in his post on Harvard Business Review which I totally agreed with

http://blogs.hbr.org/cs/2012/01/information_technologys_danger.html

Joe Karimi in his reply to my comment on the same post stated the now obvious in Kenya

"Many of these apps do not have mass appeal beyond the tech conferences and forums that have become a staple for the Nairobi IT crowd. Therefore their success in the 'real world' is quite hard to determine"

It seems a lot of startups or personalities in the tech space now exist to be on lists or to simply to make enough noise so that they get an award then disappear into oblivion. 

The real questions we should ask are: What are these lists really meant to achieve?? What metrics are these lists based on? Are they subjective or really objective?? Do they actually help those featured to gain recognition and respect?? Do they help African startups to raise money?? Why are they not talking about those that have gained serious financial support for their ideas???


Granted that we need our African voices heard and we need visibility but there are things foreign journalists get away with in Africa that they could not try elsewhere. We are all too happy when they praise a few of us for taking baby steps when there are far more serious innovators quietly solving problems.

I had this exact conversation last week with an incubator in Kenya who were concerned that because of the awards one of their porfolio companies won, they are no longer focussing on solving problems but basking in the limelight.

I think Erik Hersman (@whiteafrican) is more African than anyone who ever doubts his "Africanness". He is one person I truly admire and for the first time I think CNN or any other have a list I somewhat believe in

Guys, lets have a moratorium on tech schoolyard contests and tech beauty pageants because they distract us from the serious work of building a credible African tech ecosystem.

Let us forget the lists and those who are serious should fold up their sleeves and get back to work. Tech in Africa is serious business because we are making lives better one startup at a time

The future of the enterprise, global innovation and brands?

"Not even a perfect selection process could bring together the best talent in the world within a single company"

I read this first sentence from an inflight magazine on the plane from Orly to Barcelona today:

......I added,....not all the money in the world also. 

Collective knowledge is always greater and it is best aggregated through free-will and removal of barriers. That has been the story of the open-source movement and gives insight to the future of global innovation.

Future institutions must realize that the employee/employer model of building institutions is fast becoming as extinct as the carrot and stick model of motivation in management.

Community, social dynamics and experience are far more important factors in motivating people to lend effort to a cause than money or job security. The individual is a repository of "knowledge capital" in which the enterprise is an investor. Each individual can be likened to an enterprise and each person can also create a new enterprise aggregating several other repositories. 

Enabling knowledge to spread virally throughout the enterprise allows this kind of exponential growth to occur the same way we have seen with the open source movement.

As we move rapidly towards service and experience based business models of ensuring customer patronage and loyalty, charity must start from home. The institutions of the future must also live what they sell.

Models like HCL's "Employee First Customers Second"  will become the norm rather than the exception. Disruption must start from within the enterprise before it can as a an entity become an agent of disruption in the marketplace.

A friend +Seyi Taylor wrote a blog post musing about sustainability recently and after thinking it through, I remembered the basis of Nassim Nicholas Talebs book "Black Swan". I realized that the only way to create sustainable institutions is to continuously become the disruptor rather than the disrupted. Disruption can only be woven into the fabric of the organization by fostering a culture of disruption through free flow of knowledge. Black Swan events will occur less often if we "build robustness against negative ones that occur and be able to exploit positive ones"

Silos should disappear and each person should become not only an entrepreneur but an enterprise. The name we call ourselves as a company should become a means to identify with a community rather than a brand which the owner of livestock uses to identify their property.

I think I now realize where the word "brand" comes from now. The future enterprise will not be based on protecting the "brand" but on sustainable innovation

Why Ghana is the best location for an African Startup Accelerator

Someone close to me always uses this term to describe Ghana, "the closest country to the heart of the earth" She describes her country this way because it is the closest country to intersection of the Greenwich Meridian and the Equator.

Leaving the nationalistic sentiments aside, the facts all show that Ghana is not only one of the world's fastest growing economies, it is one of the very best in Africa.

 http://blogs.worldbank.org/africacan/node/2036

Ghana's growth rate has been spectacular. Ghana's economy has grown from 7% in 2010 to 13% in 2011. The country is stable politically and probably has the best Internet and power infrastructure in Sub-Saharan Africa. You can compare more statistics between Ghana and others in Africa here 

http://web.worldbank.org/WBSITE/EXTERNAL/COUNTRIES/AFRICAEXT/GHANAEXTN/0,,men...

All of the above points to one thing, it is a great place to start a business and an even better place in Africa for startups to thrive. In spite of the glaring facts stated above, it still surprises me that after Sarah Lacy featured me in her TechCrunch article last year:

 http://techcrunch.com/2011/05/13/yes-there-are-tech-startups-in-nigeria-here-... 

I still keep getting asked the question why Ghana instead of Nigeria? The decision to have a startup based in Ghana instead of Nigeria to me is quite obvious. 

 Startups are like babies and they need a nurturing environment to survive and move to the next stage. Nigeria and most other African countries do not have the right environment to make this happen easily.

It is very easy to blame 419 and other cosmetic factors... especially as was alluded to in another recent post by Sarah Lacy on Jason Njoku the founder of Iroko a Nigerian Internet Startup. 

http://pandodaily.com/2012/02/21/why-this-nigerian-movie-mogul-ditched-youtube/

In the post she (Sarah Lacy) mentioned that he (Jason) could “do what many Nigerian entrepreneurs do, and hide his digital location, saying he was headquartered in Ghana”...but didn't.  

That statement made my jaw drop in astonishment as it shows that there is not yet proper understanding of the importance of Ghana to the African Startup Ecosystem.

Saying that "Hiding digital location" is the main reason why African Internet entrepreneurs specifically Nigerian move to Ghana is not actually providing accurate reasons why Nigerian entrepreneurs move to another country just 45 minutes away.

Ghana has the same IP issues as Nigeria and is also frequently blacklisted because there are fraudsters there as well. The real reasons why African internet entrepreneurs move to Ghana is because it is cheaper and simpler to do serious business there period.

For example, we pay $120 monthly for 20Mb Bandwidth in Ghana while in Nigeria for lower bandwidth a similar startup funded from South Africa pays $4500 for 8Mb. That startup also has to build a huge mast that cost them another $6,000 to get line of sight to their ISP.

There is constant power in Ghana while the same startup in Nigeria has to buy their own power generator and fuel which is now very expensive and led to riots earlier this year because of subsidies that were removed.

When you innovate and create new markets, nobody wants to know how you overcame your constraints, they only see results.

I never even knew all of these issues Jason was having with Youtube etc until you mentioned it. Moving to Ghana is our own way of overcoming those constraints as the market is really Africa and not just Nigeria. I keep saying it proudly that Africa has provided me more opportunities than any single country and that is why I see myself first as an African before I belong to any country Nigeria or Ghana.

For us we have realized that the advantages we have discovered in Ghana can be used to the benefit of more than a few entrepreneurs and that is why we decided to start our own 100% African Startup Accelerator – Afrinnova (www.afrinnova.com) in Accra. We will be using Ghana’s central location and favorable conditions to act as a hub for the entire continent.

Afrinnova will be helping African startups with innovative ideas to develop Africa. Those ideas also have to be scalable beyond one country. For now we are starting with startups focused on payments and transactions systems and the goal is to provide depth to the ecosystem, which will subsequently act as a catalyst for other startups.

Even Jason’s company will not grow in Africa without payments even if the infrastructure problems are solved. We have built up an impressive portfolio of startups and mentors from all over Africa.

Our invitation to Sarah Lacy is still open to actually visit Ghana.