Samuel Gikandi and Bilha Ndirangu
he story of Africa’s Talking is one of constant iteration. Samuel Gikandi started the company with Eston Kimani in 2010, a few years after the pair graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Their first concept was a message board where people could share positive stories about Africa, and after several iterations and concept pivots, Samuel and Eston decided to create an API platform for companies in Kenya and across Africa. Bilha Ndirangu, an MIT classmate, joined as COO in 2014. She helped Samuel and Eston drive the engineering-led company toward operational excellence and later became one of the company’s CEOs. Africa’s Talking has reached markets all over Africa and has launched AT Labs, an education resource for developers.
When you were starting out with Africa’s Talking, what were some of your early challenges?
Sam: The first obvious challenge was funding. From 2010 to 2014, Eston and I spent a lot of our own money to keep the business going. There was very little venture activity at that time. Eston had just sold a business and I was working another job full-time so we could keep our operations going. We weren’t married to any particular vision or product, we just wanted to find something that customers were willing to pay for. We settled on APIs in 2014, when it became clear that this product had legs and could actually scale. We really kept it lean for the first several years and when we got our Series A, we started to scale the business up and get things like AT Labs off the ground. The last few years have been a trial by fire in terms of going from managing a profitable, self-funded business where you can pivot on a dime, to a proper pan-African operation where everything takes time. It’s a different ballpark but we’ve managed to retain aspects of our culture that are important to us.
What’s been your best decision as a founder?
Sam: It’s always been about being open-minded and bringing on good people. For example, bringing in someone like Bilha, who could actually run the business, was a great decision. You have to put people first and be very consistent about how you approach people. What’s been valuable to me has always been being genuine and authentic, no matter what environment I’m in.
Bilha: The best decision I made was to help run this business. At some point we were looking at our numbers and I think we had 80 percent of the technical systems of tech startups in Kenya on our platform. This was great because it allowed us to build a business that was focused on developers. I imagine that if we had built a business in a different market where the developer ecosystem was not as mature as in Kenya, it’s likely we would have ended up in a more enterprise- or retail-based business. We would have had to build products that were focused on that kind of market. We really got to bet on the African developer and believe in the value we could create for African developers.
Can you share memorable successes and mistakes in turning this idea into a profitable business model?
Sam: For me, it’s just the fact that we’ve been very iterative in our approach. We never settled on any one thing until we found what actually made money. It’s always that process of discovery and seeing what your customers are willing to pay for, and then really making sure the engineering is taken care of, so that you can actually build these products and continue iterating. Maybe because we’re engineers, we think about how we can analyze the current problem, what’s the next thing and how we can keep developing a business model that can take us there.
How has it been to create a company in Nairobi? Can you tell us more about the ecosystem and how it’s developed?
Bilha: We’re all from Kenya, so building here has its advantages. We understand innate things about the market that someone else may not necessarily understand right away. We also all studied in the US, so we see things from both sides. When I joined the space, things were really different. If you talk to earlier founders, they’ll tell you how hard it was for them to raise funding and you wouldn’t believe what was on the term sheets back then. Now we have VC funds that are Africa-focused or even based in Nairobi. There is a cliché in the way people see Nairobi – they see us as the Silicon Savanna – but in many ways it’s actually true. We have a really strong ecosystem here. In terms of developers, we probably rank third or fourth on the continent, so you have a lot of interesting ideas and businesses here. In terms of the amount of funding that’s coming in, Kenya ranks quite highly and that definitely helps when you’re building a tech company. Overall, it’s been a good ecosystem to build in. It’s been great to watch it grow, and Africa’s Talking is a big part of the story in terms of showing what can be built but also providing the ecosystem with connectivity, communication and payment APIs to help it build.
You have to understand your environment and listen to your customers because the reality could be quite different from your expectation.
What advice do you have for young entrepreneurs?
Sam: I think the landscape has changed, but the fundamentals are still the same. The world is a lot flatter now so things like access to funding and talent at some level have been flattened too. There’s still the basic thing of not getting too married to what you think is the problem. For example, if you come to Kenya with an idea around credit cards and remittance that you’ve seen work really well in Mexico and believe it’s going to take off here, you should be prepared to pivot if you discover the credit card penetration is low or something like that. Maybe do mobile money remittance instead. You have to understand your environment and listen to your customers because the reality could be quite different from your expectation. Be able to iterate and do it quickly. Maybe once you crack one problem and it’s not a million-dollar problem, find the underlying problem and solve that instead. That’s actually what happened to us. We were building businesses and then the “a-ha moment” came when we started building for people who were building for businesses – that was the scalable problem to solve.
Bilha: I think people will build and hope they can raise funding but don’t actually have a proven solution. There’s a lot of funding coming to our ecosystem, but it’s really important to build a business that has the potential to be profitable. You do have the option of being venture-focused and burning cash before you exit or get to profitability, but with the ecosystem we have, it’s important that entrepreneurs build businesses that are resilient and can withstand a lack of cash injection. You should strive to get to a place where you can easily pivot to profitability in an environment where, quite frankly, funding is less available.
How have you built your team culture?
Sam: Before I started this company, I was never anyone’s boss. I think I took a quite radical view on how I expected people to be managed. We’ve really tried to use a self-management style – we tend to delegate decision-making to people who are actually in the frontline roles, such as those who build products and deal with customers. We look for people who are self-driven and comfortable in an environment that’s structured to give you freedom to take something and run with it. If you’re a brilliant engineer, there should be no politics stopping you. It should be easy for you to create value. This is the kind of environment we really have been pushing for. When COVID-19 came and everyone was forced to scatter and work from home, we really didn’t skip a beat. The company has been running smoothly, which is very validating to how we build our teams and what kinds of people we hire.
How do you stay disciplined in your roles?
Sam: I’ve tried to stay grounded in the sense that I still actively build products and I mix with the engineers. I’ve been writing code for the company ever since I started it. I think that gives me perspective and reminds me that my job is to serve the customer. It’s important to me that I don’t lose touch with that. We can all be more on the front lines and empowering that side of the business. It’s humbling and makes you realize what actually matters when it comes to creating value.
Bilha: I try to look beyond a person’s skill set and recognize the people working for us as people. I want to help them grow and improve and I keep this in the back of my mind when I’m dealing with employees and colleagues. It’s important to constantly remember that they are fellow human beings and it’s a privilege to work with them. It’s grounding to think about what a person will learn and how they will grow working with us. There’s always the question of how talent is evolving and how to ensure that you’re providing an environment where the best talent wants to work and stay put.
What are your plans for the future and what challenges lie ahead?
Bilha: As a tech company, there’s always a question around the relevance of your technology. Things change so rapidly. The stuff you build needs to add value and you need to constantly stay at the top of the technology stack and provide solutions. I think our ability to maintain relevance in the ecosystem and stay grounded on what we’ve already built and what’s already providing value is important, as well as keeping an eye on where things are going and how we’re going to be relevant years from now. We want to have our talent giving their very best in terms of ideas and effort. It’s also exciting to be in Africa and it’s important to us that we’re part of the story in a positive way and that we’re benefitting the ecosystem and continent.
What are your top work essentials?
Both: A laptop with an internet connection.
At what age did you found your company?
What’s your most-used app?
Bilha: LinkedIn, Slack
What’s the most valuable piece of advice you’ve been given?
Sam: Always find a focus for the business.
Bilha: Find the right people and keep them.
What’s your greatest skill?
Both: Organization building and development.