They say never waste a good crisis. And while COVID-19 has had a horrible, crippling effect on individuals and economies alike, if there’s one positive to the pandemic, perhaps it’s that it’s compelling and facilitating partnerships to serve the greater good; to bring people together to solve problems that have already existed, but that now have been brought even further to the fore. In this episode, we talk to entrepreneurs who have solved and are solving problems through crisis-induced collaboration.
This episode features:
‘Tokunboh Ishmael – Co-founder & Managing Director, Alitheia Capital
Ory Okolloh – formerly, Managing Director, Omidyar Network & Luminate Group – Africa; Co-founder, Ushahidi
Peter Njonjo – Co-founder & CEO, Twiga Foods
Angela Nzioki – CEO, Sokowatch Kenya
Sayo Folawiyo – Co-founder & CEO, Kandua
Justin Norman – Founder & Host, The Flip
Audio Production by ZVUK Studio
Distributed by Simplecast
Tokunboh [00:11]: I’ve been thinking about what should have been different now given that we went through that experience.
Justin [00:19]: That’s Tokunboh Ishmael, the Co-founder and Managing Partner of Alitheia Capital, who we heard from last episode.
Tokunboh [00:25]: Fortunately, because the situation was contained quite early and rapidly and dealt with quite well during the ebola time, there are some things that should have happened since that time, like our health ecosystem and infrastructure, which should have been better prepared for now.
Justin [00:49]: Having lived through the ebola crisis in West Africa a few years ago has Tokunboh left thinking about what role she as an investor can play in helping to build critical infrastructure that African countries are still lacking.
Tokunboh [00:59]: I feel that even as an investor, perhaps we should have even pushed more on developments in the health sector that would have prepared us better for now.
Justin [01:09]: While COVID-19 has had a horrible, crippling effect on individuals and economies alike, we must also ask ourselves how we can take advantage of the opportunity now to build the infrastructure required to mitigate the impact of events of this kind in the long term.
And so in this episode of The Flip, the second of our two-part series on building in crises, we talked to entrepreneurs who are helping to mitigate the impact of COVID-19 today while potentially also building solutions that will have a lasting impact for the future of the continent.
VO [01:42]: You’re listening to The Flip. The podcast exploring more contextually relevant stories from entrepreneurs around Africa.
Justin [01:52]: Welcome back to The Flip. I’m your host, Justin Norman. They say never waste a good crisis. And while entrepreneurs, foundations, multinationals and governments alike are focused on mitigating the impact of COVID-19 in the short term, there exists an opportunity to take advantage of; to build critical infrastructure and solve problems today that will have lasting impact on the long term. It’s a sentiment shared by Ory Okolloh in Kenya.
Ory [02:14]: I think it’s such a rare opportunity for us to question so many things, and such a rare opportunity for us to get things in place that would never have happened, or to move, including with government at a speed that previously people said things couldn’t happen.
Justin [02:36]: Ory’s sentiment on the opportunity in light of COVID-19 is born in part out of her past crisis experiences as one of the founders of Ushahidi, built in response to post-election violence in Kenya in 2008. And as you look at the work being done around COVID-19 today, I think it’s instructive to look back at the origins of Ushahidi, which leveraged nascent technology of the time to solve one specific problem and whose application and utility elsewhere in the world has allowed the organization to endure thirteen years after its founding.
Ory [03:03]: At the time, connectivity was not as great. Most people were not online, and the state was trying to limit how much information was coming out about what was happening as far as the post-election violence. And so I started capturing a lot of this on my blog, kind of live blogging.
Justin [03:22]: You can still check out her posts on her blog kenyanpundit.com.
Ory [03:25]: And then realize that so many people were leaving comments about what was happening. And so the immediate problem was how do you keep information flowing in a time when the traditional channels of keeping information flowing were either being censored or self-censoring.
Justin [03:45]: Much like our current crisis today Ory started by attempting to solve an immediate problem facing Kenya at that time and through her initial live blogging efforts Ushahidi was born.
Ory [03:55]: I think my immediate, immediate concern, and this is what where Ushahidi, it was called Ushahidi, which means testimony, was that the government would erase everything that had happened or pretend like nothing really happened, it was just a few clashes, which they’ve done before. So all these things were kind of burning or floating around in my head. And I think if you go back to my blog, you can even see the link where I was like, all right, it has to be a more efficient way to do this.
Justin [04:25]: And this is where technology allowed Ory and her new co-founders to report incidents at scale.
Ory [04:30]: Here’s an idea. What if we mapped all the reports that are coming in from citizens so we could at least have a view of the scale of what was happening and preserve this information for the future? And fairly quickly Erik Hersman got in touch with me and he had reached out to David Kobia. Juliana came on board a bit later on, but that was the genesis of it. You asked whether there was a plan. Not really. I think it was more let’s just build something. It took about nine days.
Justin [04:58]: So as the early days of Ushahidi involved quick action and support from volunteers around the world, soon thereafter, it became clear that there was a need for this kind of technology and incident reporting elsewhere on the continent as well.
Ory [05:08]: There was actually a very specific trigger, which was the xenophobic violence that broke out in South Africa in 2008. I was known to folks in the civil society space and tech space in South Africa, and they reached out to me and said, ‘Hey, you know, that thing that you did in Kenya? I think we need it here.’
Justin [05:30]: Which then raised the question of how to leverage this technology at scale.
Ory [05:34]: And then just in the process of being like, oh my God, do we need to build up a whole brand new site for them? How does this work? This doesn’t make sense. Why don’t we just open source it? And I think it was fairly realizing, oh, actually this could be used in so many other contexts. Initially it was organic, right? So people just reach us, ‘What about this? Do you think we can use it for that?’ Just being agnostic and saying, well, you know, let people use it how, in a way that makes more sense. I think a critical decision was deciding to go open source fairly early on, which then allowed for scale.
Justin [06:22]: In many ways, the story of Ushahidi is startup best practice – focus on solving one local, specific problem, and scale as the tech allows and demand requires. And as we fast forward back to today, there’s another collaboration that’s solving a specific local problem in Kenya.
Peter [06:37]: The whole idea around the Safe Hands is, how do we get necessary inputs into the hands of the people who need it most? How do we get hand sanitizer to the people out there in these neighborhoods? How do we get soap? How do we get water? How do we get surface disinfectants? How do we get masks? This is an initiative that is designed in a very bespoke way to solve a very immediate problem.
Justin [07:06]: That’s Peter Njonjo, the Co-founder and CEO of Twiga Foods, which is one of the startups that has come together with other startups, multi-nationals, foundations and community organizations in an amazing collaborative initiative called Safe Hands Kenya, whose goal, as Peter mentioned is to get essential services in the hands of the most at risk Kenyans during the COVID-19 period. Twiga Foods’ contribution is repurposing and leveraging their existing technology and logistics infrastructure.
Peter [07:30]: And as the orders come in, we have an AI-enabled platform where we’re able to look at who’s ordering, how far they are, what are their geographical coordinates, what’s the state of the road near where they are, and how do we then best organize to get product out to them? What happens is that with that information on routing we then load our vehicles and as they’re going about doing their normal deliveries, we can then drop the soap to the retailers. And I think that’s what I really like about the Safe Hands initiative, is that we’re leveraging our assets and getting this product to the most vulnerable at no cost.
Justin [08:10]: And what’s enabling Safe Hands to solve these immediate problems is the level of collaboration across a diverse set of stakeholders.
Angela [08:16]: I am particularly very excited about the Safe Hands project that we’re running. A number of essential service providers in the country came together to form this coalition of businesses. Not just businesses that are, you know, running essential services, but also community engagement organizations.
Justin [08:34]: That’s Angela Nzioki. The CEO of Sokowatch Kenya. Sokowatch, similarly, leverages technology and data to distribute FMCGs to informal retailers in Kenya, and through the Safe Hands project are also distributing essential products via their existing distribution network.
Angela [08:49]: A lot of the collaborators within the project are not just partners. There’s some that are also competitors, which for me has become – it’s one of those situations where you all stand and look back and think, what is more important, being able to serve people in the communities or us fighting each other?
Justin [09:06]: Twiga Foods is one of those competitors, but it’s clear for both Angela and Peter that having their respective companies participate in the Safe Hands initiative is not only meaningful in terms of solving the problem at hand, it’s also opening up additional collaboration and partnership opportunities that have positive implications for the long term objectives of mission-driven companies like Sokowatch and Twiga.
Peter [09:25]: Just to give you an example, we started having a conversation with Jumia around Safe Hands. And we started looking at, you know, what capabilities do you have? What if we’re able to get food to people’s homes at a low cost, will that help around this COVID period? And as a result of the conversations that we started in Safe Hands, we’ve now launched a joint initiative to actually do a direct to homes distribution of food, fresh food to be specific, something that was not very mainstream a few weeks ago. So out of this type of loose collaboration, I think a lot of innovation will be born out of the members collaborating and coming together.
Justin [10:08]: And Sokowatch seems to be having a similar experience.
Angela [10:10]: So if I was to speak from a partnership perspective, this has opened up a way for all of us to have better relationships. And then when I look at other different partners, including competitors, it’s given us all an opportunity to think, there’s a very big market in terms of underserved people, and how can we each play our different roles to make sure that no one is left behind? And I hope that beyond COVID-19 we can still be able to utilize some of the partnerships we’ve been able to create, to keep serving the same communities and the same shops, and being able to give them access to not just essential goods and services, but anything else that can be able to help them in themselves, either from a business perspective or from a life perspective.
Justin [10:58]: For Angela and Sokowatch, this underscores their mission and the opportunity to become a full-stack partner for their retailers.
Angela [11:04]: I think what has jumped out to us as the likely thing that we really, really need to think about is how do we ensure sustainability for our customers? What are some of the other value-added services that we can build and deploy to our existing shops to keep them in existence a lot longer? So as opposed to just having a transactional relationship with our shops, how else do we become, do we truly become the number one partner for retail shops? So I would say that’s one of the biggest opportunities that this pandemic has made us think about. It’s something we’re already thinking about, but I would say COVID-19 has accelerated us having to put things and measures in place.
Justin [11:50]: As Sokowatch endeavors to get deeper into the lives of their customers, through things like digital financial services, their strategy has been reinforced.
Angela [11:57]: And I would say though, the other thing COVID has done for us is it’s just proven that we have the right model. We have the right, the winning model. I mean, these are the things that we’re already thinking about, but the situation has just made it more apparent that most businesses cannot be able to survive long term without getting access to more than just the fast moving consumer goods.
Justin [12:18]: And for Peter and Twiga it’s also a reminder of the purpose their company is serving.
Peter [12:22]: This is a period where companies need to go back to their purpose. Why do you exist? And if I look at the reason why Twiga exists, our reason is to leverage technology to provide higher quality, lower-cost food consumers in urban cities. And being true to that mission or being true to that purpose means that at the end of this period, you know, once we look at post-COVID, it will be great if people spend a significantly lower amount of money on food that they are doing than they’re doing today.
Justin [13:01]: If there’s one positive to the pandemic, perhaps it’s that it’s compelling and facilitating partnerships to serve the greater good and to bring people together to solve problems that have already existed, but that now have been brought even further to the fore. But to bring back Ory Okolloh, maybe it’s also an opportunity to take things even one step further.
Ory [13:19]: Let’s take Safe Hands, for instance. What if it was about just more than making sure everyone has sanitizer and, you know, the water tanks are going around and saying, actually, can we just take this opportunity now that we have everybody’s attention to actually fix Nairobi’s water problem? Because it’s solvable and there are some resources. We know what needs to be done, so why don’t we just do that in parallel and make sure that people have water, period, not just during COVID. And so I think that it will be so sad if we’re not grabbing onto those, it’d be like a waste of a crisis if we’re not grabbing those opportunities to actually build infrastructure that should have been there to begin with. And that is now possible either because the attention is there, the resources are there, the mindshare is there.
Justin [14:09]: And as startups like Sokowatch and Twiga Foods take a first principles approach to solving problems and building products and services for their customers, we have the opportunity to leverage technology and innovation to solve glaring problems on the continent. There’s lessons in what and how people in Kenya are building, and opportunity in the increased will, resources, and attention of all the stakeholders who wish to see a better African future. And that’s not to say we haven’t been building, but the challenge remains and the opportunity is here.
That’s what my b-mic Sayo and I sat down to talk about.
Justin [14:42]: The problems that needs to be solved today and that a problem that Ushahidi solved 10 years ago and a problem that Safe Hands Kenya is solving today – like those problems existed, right? It’s not anything new because of COVID-19. But are they more readily solvable right now because there’s an increased interest and attention and resources? How can we leverage the opportunity to actually solve a problem that already existed, but that now is just more readily solvable?
Sayo [15:20]: But doesn’t that negate the argument that the problems could have been solved before COVID?
Justin [15:27]: No, that’s the point is that there’s more leverage points now. They could have been solved, but they were that much more difficult to solve at that point because there was less opportunities and attention and resources to leverage.
Sayo [15:39]: Okay. And.
Justin [15:41]: Don’t waste the opportunity.
Sayo [15:43]: Okay. sure. But I mean, I guess I feel that way about everything, right?
Justin [15:51]: And maybe that’s the, maybe that’s the point, right? In some respects, how people are going about solving problems for COVID-19 right now is like no different than, you know, the episode that we did in Season One talking about blended finance and accessing grants and like tapping into different sorts of resources. Like it’s really the same as, as it always was. Maybe that’s the entire point, is that like the problems exist, they’ve existed. It’s almost like the earlier newsletter where Marc Andreessen wrote about, you know, it’s time to build. And I was like, but haven’t we been building like, what’s different now? You know?
Sayo [16:29]: Yeah. It sounds kind of like that, to be honest. Notwithstanding the fact that it’s always the same, I do think there is something interesting, I actually found myself quite inspired by Ushahidi as well, and Safe Hands just in the way that people just kind of got together and solved problems.
Justin [16:56]: And competitors especially.
Sayo [16:58]: And competitors especially. I found that awesome. I love that. I generally hold the view that, especially in some markets, there’s some markets where competition is necessary, good for everybody and the market’s big enough. But I think especially with people solving quite big or important, rather, problems for SMEs and things like that, there’s a disturbing lack of collaboration, in my personal opinion, for people who I believe generally everyone’s heart is in the right place. And I think that there’s a cool thing that’s obviously in terms of a prompt or in terms of the conditions or whatever you call them, the leverage points or whatever that maybe might illuminate, in inverted commas, that new normal where we can kind of see, because the conditions have made that collaboration necessary, and differences put to the side and all that stuff, the benefits might usher in a more contextual and sophisticated way of collaborating. Or what do you call it? Coopertition. What’s the word when you compete but collaborate at the same time?
Justin [18:15]: I don’t know if that’s a word.
Sayo [18:17]: I might have made it up. There’s definitely a word for it, but that might’ve made that word up.
Justin [18:20]: Yeah, and to that point, maybe I underestimated the importance of Ushahidi being open source and that being a key to their success and Safe Hands Kenya adopting this very open, community-driven initiative as well. And like, a byproduct of the problem being bigger than any one individual entity is that it compels an openness and an open ecosystem and things that are very dear to technology at its core and open source movements and things like that. And, you know, maybe that’s the best way to go about solving problems, COVID or not COVID related, is the fact that these entities who are in a position to solve problems are more, more compelled now than ever before to actually collaborate. You know, you can still be competitive and collaborate at the same time.
Sayo [19:18]: Yeah. Coopertition.
Justin [19:19]: Is that actually?
Sayo [19:20]: It is. I Googled it. But, yeah, that, that was something that I was buoyed by and that really kind of inspired me and made me want to jump into the Kenyan ecosystem and get involved. I think as entrepreneurs as well, you get into it to solve problems and I don’t know necessarily how much you get into it to beat your competition. Do you know what I mean? Like that just happens to be often a byproduct of solving the problem in the way you see fit. I think the elevation of the problem-solution set as most important was something that I was definitely quite inspired by in this episode.
VO [20:04]: Thanks for listening to this episode of The Flip. Did you know that we’ve also launched a weekly newsletter? Subscribe at theflip.africa/newsletter for thoughtful analysis on the work being done by the entrepreneurs you hear here on our show – those that are building a future inspired by Africa. That’s theflip.africa/newsletter. And as always, we’d love for you to join the conversation on social media, as well. You can find us @theflipafrica. Thanks again for listening, and we’ll see you next time.