When Kariuki Gathitu finished his “O” levels exams, his aspiration was to study in the United Kingdom – to follow the footsteps of his father who had studied at Dundee University; but due to unavoidable reasons, this was not the case. For a man who describes himself as “Man of Steel” for having done two “O” level exams in KCSE and GCSE and attained an “A” in both exams, settling at a local university was falling short of his colossal dreams. Few years down the line, fate would have it that he created one of the revolutionary products in the country and achieved global accolades in his contribution to the Fintech ecosystem in the region.
Kariuki Gathitu is the co-founder of Zege Technologies, a software development and consultancy firm that specializes in building and developing Fintech products not just in Africa but around the world. The firm which he built together with another co-founder, Stella Njoki, is behind the globally acclaimed Fintech application – M-Payer, a mobile and web application that enable businesses to manage income and expense transactions of the business on both mobile money and cash.
The tool developed in 2010 keeps track of the performance of various products and services while managing customer information.
1 in every 10 mobile money transactions in the world is done in Kenya, controlling 14.4 percent of global volumes putting Kenya as the foundation of mobile money according to Central Bank of Kenya and mobile industry lobby GSMA.
Zege Technologies is one of the many Fintech startups that capitalized on the rise of mobile money transactions in the country to build a thriving startup.
Born in Nairobi in the 1980s, Kariuki attended school Nairobi and Eldoret. And at one point in his life, he had to abruptly move to the U.K.
“My father was one of the founders of the ‘Mwakenya movement’ we had to run away from the country to U.K for fear of our lives during the early fights for multi-democracy. But then, we came back to Kenya in 1993 when multi-party was allowed.”
His father was the first computer science graduate in Kenya. And at the age of 7 years, he got his first computer. “I had an x386 computer. I was doing word perfect and lotus and playing Prince of Persia.”
And because he did not manage to attend his dream university – Manchester University, he settled at Kenyatta University after his “O” levels.
It was in the second year of his studies that Kariuki activated his entrepreneurial fervor by starting a web development business. The business was flourishing by the time he was in his fourth year.
“In as much as I was in school, I had to learn on my own how to apply the practical side of my studies. And this web development business provided that avenue.” His business reached a limit and remained stagnant for some time and started doing among other things like casting, photography and even music.
In this first job interview which was with Equity Bank, one of the largest banks in Kenya, he secured his first formal job.
“I was in a department called ABC and my work was to basically restore ATMs that had gone down; It was a very boring job because it was more of pressing a button or so and that was it.”
But because of his ambitious attitude, he decided to build an intranet for his sub-department to allow efficient communication through chats, and this attracted him attention and he was transferred to a more proactive department – the projects department. It was his stint at this department that spurred him into the limelight.
“I was able to do a couple of projects in addition to managing the bank’s E-banking system and deployed the 24 hour SMS system.”
It was then in 2010 that Kariuki Gathitu pioneered Equity’s bank integration of mobile money and banking by developing M-Kesho – the first mobile banking and savings platform in Kenya. M-Kesho was built on M-Pesa (the first mobile money platform in Africa) ‘rails.’ By then M-Pesa had over 9 million accounts and most of these account holders were unbanked. And this is the segment that Equity bank was targeting. M-Kesho basically allowed subscribers to have a bank account on their mobile phones while being able to save and borrow loans.
“By then, M-Pesa was the first mover in the mobile money market and so it was a challenge to integrate because it did not have any defined APIs,” Kariuki says. The development of M-Kesho inspired Kariuki to quit his job within the same year to start Zege Technologies with another partner.
It is through Zege Technologies that M-Payer was developed.
“Our initial target clients were banks, we wanted to integrate mobile money into their core central systems. But most banks were reluctant to adopt this new technology.”
Banks are very risk averse and when it did not work, we decide to change our initial strategy.”
The strategy here was to target SMEs, Microfinance Institutions, and Saccos as most did not have payment systems put in place. M-Payer works on web, mobile and can be integrated on e-commerce sites. 7 years down the line. M-Payer is currently processing over Kshs 2 billion worth of transactions.
Mr. Kariuki says that Zege has been built on bootstrapping by the founders and family. But they have also been able to win several cash prizes amounting to up to $100,000 including taking the second position on the Dragon Dens Pitching competition at the Global Forum in 2013 in South Africa pocketing $10,000. They have also participated and won the COMESA Young Innovators award in 2011.
Working on several side projects has also helped them with enough capital to run the company.
“We have developed other Fintech products for the mass market including a payment system for investments groups and Saccos dubbed ‘Pay For Us’ that allows members to send and collect money through their mobile phones.”
Zege has also developed other products for the dairy industry and point of sale.
Zege Technologies which specialized on Ruby On Rails as their programming language has currently 8 team members but on major projects, the team increases to 17.
“For now, we thrive best in small teams mainly because of skillsets quality constraints. Many developers built app and software but few understand how to productize. That’s why we are also developing mentorship avenues to increase our capacity.”
Zege has been around for the 7 years and their plans going forward is to focus on developing more Fintech products for the mass market now that M-Payer is now steady.
Here are some take-way lessons every aspiring entrepreneur can learn from Kariuki Gathitu journey:
What does it take to build a successful app from scratch?
You have talked about reducing the risks; does it mean you first build the prototype?
So, we have this process at Zege that we use when building products. Before we start coding, we verify the products as it will be with existing clients. That opens our eyes. And this works for everyone and not just tech products. We go through a 5-day sprint and focus on the main goal of this project and then built an actual prototype and present it to the customer. We then go through an interview with the focus group or the client. Once we get the feedback, we tweak it. This reduces the customer and market risks. As you get more experience, you start building products that are ready for the market.
You left Equity bank and founded Zege; what has been your driving point behind becoming an entrepreneur? Was it the money, independence, anything else?
Nothing, it is just character. I don’t like being in a position that I do not have control of, especially when it comes to solving situations. When I was at Equity bank, I had a lot of freedom by being on the projects team. The dream of being able to start and grow a business is something that was fiery in me. I never had the dream of working for someone. But I wanted to be able to contribute to the economy through innovation.
What are some of the things you have learned along the way, right from campus to employment to building your own company?
I think right now, there has been no easy and exciting time to start a business like now. The internet has made it a level playing field. I think the internet is the game changer and you can learn everything that you want on it without necessarily going to a formal school. [bctt tweet=”You don’t have to be original to make it in Africa; you just have to be relevant and unique to the market.” username=”gathitu “] There are so many needs that any budding entrepreneur can meet through a business and this is because the necessary infrastructure is already there.
The only thing you will need to do is to navigate the politics of our culture; both our commercial and social culture; trying to do business with integrity. Integrity is very thin in this country, in a group of 100 people; you will only find 3 people with integrity. It’s very important to do business right. You will lose on a few deals here and there but ultimately you will be one of the few people fronted to deliver anything.
What are some of the sacrifices have you had to make to be a successful entrepreneur?
Most of the sacrifices that I have made are in the form of deferred opportunities including working for Google and IBM. I chose to run this path. Entrepreneurship takes a lot out of you. But I have had a supporting team and family. I think my career kicked off after I “fired” Equity bank and I have never looked back.
What entrepreneurial tricks have you discovered to keep you focused and productive in your day-to-day busy schedule?
Learning to say no is something that I have mastered. This is something not many people know how to say. [bctt tweet=”Learning to say no and removing dead weight that drags you behind is a skill that every budding entrepreneur needs to master” username=”gathitu”]. Many new entrepreneurs are typical “yes” people because they are trying to attract everything and everyone.
What do you think of the tech ecosystem in Kenya?
The tech system is growing and there has been a whole globalization happening now. If you are an entrepreneur, you are not just competing with another entrepreneur in a local town but with large cities in around Africa and the world. I recently got a client from the U.S who had procured our services and he had the option of doing the same in Dubai, Romania, India, and Kenya; but he chose us.
Locally, we still have our own challenges. The quality is a bit low in terms of the critical mass. But things are working out, look at what’s happening with Andela who are developing human capital in the continent.
Africa is a bit different, we just need to put much focus on, Unlike in the U.S where you really have to come up with a really unique idea for you to stand out but here, everything is an issue that presents itself as a business idea; look at the roads, shopping, internet, so many issues that can be solved through entrepreneurship.