The Good and Ugly of M-shwari

Posted on 3 min read

November 2012, Safaricom and CBA launched a mobile platform that allowed M-PESA users to save and borrow money on their phone. At that time, I was preparing for the end of semester exams and I did not give the product much thought. Unknown to me, the product would come in handy just a few days later.


The end of a semester is usually a gloomy time. You have run out of money because money comes at the beginning of the semester, and exams are coming and they come every semester. This is a rite that is repeated every semester for most students. It was the same thing in November 2012.

A friend of mine who had made it as an academic writer approached me to help him withdraw some dollars from Skrill (or was it PayPal?). I had a foreign currency account, and using my account would help him save money by finding a favorable Forex Exchange service. We agreed that he would send me the money so that I withdraw on his behalf.

Due to time constrains, I would only be able to visit the bank after exams. The process was do the last paper, hand in any pending assignments (the power of last minute), clear from the hostel, then go to the bank to withdraw the cash on our way home.

By the time the last day came, we had exhausted all the money we had. We only had enough fare to get one person to the bank. I went to the bank and queued for three hours since it was the last weekend to Christmas. The shocker came when I realized that the International money transfer was not complete and my account read $ 1.62.

I needed to go home the same day. I only needed about 600 bob to get home. I turned to M-Shwari.

M-Shwari Saves the Day

I had heard about a new product called M-shwari. A quick Google search showed that one needed to save some money with M-Shwari in order to qualify for a loan. I asked my friend to send me 50 bob on M-PESA which I deposited into Mshwari and instantly qualified for a loan of 1200 bob. I took the loan quickly, withdrew from M-PESA and in a few minutes, I was on my way home.

Mshwari had saved the day.

My friend needed at least KShs 2000 to get home, thus M-Shwari would not help.


Several years later, I do not think that M-Shwari is that great an invention. Several other digital lenders came into the Kenyan market and have caused untold misery to people. All of them have one thing in common; they are quick to lend, at a very interest. They also came into a market where people were not well versed with how credit reference bureaus works. This resulted in thousands of people getting listed there until the Central Bank of Kenya came to the rescue.

I used M-Shwari several other times after that debut, until it dawned on me that it was just a loan given at an interest of 90% pa. It was for convenience, but most of the time it was irresponsible borrowing. I stopped using those services.

Unfortunately, the poorer you are, the more you are likely to use this M-Shwari and other digital loan services. The poor end up getting credit at a very high interest rate. This is very appealing to the lenders.

I also do not get it why they insist on the same interest rate for everybody even those who have a good repayment record. If their lending is driven on data, they should be able to leverage on this to give cheaper loans to members in good standing as opposed to a flat rate for everybody.


KeNIC Adjusts Domain Registration and Renewal Prices

Posted on 1 min read

The .ke domain registry KeNIC has moved to harmonize the registration and renewal price of the third level .ke (such as .co.ke) and the second level .ke domain extensions.

The prices which affect Kenyan domain registrars will see the .ke going for KShs 2500 and the .co.ke domain at KShs 700 exclusive of VAT. This will be for both the renewal and the registration of the said domain names.

Previously, the third level .co.ke domain was sold to domain registrars in Kenya for KShs 560 and renewed at Khs 1000 (exclusive of VAT), making it less competitive to the .com domain which renews at a lower price. The second level .ke domain was offered to registrars at Kshs 5000 and renewed at the same price.

The new prices affect domain registrars in Kenya and could see an increase in uptake of the .ke domains, if these benefits are passed on to domain registrants.

Currently, there are over 102,000 domains registered with KeNIC, with 92% of those being the .co.ke domains.


Rural Electrification Challenges in Kenya

Posted on 3 min read

Rural electrification was hailed as a game changer in improving the livelihoods of people in rural areas. In Kenya, the government has run several programs supported by the World Bank, the African Development Bank and others, resulting in hundreds of thousands getting connected to the National Grid.

This was the Last Mile Connectivity program that targeted to increase the national connectivity rate to 70%.


But the net effect in Kenya has not been very flowery in some places. As it turned out, many people who got connected to the grid had very limited uses for electricity. Typically, they would need a 5 Watt LED bulb and one socket from where they would charge their phones. Such a household would end up spending less than $1 of electricity per month. To put this into perspective, the cost of connecting one household is $350.

Considering that they would top up some meaningful amount of money for a start, these households would then go for a long time without any other top up. This is why Kenya Power was complaining about many non vending meters and the last mile project named as one of the reasons the company’s value has been declining. In 2010, Kenya Power’s shares were trading at KShs 25. Today they average at KShs 2.00. 

The irony of the big attempts to connect some rural places with almost zero consumption is that there are still many people who can afford to pay for their own connection who are not getting connected. These have the capacity to consume power, but getting connected is a problem.

A Case Study

Getting an electricity connection can be a problem even if you can afford. In my rural home, we tried to get connected for many years but the cost was in the tune of millions. We tried to come together as a group but that still would not work.

After about ten years, Kenya Power came and quickly offered to connect every home for only KShs 1,160. Reason? The World Bank had offered a grant to connect people living in slums, but they were not interested. Most of them relied on illegal connections and a formal connection would just increased the cost form them.

Since there was money to spend, Kenya Power simply connected people who had been willing to pay KShs 35,000 for only Kshs 1160.

Could it have been different?

Achieving a universal access to electricity would be a great thing. It would open up more opportunities especially for the marginalized communities.

However, electricity on its own may not add value to people who are in extreme cases of poverty. As some experts have pointed, electricity is not like water where you turn on and immediately you find uses for what flows. 

For people to use electricity, there needs to be some form of economic empowerment. Electricity is supposed to help power their day to day activities. This could be keeping their food fresh, cooking, entertainment, powering chaff cutters or even powering a brooder for chicks.

If it is about lighting, there better be something for people to do with the light. And in any case, there can be alternative cheaper ways of powering a 5W bulb in a single roomed house near the equator.

The focus should be on economic development. Electricity will follow on demand. Alternatively, a mix of grid and off-grid solutions can be explored to avoid using a hammer to kill a fly.


Making E-Commerce Work

Posted on 2 min read

I need an Ecommerce website where I can sell my products that I often market via WhatsApp and Instagram.

This is the question I have encountered many times from people who want to sell their products online, and want to set up an ecommerce website. The easiest solution is to design for them a website, train them on how to add products, set up a payment method and get them started. However, this method rarely works.

Setting up a website, integrating payments and training someone on how to use it is an expensive task. Yet, for most starters, they are not looking forward to selling tons of goods for a start, and the labor-intensive work of adding and managing stock is not something they enjoy.

Besides, the biggest hurdle comes to delivery. Getting products delivered to a buyer in Kenya is hard, or extremely expensive. There are few logistics firms that can deliver conveniently and at an affordable cost for small volumes of goods.

A Different Approach

To solve all those problems, a Kenyan startup, Mzizzi, is offering to scratch the itch. With an ecommerce platform that is now being used by over 1000 merchants in Kenya, Mzizzi is offering a platform that comes a ready-made e-commerce website, payment integration and delivery of products. This means that if you sign up on their platform, you only need to send them your catalogue, and they will get the website up and running, manage your stocks, and do the delivery of the products.

With this approach, small merchants can effectively sell online without having to worry about how heir goods will be delivered. They also have someone to respond to queries and monitor stocks so that they can focus more on business development. Mzizi does not charge any set up fee, but they make money from commissions charged on every sale made.

We hope to see the platform transforming e-commerce in Kenya.


Unpaid Internship

Posted on 5 min read

Slavery was the greatest thing that existed before mechanization. People loved it so much that it took almost the lifetime of some weird-minded politicians like William Wilberforce to legally bring it to an end. Slaves were the washing machines, combine harvesters, ploughs, tractors and even engines in ships. Slaves could do massive amounts of work with just some little input of food and shelter. The world was sustained by the millions of slaves labored in plantations, fought other people’s wars, built monuments, were sacrificed to gods. No society ever thrived without use of slaves. Long live slaves. ~A Slave Owner, 1741

But then, slavery ended.

Wrong. Slavery never ended. Slavery mutated to something different. It is estimated that there are about 30m people who are enslaved in the world today, although the definition of slavery is not standard. But besides the slavery of chains and shackles, there is something that people now detest like slavery; economic exploitation through unpaid internships.

The Tweet that Brought it Up

When Sam Gichuru, the CEO of Nailab, tweeted about paid/unpaid internships, there was an uproar. In his tweet, he highlighted how one of his unpaid intern went on to launch a successful business, and he actually invested in the company. He explained that had the guy asked for a paid internship, he would not have granted him as he lacked the capacity. The tweet:

Why the outcry? Some people felt that this was just a modern day slavery. They felt like it was a person in a powerful position who was trying to exploit people for free labor. The truth is that many young Kenyans fresh out of college start by looking for jobs, but relegate their expectation to looking for internships when they cannot find any. They hope to get paid internships, but sometimes end up with unpaid internships, or with salaries that cannot cover the cost of the internship. Sam Gichuru’s tweet was like a call to slave owners asking them to tighten the shackles and lengthen the whip.

The Wound

I understand the anger that was directed towards Sam. Some people view employers as people who are just out milk the most out of the employees, and pay them the least possible amount. In real sense, there are many employers simply trying to survive, leave alone thrive. This means that they do not want any unnecessary expense, such as betting on anyone who cannot provide value. But they still need to get interns and put them in a contract for some months, hoping that they will be able to convert them to useful employees in the shortest time possible. The tragedy is that sometimes as soon as an intern has been trained and is good enough, they poached by more monied organization, leaving startups fighting for talents.

I do not think unpaid internships are the best, both for the employee and the employer. However, I have given people almost unpaid internships for a few reasons. As a startup, we always run with the highest number of staff we can afford, which is always lower than the number of staff we need. Getting an intern can always fill the gap between what we can afford, and what we need. In such a case, we ensure that we give the intern enough stipend to cover for their transport and daily needs cost, but for them to make plans for their accommodation. In exchange we ensure that the person gains practical skills for the period they are with us, and recommend them to potential employers once done.

A few times we have taken interns without giving any pay or stipend. When someone comes seeking for an opportunity to learn, and we have no capacity, we can opt to incorporate them into one our teams. It is up to them to ensure that they find means to survive during the period of internship. We actually incur costs once someone walk into our door, from utilities, cleaning, desk and seat, tea and snacks…etc. It is therefore not an attempt to exploit anybody, but to make the best of a bad situation, resulting in a win-win situation.

Why you should get that unpaid internship

In a country where there are thousands of graduates every year with dwindling job opportunities, it is hard to get a job. Recent graduates usually go on a long job-hunting spree where tens of CVs are sent. In most cases, one does not even receive an acknowledgement that their application has been received, leave alone a regret. People attend interviews and never get any feedback. In many places, jobs are awarded based on who you know rather than your qualifications. The government has frozen hiring, while several respectable businesses have laid off people in the recent past.

Employers usually claim that most of the graduates are half baked, implying that they have to spend a lot of time training them before they can extract some meaningful value from them. The government as an employer is notorious for hiring the elderly people as opposed to the young people, with some retired people having their terms extended even beyond their retirement age. Yet, this is the government that is supposed to provide job opportunities for the one million people who turn 18 every year. The Kenya population pyramid shows that there will be even more people entering the workforce every year for the next twenty years or so. Where are the jobs for these people?

The reality is that there are fewer jobs than there are people seeking for the same jobs. It is a shame that people who are able and willing to work find no opportunities to earn a decent livelihood.

It takes aggressiveness for one to secure a job. If you need to take up a unpaid internship so that you can secure a job at the end, then do. No one owes you any internship, just like no one owes you a job. It is said that an average graduate takes over four years before they can secure a job in Kenya, and the more you have relevant experience, the faster you will likely get the job. Why then not take the internship offer. Consider it as an extension of your education, where you pay fees.

Going into entrepreneurship is usually harder than taking a unpaid internship.

What about those cannot afford to sustain themselves during the unpaid internship? Well, this is a sad scenario. I do not think there is a way out, just the way people dropped out of school due to lack of school fees. Get creative as much as you can. Find someone to host you. Man must live.


The White CEO

Posted on 2 min read

What started as a satirical tweet by Truehost Cloud has ended up as a Tweet with a life of its own, drawing anger and amusement at the same time from thousands of people. The tweet was an advert for a CEO position, giving funny requirements such as height, gender, skin color, young age with long experience, as well as usual traits such as team player.

The initial reaction was just laughter and amusement among the people who know the start-up and the tone of the twitter account, but as soon as it was shared by more people, anger started showing up. What was wrong with the post? Or better, what made some people angry?

The CEO was supposed to be white.

While this was supposed to be a joke (and Truehost Cloud is not hiring a CEO), there is another side of Kenya start-ups that comes to light. An analysis of start-ups Kenyan start-ups that received funding from global VCs brings it to light.

The Kenyan Start-Up Ecosystem

2018 was a great year for Kenyan tech start-ups, which led Africa in terms of funding. In total, these raised KES 34.8 billion ($348m) in funding, more than their peers in Nigeria and South Africa. The list of these start-ups are:

  1. Tala (Sh5bn)
  2. Cellulant (Sh4.75bn)
  3. Dlight (Sh4.1bn)
  4. Branch (Sh2bn)
  5. Twiga Foods (Sh1bn)
  6. MKopa (Sh1bn)
  7. Africa’s Talking (Sh862m)
  8. Lori Systems (Sh617m)
  9. Mobius (Sh600m)
  10. BitPesa (Sh500m)
  11. WeFarm (Sh500m)

One of the striking features in all these start-ups is the presence of white CEOs or founders in all but two of them (Cellulant and Africa’s Talking). Have a look at these visuals.

The team at Tala
Twiga Foods
Lori Systems

While there could be many ways of explaining this, it is a poorly kept secret that money always follows white founders/CEOs. A running joke among startups is that all you need to make it rain money is an office in one of the posh Nairobi buildings, and have a white co-founder/CEO. It is for this reason that a white CEO requirement might not be a far-fetched idea for start-ups in Africa. Racism lives on.