Why I left international development to work in a Kenyan startup
Nov 05, 2018
It was 2015 San Francisco. Airbnb and Uber had taken off and Twitter was 3 years into its new HQ in downtown Market street, enticing other big tech companies to do the same. I had graduated from a public health masters program four years before and was working at the University of California in San Francisco (USCF) as a public health technical advisor. Our group at UCSF was funded by the US government (specifically, the Centers for Disease Control) to advise Ministries of Health around the world on how to strategically plan their national HIV prevention and treatment programs.
In our fancy San Francisco offices, we would brainstorm how to better collect information on HIV to help guide strategy. Unlike the startup culture exploding all around us in San Francisco, we did not follow the mantra of try, fail, dust yourself off and try again; we would carefully plan, get permission (i.e., funding) and once we were 100% certain our idea was viable, we would think about trying…maybe.
Once an idea was well-researched and validated in the US, we would fly 20+ hours across the world to an African capital city, spend ~10 days debating the merits of our idea with partner governments until they eventually conceded knowing their hands were tied – acceptance of our ‘recommendation’ was an implicit condition for future funding. This relationship of extreme caution coupled with an unequal power dynamic was not only slow but ineffective. We held the ideas and the purse strings but little of the personal investment and deep connection needed to truly motivate change.
Right as I was becoming disenchanted with this role, a friend introduced me to the CEO and co-founder of mSurvey, Kenfield Griffith. Ken just so happened to be passing through San Francisco so we met for coffee. Within minutes Ken’s intellect and fortitude had me hooked on his solution for understanding consumers in emerging markets, not to mention the live demo of his product that produced over 100 survey responses from Kenyans within minutes. In our short exchange I could tell he cared deeply about advancing the country where he lived, Kenya, and also believed undeniably that mSurvey was the means to that end. This advancement was not going to come from international aid or tired solutions leftover from the US. It was going to come from within, from the determination and inventiveness of Kenyans themselves.
Within weeks of meeting Ken, I left UCSF and transitioned to leading mSurvey’s research agenda. As an innate problem solver, I was partially drawn to the thrill and complexity of creating something from nothing. More than that, I was convinced that mSurvey and Kenya, Nairobi in particular, had the perfect ecosystem for change:
- Kenya is a leader in mobile technology. According to the Communications Authority of Kenya, over 95% of Kenyans have a mobile phone and sent over 14.9 billion short message service (SMS) in the first quarter of 2018 alone. More importantly, Kenya is home to MPesa, the mobile money product owned by Safaricom, that keeps Kenyans close to their friends as the primary form of digital payment. mSurvey is leveraging this widespread, existing technology in Kenya – mobile phones – to deliver companies and organizations their most valuable asset: data.
- Kenyans are young, energetic and motivated to change. Like most countries across Africa, Kenyans are young – 60% are under the age of 24. And like most young people, young Kenyans see inefficiencies and unfair policies glaring at them. They are determined to act and technology has provided the vehicle to do just that. Unhappy about power outages and the high monthly cost of utilities? Create a company that provides reliable, off the grid solar energy that’s pay as you go. This drive has made Nairobi the “Silicon Savannah” with over 859 companies listed on AngelList, a global listing of startup jobs and opportunities.
- mSurvey is for Kenyans by Kenyans. In my previous work, our ideas were generated abroad and then packaged in-country to appear local and authentic. 98% of mSurvey is Kenya-born making mSurvey a solution to a truly Kenyan problem.
After my transition 3 years ago, mSurvey has since closed a Series A funding round and grown to a company of over 50 young, energetic Kenyans hungry to transform the continent. In our upcoming series, we’ll share insights into our journey and what we’ve learned along the way.