Entrepreneur bets on Mobile Enterprise Tools in Uganda

Members of the access.mobile team strategise. (Image source: access.mobile)
access.mobile founder and CEO, Kaakpema ‘KP’ Yelpaala. (Image source: access.mobile)
access.mobile founder and CEO, Kaakpema ‘KP’ Yelpaala. (Image source: access.mobile)

In a report entitled How Africa’s mobile revolution is disrupting the continent, published on CNN, author Nmachi Jidenma refers to statistics by Informa Telecoms which suggest that the continent is well on its way to achieve 1 billion mobile subscriptions by 2015.

Mobile banking services, app development and integration, smartphone adoption, as well as mobile marketing opportunities are recognised driving forces behind the explosive growth in the mobile market.

According to research conducted by World Wide Worx in the form of Mobility 2014: The Mobile Internet in South Africa 2014 Report, in 2013, 51% of urban mobile phone users utilise mobile apps and the figure for users in rural areas is 27%.

While data use on phones now represents 16% of the average user’s mobile budget – up from 12% in mid-2012 – cellphone users are also increasingly turning to Wi-Fi hotspots for mobile Internet access. A relatively low proportion of respondents, 14%, currently uses Wi-Fi hotspots, but this is expected to increase to 26% during 2014. As a consequence, both mobile network data use and Internet access via hotspots is expected to boom.

“The rapidly growing penetration of smartphones and the increased ease of use of the Internet on feature phones has changed the way South Africa communicates,” says Arthur Goldstuck, managing director of World Wide Worx. “While SMS remains pervasive, new communication channels are being opened up to the mass market through both social media and instant messaging (IM) apps.”

The application of mobile solutions and integration of devices has cultivated results within key sectors like healthcare and agriculture in several countries on the continent, including Kenya and Uganda.

One startup firm from Uganda, access.mobile , aims to address the need for mobile solutions, support and service within what it describes as the underserved B2B tech sector in Africa, focused primarily on agribusiness and healthcare.

The business, identified as a recipient for an innovation grant via Microsoft’s 4Afrika Initiative, was started in 2011 by Founder and CEO Kaakpema ‘KP’ Yelpaala, who commutes between Uganda and his base in Denver, US, to run the business.

He stumbled onto the business idea while talking to a coffee exporter in rural Rwanda. He built a mobile app to help the exporter move from a paper- and cash-based system to a digital one, where transactions can be tracked and insight can be gained on flow and inventory.

ITNewsAfrica spoke to Kaakpema about the business, his aims, opportunities and the challenges that exist within a highly competitive marketplace.

Mobile is generally regarded as one of the fastest growing and most competitive markets today. How does access.mobile differentiate itself?

access.mobile is focused on what we view as an underserved business-to-business technology sector in Africa.  We observe that many mobile solutions providers are focused on a relatively small consumer market in Africa or social programs.  We see big opportunities in what many call the “missing middle.”  As SMEs grow on the continent, facilitated by infrastructure investments, access to financing, political stability and other factors, we believe that they need enterprise tools that are affordable, context appropriate and nimble.

Please expand on how the idea for the business came about?

The business came out of my belief that there were not many technology enterprises in East Africa serving the needs of SMEs in a manner that was value creating, holistic and scalable (in country and regionally). access.mobile, since its inception, has been investing in building technologies that help SMEs become electronic in their business process at points where they believe there is significant value.  Our company started in Uganda in the health sector.  Our first technology deployment in 2012 involved working with a national network of approximately 70 private health clinics to transform their paper-based data collection processes to electronic reporting through mobile devices.  In 2013, we worked with our first agri-business client, a coffee exporter in Rwanda.

What was your biggest challenge at the time of establishing the business?

The biggest challenge at the time of starting the business was finding an initial client that was willing to make a bet on access.mobile’s technologies and approach.  It requires significant time and effort for our clients to transition from entrenched processes to new technology driven approaches.  We believe that the incentives to absorb switching costs to new technologies will shift over time as companies like access.mobile show the value of bringing electronic processes to businesses for data management, transactions and communication with clients.  Now that we have some successful deployments under our belt, the next challenge for us is to respond to the growing demand for our technologies and services.  Our partnership with Microsoft 4Afrika is playing an important role in helping us grow and we are currently seeking investors to support us through this next stage of growth.

What is your value proposition – how do you help businesses adopt and integrate technology?

access.mobile helps SMEs identify how technology solutions can lower costs, improve profits and manage risk through a holistic, solution-focused approach to the data and technology challenges. Our technology products enable real-time mobile data collection linked to web-based business intelligence and communication tools and are presently available to the healthcare and agribusiness industries. Through our local user engagement model, we use a hands on approach to support users in adopting new technologies while generating feedback and insights to inform our product life cycle so that we are constantly improving our solutions for our clients and users.

What does it mean to digitise operations?

access.mobile can help clients replace their paper-based and ad hoc processes with simple and intuitive mobile data collection solutions linked to web-based analytics and multi-channel communication tools (SMS and email).

You do business with a cross section of companies – a broad target market. How do you position your services so that it clearly communicates the value to both top enterprises, mid-market and smaller operators?

Our target market may seem broad because we are in multiple sectors in the East African region. However, similar to many of the enterprise software companies we are all familiar with, we have found that our solutions related to data capture, analytics and communication have a value proposition that cuts across sectors. With our main office in Kampala, we are focusing on multi-sector opportunities in Uganda, while strategically positioning for growth in agribusiness, regionally.

What are your short-and long term goals for 2014?

We will continue to invest in growing our team and business in Uganda while serving clients in the region.  We intend to become a trusted brand in our target markets.

What is your view of locally developed technology for the local market?

If foreign groups have technology that suits the local markets, then that is a good thing in our view. However, we strongly believe that the market should be free to determine winners and losers. Further, the feedback we are receiving from the market is that groups prefer technology products that take into account local needs that are priced competitively.

Did you rely on- or require any start-up funding/ capital to begin operations?

access.mobile began with a contract and used seed investments to establish operations in Uganda and build products for the market.

How many people are employed by access.mobile?

We currently have 7 employees in Kampala including a General Manager, software developers, and user experience professionals. We have invested in building the skills of this core team and employed a rigorous process to hire top software developers in Kampala to work for access.mobile.  We have 4 staff in the US.

What trends are you looking to manipulate to grow the business this year?

We aim to prove that our tools can accelerate business growth, primarily for small and medium enterprises. Both the healthcare and agribusiness industries are experiencing increased demand, and customers are seeking high quality client engagement and professionalization of services. To meet these changing standards, local businesses will require business tools, financing and technology solutions. With respect to data management, supply-chain tracking and client communications tools, few comprehensive solutions exist to-date for SMEs. Our solutions fill that market gap, combining easy to use software, robust localized customer support, and world-class back end technology.

What aspects of the Uganda ICT sector excite you and which ones frustrate you?

We have found that Uganda is a great place for motivated, well-trained and innovative young software engineers.  Many businesses we have interacted with are very open to using technology to professionalize and improve operations.  In some cases, we find that expectations around technology solutions and their benefits can be far removed from reality.

Are regulatory bodies doing a good job or not?

We are hoping that the regulators continue to foster an environment that promotes private investment in telecommunications infrastructure, which will facilitate the effective use of smart devices and the cloud in our target markets.

Chris Tredger – Online Editor