Kariuki Gathitu, 30, is the founder and lead system architect and software developer at Zege Technologies, an IT company that primarily builds software for mobile payments. He developed M-PAYER, a mobile payment management system that has been widely recognised locally and globally, and was also largely involved in the development of M-KESHO in 2010. He talks to EDNA GICOVI about the strides his innovation has made in Kenya’s tech industry.
Youthful and self-assured technology entrepreneur, Kariuki Gathitu has pursued entrepreneurship in information technology with the same fervid enthusiasm his late father waged war against repression during the dark days of the single-party rule during the Moi era. His late father, Professor Kariuki Gathitu, was the founder of Mwakenya, an outfit accused of fanning anti-government ideals, and was detained for being part of the illegal movement in the 80s. After his release, the family was forced into exile. They lived in the UK for a few years, returning home in 1992 following the re-introduction of multi-party politics in the Kenya.
The late Professor Gathitu also happened to be a computer science lecturer, and one of the pioneers of the field in the country. “I had a computer in the early 90s, quite some time before they became popular in Kenya,” says Kariuki. His quick uptake of IT know-how and keen interest in the field saw him pursue computer science at Kenyatta University.
An entrepreneur by heart, Kariuki was not merely interested in computers. “I’ve always been an entrepreneur. After form four I stared making business cards. Again this was some time before graphic design became popular,” he says. During his second year at the university he started a web design company soon after learning the subject in class. The company, however, went belly up about two years after Kariuki’s graduation and he decided to look for employment so as to grow in the field.
From M-KESHO to M-PAYER…
He found a ‘boring’ bank job with Equity Bank, but nonetheless thrived as a result of his aptitude for information technology and penchant for entrepreneurship. “I had many skills that I took for granted at the time. After I built an intranet (private computer networks used for communication within organisations) for my department, I was moved to the projects department. This was where I really honed my skills as a developer. I really enjoyed working there,” says Kariuki.
While at Equity, he played a major role in the development of one of Kenya’s first mobile money revolutions, M-KESHO, an accessible bank account that lets customers deposit money into their bank accounts as well as withdraw money from the same account using M-PESA, a mobile payments service. Though the idea for M-KESHO was already in existence, the bank had experienced challenges in integrating mobile money, especially M-PESA, to their banking system to enable their customers send money to their bank accounts through mobile money and also get money from their accounts into their mobile phones.
Kariuki was the first to solve this challenge of mobile money to bank integration. His work on M-KESHO is among the factors that earned him a reputation in Kenya’s tech industry. “It was one of my biggest milestones and it made me realise how much potential mobile money has,” he says. In 2010, a starry-eyed Kariuki left Equity after two years to start Zege Technologies, an IT company that primarily builds software for mobile payments. He started the company with his wife and co-founder, Stella Njoki, and another partner.
Kariuki’s participation in the development of M-KESHO had opened his eyes to many possibilities. Together with the founders of Zegetech, he aimed to replicate this same model for other banks and microfinance institutions (MFIs). This is what essentially led to the development of M-PAYER, a mobile and web application that enables businesses to manage income and expense transactions of their business, which includes both mobile money like M-PESA or Airtel Money, and also cash. It also helps businesses keep track of customers, distinguish their different payments and generate reports on a real-time basis through a mobile phone or computer. Through M-PAYER, business owners can manage and view their business activities, including incomes and expenses, the performance of various product lines or services, and also manage customer information.
Kariuki believes that M-PAYER came into the mobile money scene to resolve considerable challenges by taking the complexity of large banking systems and merging them with the simplicity of a mobile payment system. His grand vision for M-PAYER is that it will equip businesses with the correct tools to make them grow in efficiency and also grow their customers.
“The beauty of the M-PAYER system is that it integrates easily with any financial system, which means it can be scaled to any size of organisation, whether it’s an airline or a local supermarket,” he says.
Even so, growing his product as a new player in the market was accompanied by substantial challenges. “Starting out was not the hardest part. I knew I had a good product but most people did not want to touch a start-up that had been in existence for only a few months. We couldn’t even get much financial help. Six to seven months after I started Zegetech, we were still using my savings and hardly making any profits,” he says.
Kariuki believes that his teething troubles had a lot to do with targeting the right market at the wrong time. “I think my product would have moved much faster right now than it did back then because that market has opened up and technology has really grown in Kenya,” he says.
Zegetech is currently in its third year, and M-PAYER, its most prolific product has greatly benefitted small and medium enterprises (SMEs) and chamas, among other organisations. The tech company boasts of several accolades. M-PAYER has been widely acknowledged and awarded for innovation. Zegetech was recognized among the top ICT companies in Kenya by CIO East Africa, an authoritative IT magazine, and was a finalist in Pivot 25, East Africa’s premier mobile startups pitching competition and conference, in both 2011 and 2012.
The company also secured the Kenya ICT board grant dubbed Tandaa in 2012. In 2011 M-PAYER won AITEC Africa’s Best Product Award in the Young Innovators category in 2011. In May 2013, M-PAYER emerged second in the Dragons Den Pitching Competition at the Infodevs 5th Global Forum held in South Africa. Zege Technologies had been among 20 of the world’s most inspiring high-growth entrepreneurs selected from 50 top SME entrepreneurs globally, to participate in the Dragons Den Pitching Competition at the Global Forum on Innovation and Entrepreneurship.
“As a start-up you’re trying to get your product out there and validated by customers, public opinion and media. When we won our first award at the AITEC Banking Fair, it opened a lot of doors for us. We’ve been winning awards left, right and centre since then,” says Kariuki nonchalantly. He adds that some of the monetary awards went a long way in cushioning the company from the effect of dry seasons as it built its customer base.
Heading Zegetech has also opened avenues of thought leadership in youth entrepreneurship for Kariuki. “I’ve worked with both the World Band and the African Union in different initiatives. In 2011, I was privileged to address heads of state during an African Union forum. All of these opportunities have opened me up and I now see the bigger picture. I believe Africa has a lot of potential to accomplish a lot of great things. The time is now for Africa,” he says.
Kariuki also believes that Kenya can move forward through technology. “Some of the largest players in the world are tech companies that started with a very small investment. Technology can radically transform a country. Just look at MPESA. We have a long way to go as a country, and Zegetech as well, but I think I’m in the right place at the right time,” he says.
Zegetech is currently focused on pushing its products to gain more traction, growing its team and innovating. “As a company the silver bullet you must have is innovation. You have to think outside the box,” says Kariuki. Zegetech also aspires to extend past Kenya’s borders and into the region, and eventually the rest of Africa.
Kariuki concludes, “Kenya and Africa have so many problems. This will either excite or depress you depending on who you are. It excites me as an entrepreneur because problems are opportunities. You are also put here on earth for a reason. Leave a legacy of some sort.”