The future of Africa is solely dependent on how Africans can improve in their technological usage. Africa has a wealth of resources, both natural and human capital, and translating these resources into development requires creative and innovative solutions, that combines the transformative power of technology with the undying zeal of the large population of energetic youths in this great continent.
Meet Joseph Rutakangwa, a young business strategist and C.E.O of Rwazi, a tech company utilizing information technology to bridge the data gap in Africa and empower youths to be change-makers in their respective communities. He has also been recognized as the brave founder of the year 2019 by the Southern African Startup Awards for his notable and incredible achievements in the SADC region and the People’s Choice 2021 by Global Start-up Awards. Join us as Joseph walks us through his story and how young Africans can leverage technology to develop themselves to create the Africa of their dreams.
Can we meet you Joseph, who is Joseph Rutakangwa?
My name is Joseph Rutakangwa and I hail from Tanzania. I had my primary school education in Uganda before returning to Tanzania and eventually getting the opportunity to complete my last years of high school in the United States through the US study exchange program. After that, I came back to Tanzania, and the option was to go to the university then, but I am not interested to further my study in Tanzania. I was fortunate to get a presidential scholarship, but that covered only a fraction of the tuition fee, but I couldn’t afford the remaining part. So I started a graphic design business back then and later on when that didn’t go well due to certain factors, I ventured into volunteering, then explore more businesses. Furthermore, I started this successful business which is Rwazi, a data collection company across different African countries. I’m happy I have a stable business and presently I am investing in other smaller businesses and upcoming startups as well.
Can you walk us through the journey of Rwazi?
The journey of Rwazi specifically started when I began working as an independent consultant for multinationals, which were expanding into Africa. So we have these European companies that were looking to bring their products and services into Africa, and as I walked on those different projects, I discovered that we didn’t have much data from the continent. The only option back then was to get in touch with ministries or Chambers of commerce, or market research companies, but all those companies wanted to give you macro data while what the companies were looking for is a granular on ground data, with regards to their customers, prospective suppliers and so forth, and throughout that time, no one had such kind of information.
So after a couple of years of research, I linked up with Eric, who is now my co-founder, and we saw that the biggest business gap was gathering on-ground data. So we started Rwazi at that time, to create a data platform where businesses can pay to access existing data. Back then, we thought those data’s can be stored in files and physical materials, so we just have to digitalize all of it. Unfortunately, we found out that the data doesn’t exist at all and what we have in government offices were old and insufficient data, nothing in the scale of what we were looking for was available, so we had to create a system for data collection.
After testing different options, we ended up with the current model, which is utilizing our network to build a network of mappers who are data collectors. We now have over 10,000 mappers spread across 40 different African countries, and these data collectors use our web app or mobile app to harvest data as a gig, it’s a kind of Uber for them.
They get a notification for the details and execute, after which they get paid for every verified submission, and the companies now get the data and the analytics, and the map of all these locations that the collectors have gathered data from, and everyone is happy. So Rwazi is what it is today, a solution that fits two parts, on one part you have organizations and agencies who want genuine data to make informed decisions, but no one is there to provide that. On the other hand, we have more than 200 million young Africans who are educated and unemployed, so we help create a link between the two, benefiting the companies involved and helping to develop the African communities.
What are the challenges faced by Data scientists in Africa and how can they be overcome?
The first challenge is misunderstanding what objective does the person in the data science world would want to achieve. I would be speaking with a focus on the practical business applications and not the more technical side of data science. So the challenge is that in most countries, people feel like they’re being ripped naked when approached for information, even the public authorities who are in possession of these data would not publicize them because due to some strange reasons, they feel it is some sensitive information and they would be ripped naked if they let it out. For instance, if I were to find out how many primary schools in Lagos served lunch, for a fact the bursary at the Ministry of Education or the state office, or whosoever is in charge or giving out the funds for the lunch has the data but would not publicize it. Now is that data secret? No, I can go and find out, but for some reason, they wouldn’t release it. Another thing is if I were to ask a random person on the street where they buy water from, in Africa versus outside Africa, you’ll find out that in Africa, people are less likely to tell you where they get their water from, for some reasons, they feel like it’s a private information
However, what all these public and private players don’t understand is that by withholding information they are blocking the creation of 90% of businesses. What we are saying is, if a business wants to find out how big the primary school lunch market is in Lagos, they have to hire Rwazi and pay Rwazi to figure that out for you. If the government had made this data open, entrepreneurs would have figured out that this is a business worth pursuing and then only get the data for sales, not get the data to decide whether a business should be pursued or not.
Now on the other hand, from the receiver’s side, people still don’t understand that they need data to execute, so we see them attribute all their losses to other factors like corruption. I’ve seen some African companies still sink into project losses for ignoring data. Now most of my customers are companies in Europe and the United States, harvesting data to improve their businesses, yet you have upcoming businesses who are roaming around without a granular idea of what’s going on in their backyard, so this is still a huge problem. The level of comfort that people have to in all sectors, whether it’s public or private, makes them not want to add another layer of accuracy. So, we have two problems which are; hiding information if you have any, and not thinking you need any data at all. Those are the two problems that the scientists or anyone in the data field faced. Most of the smart Africans who are into data end up in Silicon Valley, they end up going abroad, and working for multinationals. These multinationals have better data insights, and they penetrate into the African market better and extract more values faster than African companies.
How does an entrepreneur scale as a Tech startup?
If it’s in Africa, the approach is not the Silicon Valley approach, the Silicon Valley approach is to have an idea, build a prototype in a pitch deck, get funding to build an MVP, get funding for product marketing, and get funding to launch and grow. In Africa you have to start with a service, then you get customers, make sales, then you get funding to build your product better, and the reason is you want to automate the entire service chain so that the service is optimized, be scalable, and later level up to the Silicon Valley model. I also think to succeed, every entrepreneur has to think of what they’re doing when rendering service, and the most important person is their customer, not an investor, not their team, just them, their customers, and their service in between. Afterwards, you can now have the fanciness of raising funds and building tech products and so forth.
And also, as much as you would want to think there is funding growing in Africa, it’s just a handful of companies in Nigeria, South Africa, Egypt and the likes that are getting all the funds, and when you dig deep into their background, you’ll find out many of them are run by non-indigenes. So it’s not realistic, the realistic view is that you have to have a service and the service isn’t far-fetched, the service must be genuinely solving your problems and the problems of the people around you, then you grow and expand from there. I think that’s how you can reasonably succeed in tech and even in normal businesses.
As an entrepreneur and a musician, how were you able to find the connectivity as entrepreneurship could connect with art and art with entrepreneurship?
My primary drive for making music isn’t strictly business, it’s just unplugging. I have a lot of unpublished songs, which I’m going to be publishing with time, so it’s like a creative outlet. In Rwazi, I exercise my analytical side, and then in my music, I get to now exercise my creative side, so that’s why I’m doing music, and of course I’m just doing business for the sake of doing business, I have all the copyrights, licenses and all of that. I’m a member of BMI in the United States, the association of musical artists. I’m doing everything properly because I earn from my music too, so yea for me as an entrepreneur, music is the way because startups are very life-consuming, and you would need to take a break sometimes to unwind, and music perfectly serves that purpose for me.
How do you see African youths’ involvement in Tech in the coming years?
With the level of resources we have in most countries in Africa, tech-enabled services are becoming the most feasible approach, and I’m seeing a lot of people leaning towards the route already, which is marvellous. I believe many young people are very vast into the digital world, they know how to do a lot of services using the web and mobile apps, so it’s easier for them to adapt. Even if they’re doing traditional businesses, it’s easy for them to make the businesses tech-enabled, so this is how I see more and more people get involved. We also have the few minorities who have access to sophisticated tools and resources, who can build sophisticated products and services. One advantage we have in Africa is that people just jumped from never using a computer, to using smartphones, and that means most of our tech has to be geared towards smartphones, and towards simple mobile apps.
So yea, I think we are on the right path and we have a lot of traction. We also have to note that, Africa still have a huge population of people who are in rural areas and absolutely have no access to smartphones and the internet, so they don’t know what all of this is all about, and it’s our job to figure out how to include these people in the movement.
What’s your final word for young entrepreneurs out there?
Yea, I would say they need to know what they want. To any young person out there, it’s very important to know who you are. You have to choose your identity, whether you’re a creator or a victim, I do ask people to think of themselves as a creator. A lot of people, even in Nigeria blame the government, corruption, this and that, but Nigeria is a $500 billion economy, $500 billion is lying somewhere within the 200 million population, and your job is to get like 0.01% of it, you can’t be in a $500bn economy and not have $500 in your pocket. So you have to start thinking of yourself as a creator and know exactly what you want. For me what I want is economy, control and financial freedom. In my list of the most valuable thing is peace, health and wealth, and in wealth I say, I want to create wealth doing the things that I love, the way I want, and spend the wealth with the people I care about. That’s why I wake up every morning and work hard.
I urge young people to be very honest with themselves as to what exactly they want. Then the next step is creating that business opportunity, and then capitalizing on it, but you can’t see the opportunity if your mind is not at zero, because zero means you have all the basics figured out. So I think young people need to start identifying as creators, and then know exactly what they want. Africa no doubt has a lot of resources, and the resources aren’t just gold and oil, the resources are energy and human capital. You know people are ignoring this market, you can start a big business in Africa. I’ve been doing this for 10 years without competition because no one thinks that there are opportunities here. When they find out you’re making a billion dollars, that’s when you start having competition, and by then it’s too late. So start identifying as creators and start tapping into the economy of the huge African market.
Every entrepreneur has goals that motivate them and keep them moving, for Bill Gate it was getting a computer to the doorstep of every American, what’s your grand vision for Rwazi?
The vision for us has always been on two sides, first, the customer side and the other the user side. Our vision for the customers is to make data accessible. Although it seems from a quick look that data is available and accessible, it’s not. Platforms like Google and the likes provide you with information and not data; you have to search through the information to get the data that you’re looking for. And still, more than 90% of what’s out there is from the developed world, you don’t have anything from the developing world. So our vision is to make data accessible, so it can facilitate effective decision making, and this is because we want to bring every data that is otherwise not found or ignored accessible, so people can be exact about data rather than using instincts, that’s one side.
On the other side, we want to solve the unemployment problem across the developing world by providing gigs. Our gigs are primarily data collection gigs and then they can extend to other forms of gigs later on. We believe that you can’t possibly create formal jobs that will absorb every single person who is not employed, and saying that unemployed people should just go out there and become entrepreneurs is ridiculous. It’s much more difficult to start a business than to get a job.
So I think if starting a business is not feasible, the feasible alternative is having gigs. We’re aiming at having 10 million gigs by 2025, 100 million by 2030 and a billion by 2040, and why we’re on this is because Africa has the youngest population in the world, and by then it would have half of the world’s total workforce. Now that’s good news and bad news, I’ll start with the bad news, the bad news is that, if you have over a billion people who are ready and willing to work but are unemployed, it means we’ll be at risk of insurgencies and civil unrest, which is already playing out in different countries in Africa.
The good side is it’s an opportunity now for companies, organizations and NGO’s to empower this energetic group. They have the internet and technology, all you need is to provide them with the right opportunities to create reasonable daily income. So we’re providing as many gigs as possible and contributing our quota in ensuring that the continent doesn’t collapse.
Assessing African capitalism in connection with Rwazi mission, what role should African youths play to change the narrative of Africa to bring about development?
The role is on two sides. First, you have the business role that translates to a growing population, a growing population equals business opportunities. Now, people can argue that the purchasing power is low, that the market is not that big, but I advise startup entrepreneurs that rather than thinking of fancy crypto solutions or the likes if you want to benefit from the growing population, you have to create a business that is undeniably on demand, namely food, clothing and the rest. Because you have a growing population, these people will always want to consume food, they’ll always want to wear clothes, and you find other industries like housing that are undeniably going to be in demand.
One of the startups I invested in which provides yoghurt currently growing faster than any other startup I’ve seen in any of these acceleration programs or any of these fancy tech incubators, and the reason is because yoghurt is food, and there’s always a demand for such products. So far you have a way of making it taste better than your competitor’s and more genuine, you’ll always get a market. The market is big and young people need to look at problems in that context, stop breeding tech crunch and insider solutions, but rather look at their neighbourhood and what’s going on in their houses and figure out what kind of solutions would actually apply within their context.
The other side is employment, in the employment world, I’ve seen and I’m experiencing it myself at Rwazi, that as much as we have a huge population of unemployed young people in Africa, there are still entry-level vacancies in other positions. The idea is that if you have a country like Zimbabwe and South Africa with 25% unemployment rate, I believe all vacancies will be filled first before deciding that there is a problem. If there are vacancies and there are still unemployed persons, this is a reason of fact that most of our African brothers and sisters are lazy, and laziness comes from having expectations and aspirations that are not grounded in reality. People want to finish university and start with a $2,500 salary.
The thought is that the work that someone did from primary school to finishing first-class honours is what an employer is paying for, but that’s not true. An employer is paying for the output, the result of the return on investment. So if I’m paying that amount, guess what I’m expecting, I’m expecting you to produce 5 times that amount. That entitlement mentality is a problem because it’s stopping young Africans from getting employment opportunities because they think of employment as a child-parent relationship or student-teacher relationship, where one person is responsible for the needs of the other, which isn’t true, it’s instead a service provider-customer relationship where an employee is the service provider to an employer and they’re supposed to work hard to ensure the employer succeeds, lest they are out of the job.
So there are two parts, if we can have a realistic look at the business scene by getting young Africans to venture into lucrative businesses that are looked down upon, like yoghurt, water and juice, and if we get our youths to have ambitions that are grounded in reality, and back that with hard work, then we can definitely capitalize on the energies that we have and numbers.