On a dull day in January 2018, in Pamplemousses, Maurice, 2 friends, Joseph Rutankangwa and Eric Sewankambo, sat down in Rutakangwa’s apartment and decided to start a business. It wasn’t the first time they had ventured into business together; only the previous year had they tried to create an aggregator to organize data from various African countries that multinational companies could use. The problem was that there was simply no data available to collect. Generally speaking, data on Africa is sparse, and even when it is available, it may be insufficient and outdated.
When they decided to give their business aspirations a second chance together, Rutakangwa and Sewankambo were consultants for multinational consumer goods companies seeking to expand into African markets. In their work, they often encountered data gaps. Government ministries and country chambers of commerce lacked detailed information on consumer personality and behavior in African markets. Although these offices could, for example, present data on the percentage of a country with electricity, they had nothing on the exact number of households. had electricity, or how many of them had power cuts each month, or how long those power cuts lasted. A solar company entering many African markets would therefore have little information to work with. Such data gaps cost companies money in wasted marketing efforts and make it difficult for the continent to attract new investment.
Rutakangwa understands why these costly business mistakes happen: the data multinational companies rely on – often collected by market research firms – assumes that African countries are monolithic and have not provided companies with enough details to make market expansion decisions.
So when Rutakangwa and Sewankambo launched Rwazi, a Mauritian startup that provides multinational organizations with on-the-ground data to facilitate effective decision-making, they set out to gather data that dealt with the details. “I want to know the details,” Joseph told me firmly. “I don’t want you to tell me the market share of this [brand] is 75%. What is 75%? Is it 6,255 outlets? Is it 10,800? I don’t want the percentage. I want exact number, exact location, exact contact and exact pictures [of these shops].”
Although Rutakangwa and Sewankambo understand the problems multinational consumer goods companies have with accessing useful data, finding the most efficient way to collect that data was initially a challenge.
At first they tried to use retailers and sales representatives to collect information. But both groups have proven ineffective because they are incentivized to falsify data – retailers because they claim they stock products they don’t actually have get them freebies from companies; and sales reps, because success in their jobs always meant signaling that their products were in store.
They changed their approach. They thought companies were trying to sell to consumers, not retailers or sales reps; only a consumer would be honest about the availability of a product and their access to it. Thus, Rutakangwa and Sewankambo employed regular local consumers, called “cartographers”, to collect data from businesses and households.
These mappers collect data from the neighborhoods closest to them at any given time. Think Uber, but for data collection.
Illustration: For stores, when a mapper registered on the Rwazi platform receives a mapping order from a toothpaste company to find out how many stores around him sell toothpaste and what brands they sell, the mapper accepts the request, then locates and counts how many stores in the area sell toothpaste. They also document which brands they stock and at what prices. For households, mappers meet consumers in their homes and ask them about the brand of toothpaste they use, why they use it, their experience of using it, what it costs them, etc.
A mapper can only submit data while still in a store or at home. Each store is already geolocated on the Rwazi platform. When a mapper submits the data, Rwazi verifies the information by verifying that the geographic coordinates of the store or household match the mapper’s current location.
For this story, I spoke to Rutakangwa and Sewankambo 3 days apart, but some of the things they told me could have easily been converging thoughts from 2 people in the same room at the same time. The week of our conversation, they’re in Los Angeles participating in the Techstars accelerator, and they were amazed at how differently African founder success is defined than the rest of the world. They met Western founders whose startups make up to $3 million in annual revenue but who consider this achievement modest. “Back home,” says Sewankambo, “if you make $3 million [a year]you are a conglomerate!
Rutakangwa and Sewankambo have been friends for 7 years, having met when they were business management students at the Mauritius campus of African Leadership University, where Rwazi’s story began to take shape. Their roles of COO (Sewankambo) and CEO (Rutakangwa) may spell out clearly defined responsibilities – Sewankambo handles operations and customer delivery while Rutakangwa handles customer acquisition – but they are not difficult on the demarcation. “We tend to change, depending on who can do it faster or better,” says Sewankambo. “Sometimes I talk to customers, sometimes he talks to the operations team.”
They both speak of “synergy” to describe their partnership, painting a picture of complementarity, where, in conflict, one founder’s skepticism is another’s faith. Within months of launching Rwazi, they had started receiving mapping orders from customers outside the consumer goods industry – medical, pharmaceutical, hospitality, fintech. Sewankambo was concerned that they were serving these orders which had nothing to do with consumer goods, as it could mean that Rwazi was agreeing to work in industries in which he had no prior experience. But Rutakangwa saw things differently: in principle, data mapping for hospitals and pharmacies was the same as mapping for beverage and alcohol companies. They ended up accepting these orders, which they believe increased their revenue and customer base.
What’s next, after Techstars?By 2050, Africa will represent 25% of the world’s population; Rutakangwa and Sewankambo have this in mind as they use the access granted by Techstars to woo more US-based clients looking to understand consumer habits and trends in African markets, raise seeds worth $3 million and to evolve Rwazi’s product by incorporating machine learning and AI so that it can run simulations, make forecasts and generate automatic reports. Today, they have 20,000 cartographers in 60 countries and over 100 cities; by the end of the year, they aim to integrate 1 million mappers spread over their current coverage.
My Life in Tech (MLIT) is a bi-weekly column that profiles the innovators, leaders and shapers of Africa’s tech ecosystem, with the intention of putting a human face on the startups and innovations they are building. A new episode is released every other Wednesday at 3 p.m. (WAT). If you think your story will be of interest to MLIT readers, please complete this form.