Written by Brandason, Strategic Communications Firm for the MEST Africa Challenge
Home to ‘Africa’s 1st Silicon Valley,’ Rwanda entered the MEST Africa Challenge amid high expectations from the global audience, and in the fourth country final of the competition, Rwanda did not disappoint.
Competing were ten technology-based start-ups, each with four minutes to pitch for the opportunity of a lifetime; $50,000 in equity funding, a place in one of MEST’s incubators, and drool-worthy prizes from our partners. The country winner would then go on to join Debo Engineering, Fundis, and Tutoo+ in the Grand Finale which takes place in August.
Each pitch was followed by a four-minute question and answer session with the judges for the week, veritable leaders, and influencers in the tech industry in Africa. Deciding the best Rwandan tech start-up for the 2020 MEST Africa Challenge were Muthoni Wachira — Founding partner of Hummingbird; Herve Kubwimana — MERCK Accelerator Program Manager; Fredrik Andersson — Head of Norrsken Africa Fund; Charles Shyakaan — General manager of 250startups and Ashwin Ravichandran, MEST Africa’s Managing director.
The judges were to consider the value proposition, impact, customer identification, market size, revenue module, competitor analysis, and expertise of the founding team among other metrics in making their final selection of the winner.
The competition kicked off with Minuifuong, Founder of Bongalo, a travel and tour app that allows users to book affordable and comfortable accommodation across Africa, with flexible payment methods. He shared with viewers and the judges the story of his friend, who planned to travel from Cameroon to Rwanda. Concerned about price and comfort in booking accommodation online, coupled with expensive hotel rooms that do not offer local experiences often valued by clients, he had very few options to choose from. Worst of all, he had limited payout options for his currency and region.
As a solution, Bongalo developed their online booking platform connecting travelers to affordable accommodation options in Africa through mobile money payments like momo. He stated that there is a ready market for Bongalo, with two-thirds of travelers now being Intra-Africa travelers. He expressed interest in taking advantage of the Africa free trade when people can acquire free traveling visas, to build clientele, and boost business.
During the Q&A session, judge Fredrik Andersson asked Bongalo what the key differentiation was for their business outside of mobile money, since they are going up against big competitors like Airbnb? Minuifouong admitted that apart from mobile money, they are yet to identify another competitive edge. But so far, he said feedback from clients proved that the use of mobile money payment is reason enough for them to choose Bongalo over AirBnB.
Rokkup App pitched next, represented by co-founder George Lamburn. They provide African businesses with a new way to source, hire, manage, and pay their workers while connecting the unemployed with potential jobs.
68.7% of employment in Rwanda, 74.5% in Ghana, and 61.5% in Kenya are in the informal work sector. ‘Rokkup App is Africa’s new staffing app’, explained George, ‘It solves the problem of companies in Africa not being able to hire reliable, capable and temporary staff at short notice instead of relying on personal referrals, expensive agencies or outdated job boards. It also solves the problems of workers having no place to find local, flexible work at short notice and students having very few ways to earn money while studying or entering the labor market with no experience’. Rokkup’s flexible staffing platform is aimed at the mobile-powered economy and its average applicant is about 20 years old. The app allows users to also upload their CV and bio so that employers can make a more informed decision.
At the end of George’s pitch, judge Charles Shyakaan asked what made them unique from their competitors, and how big their market was. He also wanted to know how they got people on board? George explained that they are not just a job board, but rather they offer skills on demand. Although there are other job platforms available, they cater specifically to the African market.
Judge Muthoni Wachira asked where they are based at the moment to which George answered that they are currently based in London. George also mentioned that they plan to translate the App to other languages as they scale, in response to Judge Herve’s question about the language of the app users.
Wastezon, a mobile app that connects recycling companies with households, took the stage next, determined to make their four minutes count with a powerful opening statement, ‘no matter the type of technological equipment you’re using right now it will always end up somewhere as electronic waste’.
According to the founder and CEO, Ghislain Irakoze, they ‘are on a mission to make recycling easy and convenient through sorting, tracing, and collection.’ Wastezon creates transparency between both parties and currently has about 500 recyclers, 1500 customers, and has recycled over 400 tons of e-waste. They are looking to expand into the recycling of other waste products in the near future.
Judge Ashwin Ravichandran said he was happy to see the numbers and he thought what Wastezon was doing was interesting. Though he did ask for clarification regarding the revenue of the company. Ghislain explained that Wastezon offers a free trial for every client after which they get charged for subsequent usage, so while they may not yet be generating a large income, their projections suggest a healthy boost in revenue in the coming months.
With two projects launched; e-Vuze and Smart-Umudugudu, Calm Geeks is a start-up that builds technology-based solutions to improve the efficiency of businesses. Making a case for why they deserve to win, Negash, co-founder of Calm Geeks, explained that they are in the business of digitization to eliminate stagnating issues in the country such as lost productivity.
Through E-Vuze, Calm Geeks provides integrated electronic medical records for the health industry. The project aims at providing lifetime records of patients under a single patient ID. Their solution also offers electronic payment, HR functions, and financial control.
Their business model further offers free training, and in a matter of three weeks after launching, Calm Geeks has been able to sign a major contract with one of the biggest hospitals in Rwanda.
Judge Ashwin led the Q&A session, asking Calm Geeks how easy it is to integrate hospital management systems with other private insurers. Negash explained that one of the major areas they focused on was actually integrating insurance services because most hospitals have trouble evaluating patients’ eligibility.
Shambapro was the fifth to pitch, led by Kelvin Odoobo, their CEO. Shambapro enables farmers to access quality & affordable farm inputs easily and conveniently. Based on the statistics they provided, 730 million small scale farmers in Africa have low incomes due to low quality and quantity of produce as well as quality farm inputs. Coupled with their lack of information and practical skills, there is little financial growth in the agricultural industry.
Shambapro helps the farmers access a wide variety of quality affordable inputs easily, no matter where they are.
Judge Muthoni was curious to know — based on her experience working with smallholder farmers, she’s found that what they require is an end-end solution, had he found that to be the case? AN din the roadmap is that something they are working on?
Kelvin explained that the main problem they’d found was an input problem, and that bled into the problem of technical advice and markets. They think the best entry point is at the farming level, and the data they are gathering will go a long way in helping them understand the particular needs of the farmers and develop tailored solutions from there. He added that they currently supplement their online service with in-person support through the Kayonza Farmer’s Shop, which is a physical shop that farmers can go to for advice, to make purchases of inputs, and receive first-class customer experience. They are also using this for trust and brand building between themselves and the farmers.
Presenting a unique concept to the competition, Patience Mutoni, civil engineer and CEO of Kozzi Homes painted a clear picture of how easy construction in Africa could be, with the help of Kozzi Homes. As a company, they offer services that reduce the time & resources spent on finding construction services by connecting clients to professionals, suppliers, and contractors.
From her personal experience working in the industry, Patience noticed that very few people used technology in the construction industry. This compelled her to create a platform where she could collectively bring together people from multiple fields in construction.
Her pitch was well received, with the judges mostly concerned with how Kozzi Homes generated income. Patience clarified that the business model was based on a margin of profit from connecting suppliers with clients, and ensuring that they received the best bargain available.
With a burst of energy that had the audience perking up to listen, Yvonne Nyinawumuntu, founder of Moilla, whet the appetite of the audience with talk of custom dishes, prepared by professional chefs, served from the consumer’s very own kitchen.
Moilla Ltd is in the food business, and they ‘help people eat healthier through on-demand chefs and affordable meals which are customized to the nutritional requirements of each client. As a complimentary service, they also take care of cleaning up afterwards.
‘In our fast-paced world, hours in traffic and demanding household responsibilities, there is little time for cooking. And the lack of skills to cook certain meals limits people from eating healthy in most cases’, explained Yvonne enthusiastically. To help with this, Moilla also offers cooking classes to help people eat healthier.
As was expected, the judges’ concern was mainly over the recruitment process for chefs and their health status. With COVID-19 looming over us every day, it is understandable that there was an extra layer of wariness for such a service.
Yvonne smoothly allayed the judges’ fear, explaining that there was a rigorous recruitment process that involved health screenings and they were taking every precaution during the pandemic to ensure that clients were safe when using the service.
Bag Innovation is preparing Africa’s future workforce by applying gamification to offer real-time access to experience-based learning for University students in East Africa. Theirs is a unique product that helps graduates in Rwanda acquire skills that will give them the exposure they need to work in their chosen fields while still in the University. Bag Innovation removes negative traits typically found in young graduates, such as unpreparedness and lack of experience and uses skills-matching among other trademark methods, to properly access the quality of candidates, fine-tune them and match them with potential employers giving them a better chance of landing their dream job.
Collaborating with the creator of the global game phenom, ‘Candy Crush’, Bag Innovation has also created a game that increases retention, conversion, and engagement among students.
When asked how they acquire customers, they explained that they largely generate revenue through training services and contracts with companies and universities.
Next came Exuus, a company helping Rwandans achieve financial security by leveraging the age-old tradition of savings. Starting his pitch with a story, Shema Steve, founder of Exuus, spun a tale of a young mother called Shantel. She is part of a community savings group and her goal is to open up a business of her own. The model of the savings group is simple; pool money together to help each other achieve their goals. One person borrows at a time, repays with interest, and then the next in line can access the mutual savings fund.
Exuus wants to inspire and enable communities by taking this to the next level. By collaborating with financial institutions to provide financial aid that can be easily accessible to people without stable finances like Shantel they are helping to build a more sustainable financial system. They also supplement their offering with mobile banking through the microfinance institutions.
Exuus stayed well within the four-minute time limit and had very questions to answer from the judges. As explained by Shema, they are well versed in the world of fundraising and this showed in the succinctness of their pitch.
Grab Deal Rwanda Limited
Being the one and only private search engine platform in Rwanda, Grab Deal Rwanda Limited presented an intriguing idea to the judges as it came to a close. As a bridge between service providers and clients, providing access to thousands of local businesses from the comfort of their homes or offices, Grab Deal is available to users across the country through multiple platforms such as websites, mobile apps, and direct phone calls.
The major hurdle for Grab Deal was convincing the judges that they were different from Google and had relevance when it came to finding local businesses. They explained that after just a few weeks of the launch, they have 15 businesses registered and are excited about the traction they are already making. They believe that a lot of local businesses are operating without an online presence and this is an easy and effective platform for them to get their business out there.
And with that, the pitching session was a wrap. As has become a tradition in MEST Africa’s virtual pitch competition, the judges left for a private chatroom to deliberate over the winner while the finalists were given the opportunity to answer questions from the audience (and there were many).
The judges took quite a while to return, obviously needing a bit of time to decide, considering the quality of businesses competing and the excellent pitches they were presented with.
Ashwin Ravichandran, MEST’s Managing Director had the honor of making the most important announcement for the day — the winner of the MEST Africa Challenge Rwanda country winner.
He began by thanking the participants for engaging them thoroughly and making it a tough decision, as each pitch was phenomenal and all the finalists were well-positioned to survive the COVID-19 crises. He acknowledged that supporting start-ups during this time is very important to MEST and it’s what they are working so hard to do.
After much deliberation, it was decided that the MEST Africa Challenge Rwanda finals winner is BAG Innovation. The judges were particularly excited by their business model and approach toward impact and sustainability. He was excited to see their journey in the rest of the competition and explore how they could support them and the rest of the finalists going further.
Bag Innovation could be seen and heard celebrating in their office. In their celebratory speech, they did confess that they knew the calibre of competition they had and recognized that it was anyone’s game. They are excited to be entering the final stage of the competition and look forward to joining the MEST incubator and the opportunities available to them.
The MEST Africa Challenge is made possible through extensive collaborations and partnerships with key organizations and local ecosystems partners. We’d like to say a special thank you to Microsoft, who has been with us since the very first competition and continue to support budding entrepreneurs and tech startups. As part of their contributions to the success of tech businesses, they are also organizing a free webinar hosted by Dona Sakra. Register for free here.