Talking business with the man behind Tanzanian startup Bongo Live

Computing

When Taha Jiwaji saw that his parents couldn’t afford to market their computer company to customers in Tanzania using the traditional methods of TV, radio and magazine adverts, the inspiration for his startup was born. Bongo Live is a mobile marketing service that helps businesses streamline their communications with their existing customers, as well as target new customers. The company specialises in group messaging, SMS services and custom applications.

In an interview with How we made it in Africa, Jiwaji talks about how the company was started and the challenges he faces in growing the business.

How have you financed your startup?


We haven’t got any funding; it’s just personal savings and family. We pitched to a bunch of venture capital firms and angels and they all say the same thing: either your model is wrong or your team isn’t right. Or the market isn’t great or you don’t have enough traction. So we have heard it all but we have just kept at it and hopefully we will prove them wrong.

Who is your competition at the moment?


Locally, when we started there was no one, but now there is at least – I’d say – five to 10 other companies that are on the bandwagon, basically because [our business] is working and they see a potential. There are a lot of copycats coming out…

Was being a first-mover in the Tanzanian market part of the attraction for you?


Yes and the market is definitely still virgin in that everything is open. There are so many problems yet to be solved that [in] anything you take up, you could potentially be the first one to solve that problem. So that is part of the attraction of doing business here, that you get to be one of the first ones to do this kind of tech venture.

What has been some of the most important steps you have taken to grow Bongo Live since it started in 2010?

I think the first step I would say is that it is very important to start. If we had not taken a step to actually start, this would never have happened. So that was definitely the most critical step. The first year was definitely very difficult. Most of the first year I was alone and running the entire business myself with some help here and there. It was difficult to get customers, cash flow is always an issue, but we kept at it and we kept growing. In early 2012 we got a couple of big customers, which was a turning point and I also hired a couple of people. I just took the step saying that I need to hire some people full-time so that I can devote time to really growing the business and concentrating on the bigger picture.

Describe some of the challenges of bringing more people into the business.


It is absolutely necessary. It is very scary at first. You have to give away a lot of your trade secrets, such as trusting our code [with] someone else… Yes there are laws but they aren’t really going to protect you very much. So whatever you put on paper doesn’t really mean anything at the end of the day. It is very difficult to find the right people. There was one person who started who was a great candidate, all of the check-boxes ticked, and she disappeared after four days, without a trace. It was very upsetting at that point because it takes a lot of time and effort to really train and actually recruit that person, and they just disappeared. But that was a very interesting experience.

What risks does your business face?

One of the things that constantly worries me is not being innovative enough. How do we keep building new things to sustain our growth and to meet the needs of our customers? The nature of technology is that it gets easier and easier for people to copy you. So the only way to overcome that is to keep your customers happy and growing and to be constantly innovating so that [the competition] can just never keep up and you are always a step ahead. So that is definitely one of the risks that we face and I would say any technology business faces.

And I guess money, in terms of cash flow and funding, and talent [too]. I think those are some of the major risks. Not finding the right people at the right time at an affordable price – there is definitely a shortage of talent. Though I think we have been fortunate this last year so hopefully it will continue.

I read that you want to expand into other markets. Which ones?


I think definitely the neighbouring countries. Malawi, Burundi, Rwanda, Congo, definitely Ethiopia, are countries we would like to expand to. We are just at the point where we want to become sustainable locally and have a very solid product, before venturing out into a new market because each market is completely new. It’s not like the US where you move from one state to another where everything is the same, although just moving location slightly. The languages are different. The ways of doing business are different. You need a local network. You know, all of that took time to build here, and you will have to repeat that cycle to any new country that you go to. So that is really something you need to think about before taking the step. Or you work with a local agent. Those are things you really have to hash out before you take that step.

What advice do you have for other entrepreneurs in Tanzania?


I think in Tanzania, the important thing is to start. The market is still open and there are a billion problems to solve, especially with technology, and there are very few [tech] people here. The time is now to be the pioneer and grab the opportunity. So the important thing is to take the step and to start and then don’t give up because it takes time, it really takes time for businesses to mature and for you to see light at the end of the tunnel.