Young Kenyans are harnessing their country’s growing tech prowess to go into business for themselves. For example, Jamila Abbas and Susan Oguya, created a mobile application called M-Farm. The application allows Kenyan farmers to access real time market information, buy farm inputs from manufacturers and find buyers for their produce, all through SMS. Lorna Rutto started EcoPost, a company that turns plastic waste into durable fencing posts, an environmentally friendly alternative to timber. At Strathmore Univeristy, Kenya’s leading institution for business and accounting, many students are interested in pursuing traditional career tracks like joining the ranks of major financial firms, but quite a few are just as eager to start their own enterprises like Jamila, Susan and Lorna. On a recent afternoon on campus, I sat down with Asha Mweru to discuss Chochote, an e-commerce platform that she launched with her classmates Ivy Wairimu and Victor Karanja. Chochote, which is the Swahili word for “anything,” started as a simple classroom assignment.
The team of 4th year Strathmore students sought to connect buyers and sellers on a platform based on excellent customer service, discounted prices and home delivery. Currently, it targets consumers between the ages of 18 and 48. Chochote’s tagline is “not just anything.” It’s transitioning from offering a wide range of products like electronics, cosmetics and clothing to a narrower, more particular supply of unique crafts, jewelry and fashion items, similar to Etsy. Ivy explained that, “Kenyans are very specific [about] what they are buying. So, we [investigated and] found out what the specifics are,” then decided to re-brand.
The project has received support from the IDEA Foundation and ilab Africa’s business incubation center at Strathmore. Currently, they get between 600 and 900 hits a day and hope to reach the likes of popular Kenyan e-commerce sites like Uzanunua and Online Shopping. Their foreseeable goals include increasing their suppliers, expanding to reach consumers across the region and establishing a Chochote mobile application. After all, Kenyans are just beginning to warm up to the idea of online shopping. “Since everything is going virtual, why should Kenya only shop at Amazon? Why shouldn’t we have our own thing here? Kenyans between the age of 18 and 48 have accepted that the internet is here, it’s here and sure to be used. They’re accepting it, so let’s grow with them,” said Asha.
Nonetheless, online shopping is a very new concept here. “Kenyans are still quite skeptical towards e-commerce and this is a challenge we’ve had to take head-on,” said Asha. Other challenges faced by the team include accessing seed capital, establishing relationships with reliable suppliers and remaining abreast of clients’ changing preferences. On a macro level, the team points to the current state of Kenyan primary and secondary education as a hurdle to overcome too. In conversations with Kenyans, I’ve personally heard that there’s more of an emphasis on memorization than critical thinking. According to Victor, “Someone once said that our education system is meant to produce employees not employers. Notable, however, is the number of Kenyan entrepreneurs that circumvent these challenges therefore making it easier for the rest of us.”
Despite these challenges, the Chochote team would not have it any other way. “Honestly, I’ve never liked the idea of being micro-managed, and solving a problem and actually seeing the solution being implemented gives me a thrill,” said Victor. The team explained that the most exciting part of entrepreneurship is the ability to create employment opportunities rather than compete for limited slots that are already there. Ivy’s dream is not only to see Chochote become profitable, but to ensure that it expands enough to generates jobs. “Through our work with Chochote, [we'd like to] build a successful e-commerce model that can be replicated within Kenya and Africa at large.”
Perhaps, the team’s experience will have them avoiding 9-5′s forever. They’re part of a new generation of Africans who are inspired by the likes of Muhamed Yunus, public intellectual Dambisa Moyo and the founder and CEO of Open Quest Media, June Arunga, among others. Both women were chosen by Forbes Magazine to be among the 20 Youngest and Most Powerful Women in Africa. In addition to the rise of visible role models that they can relate to on the global stage, their immediate environment is more conducive to innovation than ever. In Kenya, sky’s the limit.