It took one pivot after another to build a sustainable technology business in Tanzania

Mr. Baraka Mtunga, Managing Partner, Quest Africa, resigned from the corporate world in the United States of America and later at a telecommunications company in his mother country of Tanzania. This was the beginning of his entrepreneurial journey with his friend focusing on giving back to society.

At the recent five-day virtual Entrepreneurship Development in Higher Education (EDHE) Lekgotla 2020, which attracted 1221 delegates from around the world, Mtunga told the story of this venture's many twists and turns on its route to success. The EDHE programme is an initiative of the Department of Higher Education and Training implemented in partnership with Universities South Africa (USAf). It has become one of USAf's flagship projects in support of member institutions.

Mtunga's account formed the first part of the session on Developing Entrepreneurship in Emerging Economies on Tuesday, September 15. He spoke of The Success story of UhuruOne; providing education and internet connectivity to the unconnected in Tanzania, in an interview with Ms Ntsiki Mkhize, one of the Lekgotla's continuity presenters. He told of how he and his business partner left corporate jobs to start UhuruOne as a social enterprise purposed to connect the truly unconnected.

Coming from a family of civil servants who pushed that education is the key to building a better life, Mtunga told the audience that his was a life of fair privilege. He got exposed to, and enjoyed the internet and gaming technology during his schooling years when access was difficult for the majority. He was awarded a scholarship to study computers at the City University of Seattle which he followed up with a more specialised programme at the University of Washington, both in the United States.

"Start your business while still at university," Mr Baraka Mtunga, Managing Partner, Quest Africa advised studentpreneurs. "Figure out the skills your company will need. If you are going to need partners, check your potential partners' goals right from the outset. Make sure their goals are aligned to yours."
Mr Baraka Mtunga
"Start your business while still at university," Mr Baraka Mtunga, Managing Partner, Quest Africa advised studentpreneurs. "Figure out the skills your company will need. If you are going to need partners, check your potential partners' goals right from the outset. Make sure their goals are aligned to yours."

His first venture, immediately after leaving Celtel (now Airtel) in Tanzania, was to provide educational and digital services to the masses while also integrating technology services to other telco companies. During this period he and his partner learned that because of the lack of internet connectivity, most of their educational content would not be effective. They therefore adapted their plan, thus founding "UhuruOne" with the purpose to first connect people to the internet (and gain critical mass), only after which they could then push the educational content. ''Uhuru'' means freedom. The company's name, UhuruOne, referred to freedom to connect. UhuruOne's mission, which became its slogan, was connecting the unconnected.

With the help of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), they executed on connecting unconnected primary school pupils in the southern region of Tanzania, called Mtwara. On the ground, they found that reality differed to their written plans. The schools, agencies, and many stakeholders had different goals to theirs and, without perpetual funding, Mtunga and his partner knew that this project would be unsustainable.

The company pivoted (i.e. switched) to connecting secondary schools in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania's capital. UhuruOne provided the internet, while partners provided the learning content and access to funds. Again, the project success was dependent on getting funding, mainly because there was not a business model that generated revenue from the secondary and primary schools. As "entrepreneurs we felt like this is not sustainable" and could not meet long-term purposes.

So they pivoted again, this time to partner with higher education institutions. They created Broadband4wote, essentially Broadband for all, as "wote" means "for all" in Swahili. Broadband4Wote, a subsidiary under UhuruOne, focused on delivering internet services and education tools to higher learning institutions. UhuruOne remained the holding company and brand that holds licenses and operates the commercial arm of selling internet services. Broadband4Wote, now connected to nine universities, was formed as an alliance between UhuruOne, Microsoft and the government of Tanzania. Broadband4wote provides the connectivity. Global Field, the business school of Harvard University, developed the software that runs at the institutions and the other stakeholders provided funding, expertise and access. The software is known as Mkoba4wote translated as Briefcase for all -- a specialised consolidated tool for institutions. Broadband4wote turned out to be a better model for sustainability because of corporates' inclination to support universities while growing their own timber. Sustainability is also enhanced by the fact that higher learning students have some access to finances -- however limited -- via student loans or part-time jobs. Students are therefore more inclined to buy their own devices and pay for their own internet services.

Broadband4wote was not just concerned with providing internet. The goal was to make connectivity affordable, especially in this emerging market. "I'm really proud that the project has succeeded at its initial goals,'' Mtunga told the Lekgotla audience.

The final pivot was to use the data (statistics) they collated from how often the students were connecting via Broadband4wote, and presented them to the government of Tanzania via its Commission of Science and Technology. This was to show the value of providing affordable connectivity to students as they have the aspirations and the means to purchase/lease devices to connect.

In March 2020 Mtunga co-founded Quest, essentially a data analysis firm with a consulting division that focuses on digital transformation of SMEs. Quest was inspired by a gap in the market which Mtunga and partner identified during the CoVID-19 related lockdown. Many SMEs were struggling with the digital platforms available for business continuity. He says today, UhuruOne, Broadband4wote and Quest co-exist side by side, but are all aligned with the same purpose of providing and maintaining affordable connectivity for all.

Mtunga has lots of advice for student entrepreneurs

The Managing Partner of Quest has the following tips for budding entrepreneurs operating both within the technology arena and elsewhere:

  • Find a way to generate revenue if you want to sustain your operations;
  • Bundle the product appropriately. If you just provide internet connectivity to a primary school without giving the teachers training on how to use the devices to teach the students, it is merely a novelty and the project will fail;
  • Work out the kind of knowledge your company will need, and think of partnerships right from the beginning days of your enterprise, even while still at university;
  • Always check your potential partners' goals. Every institution, government agency or private company has different goals. Some want return on investments, others might want to do social good such as providing grants to students, while others want to do research. Make sure your goals are aligned;
  • Use your time at university to test your project. Most people can come up with an idea and theoretically figure out how to adopt it, and determine its readiness for the market. Learn to test your idea within the cushion of your university, where academics can help you enable this;
  • Consider translating your university projects or dissertations into real-world solutions and use these capsule projects strategically;
  • Build a sound culture. There is a saying that culture eats strategy for breakfast because a toxic culture can derail everything. The culture of the people in your team will either propel your business forward or crush a dream. Culture begins with how seriously you take your studies at university and later extends to how you participate within the entrepreneurship environment. How you build that culture translates into your day-to-day activities: how accountable you are to what you are doing and to other stakeholders.

Some advice to universities

To universities, Mtunga encouraged the teaching of two skills of value to entrepreneurs: stakeholder management and leadership skills -- including building one's own leadership style. These would all determine that venture's corporate culture and influence their choice of effective teams.

During the Q&A session after his presentation, audience members asked the following:

Question: Do you think technology is good for business, considering that people are losing their jobs because of it?

Answer: [Without hesitation] Technology is a very good thing and there is no escaping it. It is being used to make things efficient and is an excellent way of easing human effort. Automation and other technology could help people, who could then adapt it further.

Clearly, Mtunga did not see technology as being a source of job losses.

Question: Based on your work, do you think universities should change their courses to provide qualifications directly linked to the 4th and 5th industrial revolutions?

Answer: Universities are providing the basic foundation, already. Perhaps they could add to the existing courses, real-life skills so that when students leave, they have developed more soft skills such as critical and emotional thinking, as well as communication skills. This would help people identify gaps in the market; opportunities in the workplace and in different sectors.

The annual EDHE Lekgotla, a platform for exchanging best practices and thought leadership among studentpreneurs, academics, university leaders and higher education policymakers, has become a premium event on the calendar of the EDHE programme.

The author, Gillian Anstey, is an independent writer commissioned by Universities South Africa.

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