Franco Sacchi is a documentary filmmaker born in Zambia and based in Boston, Mass. This is Sacchi’s third blog in a series for African Angle, in which he documents emerging entrepreneurs in Africa. For parts 1 and 2 of this series, click on the associated links.
The final business I visited in Nairobi was mSurvey, a mobile survey platform operating across Africa and the Caribbean that is well-positioned to become the go-to survey company for emerging markets. Founded in 2010 by Kenfield Griffith and Louis Majanja, it uses texting and interactive mobile applications to collect data in areas ranging from consumer research to public health. Designed to facilitate information sharing in hard-to-reach communities, it has all the attributes of an agile and dynamic start-up that you might find in any technology hub of the United States.
When I arrived at its headquarters I found Griffith, a native of the Caribbean island of Montserrat, in an open space surrounded by a team ofprogrammers in their 20s and early 30s. Kenfield greeted me and launched into the story of how mSurvey came about.
“I was at MIT doing my PhD research and specifically looking at how computer–aided design (CAD) and manufacturing could streamline automation and development” he recalled. “I thought I had the solution and I was ready to bring it to Kenya when I began to realize that the actual problem wasn’t the technology, it was the lack of knowing the context, knowing exactly who this is for, and I realized I didn’t have the data.”
It was 2011 and Kenfield was working with World Bank data from 2006. He needed to address this lack of information before he could solve the larger issue at hand. “That was the ‘aha’ moment,” he said. “I realized I was actually looking at the problem from a very top-down approach. I had to reinvent how information informs decisions.”
Kenfield believes that innovation starts with empathy, and that if you really have a problem you “feel” it. Only then do you find the inner motivations to solve it, he said. Lack of access to reliable data is a significant problem for emerging markets in many parts of the world. It not only makes it harder for commercial enterprises to do business, but it also affects key areas such as public health. MSurvey’s founders had a simple and effective solution: they would use standard mobile SMS technology to conduct surveys, making the platform available to anyone with a cell phone.
“I think that we often overlook simplicity,” Kenfield said. “I do not need a fancy app or sophisticated data mining. If we look at how people are communicating in this society you will notice that they use SMS-based text messaging… all we have to do is go directly to them.”
Using text messaging, mSurvey has already conducted large-scale research on the use of public transportation in Nairobi, access to technology in Trinidad and Tobago, perceptions of Ebola in Kenya, and other diverse topics. After collecting responses, the company creates visual representations of the data to assess key trends.
Kenfield’s down-to-earth approach to a seemingly complex problem made me think that many of the solutions that these Africa-based entrepreneurs are finding should be exported to other parts of the world.
Many of the themes that I had begun to discover while covering stories in Nigeria, Ghana and Senegal also resonated in the bustling capital of Kenya. Although it may sound cliché, I was struck by the innate ability of all the entrepreneurs I met to look at structural and seemingly intractable problems and see untapped opportunities. For Ariff, Shannon, Kenfield, and others, Africa is not a place in which to exercise one’s sense of compassion for a few years, nor is it a vast continent to be exploited. The stories I heard reaffirmed for me that Africa is a fertile land of opportunity where talented entrepreneurs choose to invest, work and live.
Franco Sacchi is the director of the award winning documentary “This is Nollywood” and co-founder of the Nollywood Workshops. For the past ten years his work had a specific focus on Africa and issues related to economic development.