NAIROBI is one of Africa’s most vibrant tech hubs; the early success – and global waves – caused by mobile money innovation M-Pesa breathed life into a tech landscape that was quickly replicated all over Africa.
At last count, there were at least 70 tech hubs in cities across Africa; in many cases explicitly supported by governments.
But all the bullish sentiment surrounding the continent’s tech space rarely highlights stories about an extremely common event in innovation circles: failure.
This was the theme of a recent evening of conversation headlined “Failure: The secret to innovation no one talks about”, hosted by Kenyan telecoms giant Safaricom of the M-Pesa fame.
Industry leaders shared tragic – and funny – stories of initiatives that were launched with a lot of fanfare, only to collapse soon after, and the lessons learned.
But in just a few weeks, the company’s co-founders Phares Kariuki and Brian Muita were able to bounce back from their crisis and launch a new cloud-hosting service called Node Africa.
“I think Brian and I are currently considered the poster children of failure in the [Nairobi] tech community,” said Kariuki at the event. “I remember feeling like my career was over; [as a data-hosting service] we were in a trust business and had let down our customers.”
Still, Kariuki says their experience had a silver lining.
“What surprised me is that the tech community rallied around our failure; before, these kinds of things were swept under the carpet. Everyone I approached for help came through for us, and in a matter of weeks we had rebuilt and launched a new business,” said Kariuki.
Juliana Rotich is well known for her role as co-founder of crowdsourcing platform Ushahidi, and has gone on to have a sterling career as a technologist, strategic advisor, MIT Media Lab Director’s Fellow and TED Senior Fellow.
She shared the failure of one of Ushahidi’s projects, an artificial intelligence (AI) dashboard called Swift River, a spin-off of Ushahidi that attempted to use machine learning to sift through and analyse social media streams – such as a Facebook or Twitter feed – and generate actionable reports that actually had some predictive power: a kind of Minority Report –style system.
“We were riding on very high expectations, and we thought this would be a real money maker for us; I had even given a high profile interview on Al Jazeera talking up Swift River,” said Rotich at the event.
“But it was just very difficult to do at that time – artificial intelligence has grown since then, Google’s AI and Apple’s Siri are now quite advanced.”
The lesson for Ushahidi, says Rotich, is that it was crucial to stay close to the original user.
“Ushahidi was being used by journalists and civil society to gain information during crisis events. But we were trying to position Swift River as something for institutions and big businesses to use, but it didn’t work out.”
Safaricom CEO Bob Collymore had many stories of failure to share too, despite his company being world-renowned as an innovation leader, primarily in mobile money.
“We are a hugely successful company by all means: valued at $6.25 billion, with 25 million subscribers, and 22 million M-Pesa customers,” said Collymore.
For comparison, Kenya’s population is estimated at 44 million, nearly half of which is aged under 18. By some estimations, giving an allowance for people owning multiple SIM cards, nearly 80% of the adult population is a Safaricom customer.
No one wants heartbreak
“Despite all our international repute, we’ve had very many failures. But no one wants to experience the heartbreak of failure, we all want to ride on the winds of success,” he said, adding (half-jokingly) that he will not be launching any new product with a lot of fanfare in the future, in case it ends up falling flat.
One recent one was Daktari 1525, a tele-triage service that allowed users to call in and speak with a doctor and get advice during a medical emergency or on any health issue. “Daktari” means doctor in Swahili and 1525 was the short-code.
In a country where doctor-patient ratios can be ten times WHO’s recommendation, and where mobile access is nearly universal, it was poised to be revolutionary stuff – indeed, Daktari 1525 earned Safaricom ninth spot on Fast Company’s Most Innovative Companies Awards in 2013, along with giants like Uber, Amazon and Target.
But despite daily call rates growing from 290 at launch to 1,500 in twelve months, the product was deemed a failure and terminated.
It turns out callers were not getting the kind of help they needed – it was difficult to establish the right level of triage during a one-minute conversation, Collymore says. Doctors who were supposed to be on call, weren’t.
Another recent product that Safaricom had to shelve was Linda Jamii, a low-cost health insurance product that was targeted at low-income earners, and could be paid incrementally through mobile money.
Defeating the purpose
But it turns out that the product was badly designed from the start, Collymore concedes. It had many health insurance features which customers were not interested in – such as eye care and dental cover – and not enough provision for every day health emergencies.
Customers also tended to wait until they were actually sick to subscribe for the cover – which defeats the purpose of insurance.
But the company has not given up on medical, and insurance, innovations, having recently launched ‘Sema Doc’ a mobile app that offers loans to offset medical emergencies.
Collymore admitted that despite its outward success, Safaricom isn’t driven by innovation as such; it’s driven by people’s desire to succeed.
“One a scale of one to ten for innovation, I would give us a two,” said Collymore, much to the surprise of the audience. “We’ve only really done three really innovative things – one is obviously M-Pesa, the other is M-Shwari [that allows customers to access loans on their mobile accounts]. The third is basically tinkering with small products here and there, like advances on mobile airtime.”
According to the CEO, the problem with the high-pressure and competitive environment at Safaricom is that it encourages employees to lie about failure and try to sweep it under the carpet.
But Collymore had three points of advice on “failing up”, which he has also shared on a blog post on LinkedIn:
Fail Fast. Don’t keep doing something if your instincts and the market tell you otherwise, no matter how successful it may appear to be nor how much you have sunk into the product or idea.
Find the Black Box. The first priority for an airline after a crash is to find the black box. Without these black boxes flying would not be as safe as it is today. Do a forensic analysis and really figure out what went wrong.
Separate the person from the issue. Don’t blame yourself or blame others – focus on the issue. “If you don’t do this you will never realise the real lessons from the failure; you might even collapse and hurt other people along the way,” concluded Collymore.