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We want to be the “Google” of Africa

BY CARO ROLANDO

Wanting to be “the Google of Africa” would be a far-fetched dream for most, but for Abel Masai, this aspiration is attainable.

Abel is the founder and CEO of Kocela, a Kenyan company specialising in mobile solutions.

The company’s open-concept space has all the typical characteristics of a startup: colourful post-it notes displayed along the wall, coffee and tea available all day, and a team of 14 bright minds, all under 30 years.

As a student at Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology, Abel had intended to work in computer repairs and maintenance, but in 2011, he attended a workshop on smartphone app development and was immediately hooked.

“I decided to abandon computer maintenance and instead focus on software development,” he says.

Two years later, he founded Kocela.

Since its formation in 2013, Kocela has worked with numerous high-profile clients, including Radio Africa, Standard Media Group, Spire Bank, and Credit Bank.

But what Kocela is most well-known for is its work with Kenya Commercial Bank (KCB). In 2015, Kocela released the KCB mobile app, a “one-stop shop” that allows customers to not only pay school fees and utility bills, but also helps them to customise their budgets and track their expenses.

This year, the app was revamped and renamed “KCB MyKash.” This new version permits access to mVisa, M-Pesa and PesaLink, so that customers can send and receive money to and from any mobile wallet, bank and or online merchant. Since its launch, the KCB mobile app has grown to be the number one payment app in East and Central Africa.

Abel is the founder and CEO of Kocela, a Kenyan

Abel is the founder and CEO of Kocela, a Kenyan company specialising in mobile solutions. PHOTO| DENNIS ONSONGO

It has been so successful, in fact, that on October 13 this year, Kocela was named the Best FinTech Company of 2017 in the “Payments and Transfers” category at the African FinTech Awards. The awards, hosted annually at Finance Indaba in South Africa, recognise innovative and disruptive companies on the continent.

“We were competing against some of the big players, like Cellulant – a pan-African company with a presence in 33 countries,” Abel told MyNetwork, noting that Cellulant was the previous year’s award-winner.

So, what is it that makes Kocela approach to apps different from other companies? According to Abel, it’s about building apps that put the needs of the user front-and-centre.

“Nowadays, anyone can make an app, but not all of them have traction,” he said. “What we are really passionate about are experiences that the customer will want.”

This has been Abel’s mindset since he pitched the app to KCB in 2014.

“As a user, I don’t wake up saying ‘I feel like going to the bank to do a withdrawal,’” Abel explained.

“I need to pay rent – and how do I fulfill that need? I have to go to the bank or ATM to withdraw cash. The withdrawal of cash is just there to fulfill my need of paying rent,” Abel continued.

“Our approach is: the need is more important to the customer than the withdrawals or the products that you have. You need to focus on what works for the customer. The bank’s products should be evolved so that they fit into the user’s life, as opposed to the other way round.”

When Abel first pitched his idea to KCB, it was cutting edge. At the time, local companies had specialised in building websites, SMS and USSD solutions, and smartphone applications’ full potential was untapped.

However – as with all industries – what is considered “cutting edge” changes rapidly as the market develops.

“Last year the buzz word was VR – virtual reality. Then we had the wearables, like the watches. And now there’s an interest in concepts like blockchain and cryptocurrencies.”

Abel is already preparing for change. While Kocela has mostly been focused on B2B (Business to Business) solutions up until now, it intends to shift to B2C (Business to Customer) solutions soon.

“We really think that mobile commerce is untapped; that’s where we think the future of this industry is,” Abel said, noting that he hopes that people can shop for groceries, buy movie tickets, and have items delivered to them, all just by going online.

“We envision a future where you go to malls and you don’t find people there. You can just shop as you tap.”

Abel cautions, however, that these kinds of technologies must be developed at the right time.

“Just like the approach we took with apps – you don’t want to pre-empt the customer, but at the same time, you don’t want to arrive too late to the party.”

Asked where he sees Kocela in 10 years, Abel doesn’t flinch in his answer.

“There aren’t many companies from Africa competing at a global stage in setting the trends in tech. We want to be that company – to be the Google of Africa.”

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