With the rapid shift of populations from rural areas to cities, eating habits are drastically changing across Africa.
Many urban centers across the continent are experiencing a nutritional transition as people over-consume unhealthy foods, choices that were often unavailable a few decades ago.
Urbanites are also changing how they eat. Kenyans in cities order between 6,000 and 10,000 servings of food every day through delivery services, primarily from international food companies like KFC, Java House, and Debonairs Pizza. They dominate the market, as they provide affordable and convenient options, the top purchasing drivers of consumers.
Unfortunately, this transition has assisted in a tenfold increase in overweightness and obesity amongst urban dwellers over the last six years.
LetaFood, the online food delivery service based in Eldoret, Kenya, is hoping to curb these daunting statistics by promoting local and healthy food alternatives to its users.
I spoke with Marvin Collins Hosea CEO of Apps:Lab, about building an online food delivery platform focused on healthy eating, pivoting during COVID-19, and Tech in Africa.
How did your journey lead you to LetaFood and what makes LetaFood unique?
Before starting Apps:Lab, I was the CTO of a company in Westlands, Nairobi, a high-class area in Nairobi city, and getting affordable healthy food was difficult. Either you eat junk, or you starve. This frustration was the inspiration behind LetaFood.
What separates us is our belief and model. In Kenya, Jumia Foods and UberEats are the big players in online food delivery. Based on my experience and studying the market, we realized that modern technology was detaching us from the African culture of healthy eating.
We hired a nutritionist and a fitness professional, and use the data we collect to provide health advice based on the customer’s eating habits. For example, we’d message a customer and say, “Hey, you’re eating too much junk food, try these healthy food options from X, Y, Z, restaurants.”
Also, when we’d register a new restaurant to the platform. Someone on our team had to go to the restaurant and taste the food and perform a health inspection. This gives us the chance to test the quality, restaurant hygiene and healthiness of the food, and see if they include any local food on their menu.
How did you translate the requirements of your business problem into code?
The process from ideation → testing → launch → retaining customers was well thought out.
It started with asking questions like, why do we need another food delivery service, and what needs are the current services not meeting. We said, there isn’t a focus on local food, or healthy, affordable food. After agreeing on the core problem, we spent the next six months developing the solution.
Then, we did user testing through one of the communities we’re involved in. At Apps:Lab, we’re connected to many tech communities across Africa and support some of them.
During one of the community events which had about 120 people, we tested the app. They went through the user experiences and gave us both positive and negative feedback, and a month later, we officially launched the application.
We focus on customers who resonate with our mission and value the service we provide. Currently, we have between 1,500 - 1,800 users. Each month we text them their eating habits report, and we also call to explain our ideology and how we plan to serve them.
Calling over 1,500 customers may seem crazy, but we do it every month. We want healthy customers, hence our goal, to provide them with healthy food to increase their lifespan.
But by attempting to force people to embrace our mission, we’ve lost some customers who do not value healthy food. Some people say it’s my money. I can eat what I want.
Others appreciate what we’re doing—thanking us because they don’t have to pay a nutritionist for a diet plan or join a fitness class. So they order their breakfast, lunch, and dinner through our platform to get the full benefits.
How have you all restructured during COVID-19?
At Apps:Lab 80% of our sales come from the agency side of our business. Most of our products are private corporate applications, business management apps, and Enterprise ERPs.
COVID-19 impacted so many of our clients. Some are genuinely able to pay, which makes it difficult when trying to be considerate of their situation but still run our business.
In the meantime, we’re trying as much as possible to minimize our company expenditures without cutting staff salaries, so right now everyone is working from home.
On a positive note, COVID-19 is starting to change the mentality around professionalism and technology. In Africa, there’s a corporate look that businesses and companies expect from you, but because of COVID-19, people are more relaxed and dress casually.
You don’t have to go on Zoom with a shirt and tie. Also, some companies who didn’t think they needed technology to run their business are now waking up.
For LetaFood, we had an executive meeting and decided to stop our operations two months ago. Initially, when the pandemic started, our orders increased, which was a good thing, but that meant we were now putting the riders, customers, restaurant staff, and everyone involved with LetaFood’s daily operation at risk.
The majority of our customers are between their early 20s and late 30s. Since the government imposed a curfew on citizens, many people stay home, so by continuing LetaFood's operations, it meant we’d be putting our customers and their family at risk.
We realized that the only way to take care of our customers was to stop our operations. LetaFood is a joint network, and if any person in the network is sick, they could easily transfer Coronavirus to the other people within the network.
Until we reopen, we are offering LetaFood as a SaaS product to our restaurant partners. Which means they can continue using the platform, but now full-fill their own delivery. We changed the business model because we didn’t want to amplify the spread of this virus on our platform and put people at risk, but we still wanted to offer a solution to the restaurants who work with us.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced building LetaFood?
The most significant challenges are money and government regulation. There’s a lot of bureaucracy here that prevents you from focusing on your business, but the biggest challenge is money.
We budgeted for $10,000 to launch and run LetaFood until breakeven. Unfortunately, this was not enough to operate the business and purchase motorbikes. At some point, we relayed on funds from Apps:Lab, the mother company, to continue operating.
When it comes to accepting investments or funds, we’re very selective with investors/VCs. We want the terms between our company and anyone funding us to align in the sense that they understand what we want to achieve as a business and resonate with our vision. Our policy is a little strict; investors can only buy shares in our products but not fund equity.
We have some resistance to VC funding for several reasons. First, there is a lack of African VC’s. Second, we have an established company culture at Apps:Lab, where we have the liberty to start work at 11 am, as long as we meet deadlines, and deliver to our client. We don’t want this culture to change.
Lastly, I’ve heard horror stories of VCs taking over companies. It happened to one of my mentors and I. I watched him cry over his company, something he worked so had to build. He wasn’t keen enough to read the papers he signed that allowed the VCs to take it over.
What do you believe are the keys to building successful software solutions in Africa?
The key is customer service and engagement. There are not many African companies that call their customers and say, Thank you for being our customer, or how can we help/better serve you? There is a company in Nigeria that is using this approach, and they do a really good job.
Also, quick customer support because we have a new generation coming up with a different mindset. The world is now digitized, and people are very keen on quality customer support and care. They’re comparing what is happening in the West to what you’re offering them in Africa.
Our leaders in Africa don’t treat us as first-class citizens. This is a major problem because that’s the message we send out to the entire world, this is how a black person should be treated, and it allows other races to treat us the same way.
If your mother calls you stupid, your neighbor won’t have a problem, calling you stupid. So as much as I respect black people around the world protesting black lives matter, I think in modern society, the problem is no longer the way whites treat blacks, but how our leaders and the elite treat us in Africa.
If Africans are stuck in China during COVID, and African governments couldn’t sponsor a plane to bring their citizens back home, who will take us seriously, whether it’s in business or any other sector? We’ll be treated the same way our governments treat us, which is with a lack of respect.
So as Africans, as much as we want equality, we need to sit down and reflect. We should be first-class citizens in our own countries; and so moving forward we should emphasize inclusivity, prioritize our own, unlearn colonialism, and learn to build for the world not to get a paper.
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