August 28, 2020

Code Switcher: Combining Business Acumen with Technical Expertise

by:
TECH TOOLS :

In many startups, there’s an unspoken tension between engineers and sales/business development. Arguably a language barrier, as both traditionally embrace different communication styles.

Moreover, every so often, there comes an engineer who can code, manage people, and generate business, to serve as the bridge between these two worlds. A code switcher, who has built software solutions and understands the capabilities of technology, but also knows business, how to network, and build strong relationships. 

As technology creates a borderless continent for African B2B software companies, expanding beyond one’s country of origin requires individuals who are fluent in both languages. Although they’re rare to find, every so often you meet one, and Wiza Jalakasi, former International Expansion Lead at Africa’s Talking, is one of them.

Founded in 2010, Africa’s Talking is a Kenyan based enterprise software company that developers access telco infrastructure with their SMS, USSD, Voice, Airtime, and Payments APIs.

Since 2016, Africa’s Talking has expanded to 18 countries around Africa and supports about 5,000 businesses ranging from early-stage startups to large organizations.

I spoke with Wiza Jalakasi, BD & Strategy at Hover, about his three years at Africa’s Talking, working across different regulatory environments, and how he married his technical skills with business acumen. 

Where did your tech journey start, and how did you get to this point? 

I was born and raised in Malawi and lived there for the first 19 years of my life. Then I moved to Nairobi, Kenya, to study at United States International University - Africa.

My tech journey started young because my dad was one of the first computer dealers in Malawi during the late 90s, early 2000s. He would import computers from South Africa and sell them in Malawi.

It was cheaper to buy the computers without any operating system or software, so he’d install the programming software, Microsoft office, and graphics applications himself. Curious why he was spending so much time on these things, I got into the habit of helping him. 

I had a computer and access to all those software before many other households in the country. As I grew, I just never stopped being curious about tech. Once I was called to the headmaster’s office in school because my classmates were spending all their lunch money to buy games that I pirated online.

At 15, I got into phone modding. I had a Sony Ericsson W700, and I didn’t like how the earphones sounded, this led me down a deep rabbit hole. I discovered a modding community called Se-nse, and we started rewriting the drivers for our phones. 

At 16, I started a company with a friend to build websites because there was no one doing it in Malawi at the time. We had the opportunity to build Malawi’s first music download website, as well as a website for the Malawi Police Service. I built and maintained websites for the next few years as as a side hustle, something I still do to this day.

Although I had the technical skills, moving to Kenya gave me access to a broader set of opportunities because Malawi’s tech ecosystem is still in its infancy. In Kenya, I met my co-founder for my second startup called Djuaji, which we shut down after a year and a half.

The founders of Africa’s Talking were mentors for the company, and coming out of my startup, they made me a job offer to set up their business in Malawi. After setting up Africa’s Talking in Malawi, I moved back to Kenya and ran International Expansion. By the time I left, we had gone from managing two countries to 13 live countries and being incorporated in 20.

I then joined Hover, an early-stage startup building next-generation technology to integrate legacy financial infrastructure on the continent, similar to Plaid in the US. I also scout for two early-stage funds out of Nigeria, Microtraction, and Ventures Platform Fund

What is Africa’s Talking and what value does it provide to the marketplace? 

Africa’s Talking is an API service that gives developers access to telco infrastructure with their SMS, USSD, Voice, Airtime, and Payments APIs.

On the continent, the vast majority of people access connectivity through their mobile devices. And of the users who have phones, maybe 30 or 40 percent have the internet-enabled.

So for people trying to reach mobile users at scale, they need to use traditional off-line infrastructure like SMS, USSD, Voice, etc. Companies who need to communicate with their customers or users, Africa’s Talking provides a reliable and straightforward way for these companies to do that.

What stands out about Africa’s Talking is the reach and coverage, at the time I was leaving, we had about 5,000 businesses and 30,000 developers relying on it every month, executing 50m API calls a day.

What were your responsibilities as International Expansion Lead at Africa’s Talking? 

Africa’s Talking was essentially a double-sided marketplace with telcos on one side, and enterprises and developers on the other. 

As lead BD, my responsibility included winning over telcos as well as overseeing the technical integrations. When we got into a new country, we’d apply for licenses, and approvals could take anywhere from a few days to a few years. 

Once we were licensed, we’d make a business case for the telco operators to allow us to integrate with their systems. They had varying levels of trust and technical ability and didn’t want us messing around with their stuff, so it took a lot to build comfort. 

Once that was done, we went to the demand side and spoke with the highest value customers to understand their needs and inform our strategy to create value for both sides of the market. 

What countries were you able to expand to? 

During my time there, my team grew to five people, and they were all instrumental in everything we achieved. I couldn’t have done it alone. In terms of the markets that I activated personally and I’m the proudest of, it’s Ethiopia and South Africa. 

Ethiopia was the most challenging country to get into because the business regulation there is stringent. For example, in Côte d’Ivoire, you can incorporate a wholly-owned subsidiary of your foreign entity without ever visiting. 

But in Ethiopia, you need to submit documents, have about $100,000 in upfront capital, and get various licenses. I spent a lot of my time between Addis Ababa and Johannesburg, trying to get those two markets up and running.

The smaller markets like Zambia, I didn’t spend as much time. I wouldn’t say it was easy because there’s no easy work in this, but it was a more straightforward process. Within a matter of weeks, we were up and running. 

It’s also a neighbor to Malawi, so I knew what to expect from a cultural perspective and how to do business. Contrast that to Ethiopia, where some people won’t even let you pass the security gate if you’re not speaking Amharic.

Moreover, I learned a lot about the differences between African countries and how even countries right next to each other can be drastically different. It was amazing.  

How did you bridge the gap between business and technology?  

Understanding the business requirements has been a function of spending time with people. I find that some of the best software developers spend all their time in front of a screen writing code and listening to music.

They don’t want to be disturbed or socialize. While that is great for building your technical muscle, it’s very difficult to understand business requirements and ultimately bridge these two worlds without a strong sense of people.

I would say first, pick a side that you want to develop your initial competence in, I think tech is easier because it’s easier to measure. I can tell you, I write PHP, Java, node.js., and you can very easily quantify the level of skill that I have.

Once you get the technical skills, stop writing code, and start talking to people. When you make that transition, you’ll find that when people tell you their problems, you’ll start to see the code in your head.

That skill made me very useful for the product team because after having conversations with the customer and understanding their requirements, instead of taking them the business requirements, I’d give them the technical requirements, which made communication much smoother.

I found that having that deep technical knowledge has made the business conversation easier because there are no gaps for me on the tech side. 

So my advice is to get deep into the tech and then put your keyboard away and spend a year or two talking to people. It can be hard and uncomfortable, but it’s worth it.

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What were some of the biggest challenges you faced at Africa’s Talking? 

The fragmented regulatory environment was a big challenge because you can’t scale linearly. There’s no copy and pasting the model we built in Kenya and taking it to Uganda.

Also, the culture and language gap between Anglophone and Francophone Africa was super tough. It’s not just the language. It’s many other things, and the only solution I had was hiring people who speak the language. 

Our engineering teams are in Lagos and Nairobi, and most don’t know the lay of the land in Cote d’Ivoire or speak a word of French. So trying to get our engineering team to work with somebody at a telco company in Abidjan who only speaks French and has an entirely different set of business norms is very difficult.

A bulk of the work that my team did was serve as the intermediary for these conversations between stakeholders because putting them in touch wouldn’t have been efficient. 

This method didn’t scale elegantly and wasn’t a problem we could solve with code. So we had to hire people and put in place operators who could manage these relationships in each country. 

Also, trying to scale the culture we built in Kenya to other countries was a challenge. I later realized that a much smarter approach would have been to scale a value system and let people build their own cultures around the values. 

What do you believe are the keys to building successful software products in Africa?  

Every startup that achieves some degree of success ends up having a talent problem. A lot of founders I’ve spoken to echo this sentiment. Saying there is not enough talent to solve the problems we want to solve and do it in the way we want to solve them.

First, valuing your people and having a culture in place from day one enables people to excel. So you can retain the best talent.

Africa’s Talking had an open culture, which gave people the flexibility to set their agendas. It provided psychological safety for failure, which enables people to innovate iteratively.

I also believe in starting small. I believe in going deep into the market and finding a very strong sense of product-market fit and putting strong operational practices in place to make it easier to scale. 

Finally, document and tell your stories. I documented my journey while I was building Djuaji extensively. It went viral, and it opened up a lot of opportunities. That’s when I realized the value of telling good stories and starting being more proactive about positioning myself online.

A lot of us are first or second-generation tech entrepreneurs. There is no institutional memory in African countries that would permit decision-makers or leaders to assess technology or software businesses on merit. There’s no old dude at Bell Labs who’s going to say this is legit and then make a bunch of phone calls for you to get 100 million dollars from AT&T. That doesn’t exist here. 

The way people assess the viability of your business is via proxies and signals. If you can signal that you’re legit, that’s usually all it takes. And that can be the difference between getting a license in that country or not getting a license. Or the difference between hiring a rockstar CTO or not having any CTO at all. 

Built In Africa? What does that mean to you?

I think Built In Africa is about people, their origin stories, and the fundamental moments that made them who they are with regards to their tech journey. 

Personally, although I’m from Malawi, I consider myself made in Nairobi because a lot of the events that took me down this career path happened here. So Nairobi holds a ton of sentimental value. 

And we’ve been building things here that people might not expect to come based on the perception of us in Western media. If you Google Africa, the images that you will see are village people. 

Many can’t envision people building next-generation AI or a financial service tool that is global in nature and, at times, the first in the world. But we are doing it here, and to me, that’s Built In Africa.

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