Nº 3 2013 > Young Innovators

Interview with Catherine Mahugu


A woman-owned and operated social enterprise that empowers craftswomen to become global entrepreneurs

Catherine MahuguArtisan using the Sasa SMS and MMS technologyArtisan using the Sasa Android platformExample of jewellery made by the artisansOne of the Sasa vendors
Catherine Mahugu
Artisan using the Sasa SMS and MMS technology
Artisan using the Sasa Android platform
Example of jewellery made by the artisans
One of the Sasa vendors

Catherine Mahugu graduated from the University of Nairobi with a bachelor’s degree in Computer Science. She has been involved in various ICT for Development projects, including Stanford University’s Nokia Africa Research Center Design Project, building mobile applications targeting informal communities. She co-founded SasaAfrica to provide a widespread simple mobile-to-web e‑commerce platform, connecting micro-manufacturers in emerging economies to the global marketplace, enabling economic growth and bridging the digital divide.

What motivated you to enter the ITU Telecom World Young Innovators Competition in 2012? And what advice would you offer young women who hope to become innovators?

Catherine Mahugu: Women have long seen craftswork as a method of empowering themselves economically. But because the supply chain is costly and complex, middlemen end up controlling access to the global marketplace and profitability.

The creativity, ingenuity and resilience of craftswomen inspired me to create SasaAfrica as a trading platform to connect offline vendors to online consumers. I envisioned that providing a culturally appropriate technology would help reduce the systemic economic discrimination that women in the developing world face.

The ITU Young Innovators Competition was an ideal forum for promoting SasaAfrica because its theme, “Youth Innovation for Development”, was in line with our mission of providing e‑commerce, everywhere for everyone. Our business model disrupts traditional trading practices by targeting women at the bottom of the pyramid and offering them global access to trade without the need for a computer, Internet access or bank account. Instead, they can use a simple mobile phone to access the global market through our platform.

The competition was a life-changing opportunity, helping to build SasaAfrica by providing mentorship, coaching and access to an extensive network that led to fruitful partnerships while in Dubai during the ITU Telecom World 2012 event itself.

When one woman helps another, amazing things can happen. For example, professional careers can leap forward. I believe sharing my personal experience and message with like-minded women can be beneficial. There are countless opportunities for women in technology. Devote yourself to an idea, overcome your fears, believe in yourself, and turn your dream into reality.

No matter how many times you fall down, never give up. Learning from success is important but learning from failure is vital to succeeding.

How has winning this competition contributed to the development of your SasaAfric project?

CM: ITU involvement has been instrumental to the company’s growth. SasaAfrica expanded tremendously after the project reached the finals of the competition because ITU gave us global exposure to peers and investors. Our network attracted hundreds of like-minded individuals.

The funding from the competition made it possible for us to recruit software engineers to help build robust and scalable technology, enabling us to officially launch our website platform to the public during the DEMO Africa Event in 2012.

In addition to our short messaging service and multimedia messaging service (SMS and MMS) technology platform, we created an Android platform for vendor and product registration. This has had a positive uptake by the community despite the transition from a simple 2G feature phone to a smartphone. As a result we have partnered with Kiva-Zip, a micro-lending institution that offers Sasa artisans an opportunity to own a smartphone and take advantage of our new capabilities. The artisans see the value of acquiring a smartphone because of the better quality product images, faster product upload process and the possibility of maximizing other features on the phone by reading the latest updates via their browsers. The most convincing argument of all, though, is the increase in online sales through our e‑commerce site.

In January 2013, we tested the scalability of our venture by carrying out a pilot project with local artisans in Bikaner, India. In February, we held the Sasa Annual Conference to celebrate artisans who have excelled through personal drive and by using our technology to gain access to the global market. This was an opportunity to instil the best technical and business practices, get consumer feedback and promote branding.

Is the business environment in Kenya conducive to your project and activities — especially as a female innovator?

CM: Kenya is the perfect first market for our business tools because of pervasive mobile infrastructure (over 75 per cent mobile phone ownership), mobile money penetration and ubiquitous mobile banking, and reliable shipping infrastructure. Sasa’s vendor network currently spans the city of Nairobi, encompassing low-income women of multiple ethnic and cultural affiliations. Looking five years ahead, we see our platform serving as the standard for equitable international exchange, connecting female vendors and consumers around the world. We have forged strong relationships with banks, telecommunication companies and marketing channels to make Sasa a sustainable success.

Kenya, through Vision 2030, recognizes information and communication technologies (ICT) as a foundation for a knowledge economy. Accordingly, the government’s objective is to ensure that the country has a competitive telecommunication industry that delivers reliable and affordable services and products for the economic and social benefit of citizens. The government has also launched an ICT-based incubation programme to increase the capabilities of entrepreneurs through improved technical and business skills, business counselling and access to affordable services and facilities. It also seeks to facilitate access to finance by small- and medium-sized enterprises, provide better linkages with both the academic community and industry, and quicker commercialization of innovations. The government is striving to put in place a reliable and efficient connectivity infrastructure to improve the performance of ICT. All of these measures provide empowering conditions to facilitate women’s pursuit of technological innovation and commercial success.

What are the next steps for your project?

CM: SasaAfrica aims to grow into new markets once we have successfully scaled up within Kenya. By the end of 2013 we will have created a niche market with an estimated 250 vendors selling to 6000 customers around the world. This will be the groundwork for expansion into three new markets in Sub-Saharan Africa starting early 2014. By 2015 SasaAfrica is expected to connect over 18 000 vendors from developing regions to global e‑commerce and help them to gain access to formal banking.

We aim to partner with telecommunication companies to roll out a national cross-branding campaign, promoting our services at every mobile kiosk and sales point that they operate. Our marketing model aims to grow along trust networks, incentivizing vendors to recruit other micro-manufacturers.

To meet vendor demand, we are expanding our mobile business tools and creating a custom marketplace. To meet consumer demand, we will extend our product offerings, serving both the retail and wholesale markets.

Our social impact is integral to our business success. We must ensure that the community groups using our technology can eventually afford to participate as consumers in the marketplace that we are creating.

Our social and economic success is measured in the percentage reduction of health risks among vendors. The economic empowerment of craftswomen is measured in the number of new micro-enterprises registered. And our contribution to closing the global digital divide is measured by the number of new female mobile users.

A woman is still 23 per cent less likely than a man to own a phone in Africa. By extending the benefits of mobile phone ownership and Internet access to women, a number of social and economic goals can be achieved.

Who or what inspired you to study computer science?

CM: Imagine a world without computers. There would be no laptops, Internet, modern cars, trains or aircraft. There would be no mobile phones or digital cameras. Computer science provides the knowledge base that drives the game changing innovations in today’s world.

From a young age, I was fascinated by science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Family support motivated my sister to study civil engineering and me to study computer science. Although these are male-dominated fields, my parents’ positive attitude provided an empowering environment, and we were encouraged to pursue our own interests.

I want to push technology forward in a way that has a positive impact on society, so computer science was the perfect career choice.

What obstacles did you have to overcome to succeed academically?

CM: Being a female student or a female entrepreneur in a male-dominated technology field is challenging, and comes with a distinct set of barriers. Women often have a taller mountain to climb to advance their careers in the technology industry because there are few women role models to emulate or who can provide career advice.

The start-up culture was relatively new when I was at University, and one of the challenges was to find like-minded entrepreneurial women who could help me overcome the obstacles inherent in starting a venture. I took the initiative of joining the ICT for Development workshops to hone my computer programming and entrepreneurship skills. Attending such forums gave me an insight into how my career would develop after university.

This is why I have been promoting mentoring, so that girls can connect with women who have succeeded in the ICT domain and see that ICT experts are not necessarily male.

Despite the lack of peer support groups among female students, I was driven by the passion that I could achieve anything I believed in.

During my final year, I took a risk by being the only student to do a hardware project. The challenge I set myself was to fuse my passion for physics and engineering with my computer science skills. Disregarding comments about the advisability of sticking to a software project, I decided to follow my gut feeling and do what I loved. With careful planning I was able to both start a venture and deliver a completed hardware system, proving that women can take up a challenge, set the pace, and accomplish what they want to achieve.

 All photographs in this interview are by Stephanie Sunderland, SasaAfrica photography fellow

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