Harnessing The Power of Technology for a Better World

11/21/2018
Halima Q&A

There’s no denying the impact technology has made on the way we do business and they way we live our day-to-day lives. While these new innovations are continually evolving and advancing, entrepreneurs are harnessing their power to drive impact for a better world.

The surge in technology-driven solutions for a fairer, greener and more human economy is especially emergent in Africa. More and more African entrepreneurs are developing and delivering new technology to help improve lives, build sustainable communities and empower and engage citizens. These companies are what we call ‘Born B’—and many of them are going on to become B Corps.  

Last month, we joined B Lab East Africa to celebrate “the Heroes of the New Economy”, launching the founding community of B Corps in Kenya and announcing a new partnership to help build African ventures that prioritise people and the planet alongside profit.

One of these African companies harnessing technology for a better, more transparent and accountable world is Wonderkid. We sat down with Halima Murunga, Head of Business Development for the company, to discuss her journey as a purpose-driven entrepreneur, what impact means for Wonderkid and how it’s measured and the biggest lessons she’s learned along the way.

What is your business and mission?
Wonderkid is a technology company established in 2007. Our mission has always been working for social impact in various sectors, agriculture, water and sanitation. What makes us unique is our approach to tech. We see tech as a tool to enable people’s potential. The way we design our system is very user-driven and we work closely with our teams, whether it’s a water utility or a hospital. We’ve worked to understand systemic challenges and how best to adapt delivery. Efficiency is always of value to the poorest of society, those who are not working. The more efficient the system, the more likely they are to receive better services.

What does purpose mean to Wonderkid and why is it important? What initially inspired this approach to your work?
As a company, we strongly believe that tech should be used to make a difference in everyday life. And this has been our mantra for the last 11 years. We believe that ICTs can significantly lower the cost of access for essential services even when some of these sectors don’t seem to be financially sustainable. The number of people who depend on those sectors justify why they need tech investment. Around that, we look at ways in which we can build commercially sustainable business models. We have been able to build alternative solutions in various sectors including legal, health, water, agriculture and so forth with a much lower central cost of ownership in the long-run.

How do you define and measure your impact in general and on your community, consumers, employees and supply chain?
First, in terms of community, we are currently working with about 30 water utilities within five governments with approximately 6.3 million people access their services. Since these are enterprise systems, real-time, accurate data impacts decision making. We work to help them look at things commercially—their revenue generation and how many citizens are they servicing. This data impacts investments from international banks, development partners and communities, helping determine how much money these governments need to ensure they can still provide a service.

Data mapping is increasingly seen as a value-addition. We’re currently working to build up a data management system. The main sector that’s helping with these data-driven decisions is the water sector. Developing actionable strategies is where our team comes in, working with dashboards and analysts to produce data to review performance and measurement. We also see change of culture through data review. For example, for women in a male-dominated workforce, there’s often an assumption that men are performing best. Data can change cultures and help women gain more recognition.

Do your individual beliefs influence your company beliefs, and vice versa? How do they influence each other (or not)?
We tend to attract similarly minded team members around our value system, focused primarily on integrity. We make sure that the value of what we’re doing to our clients is up to par and what they expect from us, all the way down to how we engage with them directly to our internal culture. This applies not just at leadership level, but within our field teams too. We have a commitment to innovation. We’re very user-centric. Our team is full of young, hungry, Gen X-ers who want and expect this from their employer. Our employees challenge us to ensure that we’re using new and innovative ways to engage with our clients.

What was your biggest personal learning, success or pain point in your journey? What, in your opinion, was it for the company?
Leadership has been a journey of becoming. It starts off with the notion that one cannot lead unless one can lead themselves. One builds a keen sense of integrity, values, self awareness, empathy for humanity, and being assertive to define and redefine direction. And your team is able to go in that direction.

In the midst of my youth and passion for the environment and how it relates to our urban geography, I started an eco-consultancy. I was driven by passion but lacked the necessary leadership skills or knowledge to scale the business in tune with financial sustainability and evolving business environment. It was devastating to see the business crumble and doubt my abilities and self-worth. Entrepreneurs must maintain a rhythm of focusing on self to maintain sanity, self-determination and perspective of the present and future, plus outward aspects of the business, continually innovating and understanding how products are impacting communities.

At Wonderkid we view the full spectrum of product development and deployment. It’s one thing to put something out there, but it’s another thing to see how it’s received. In our data collection work, we’ve also learned the value of institutional knowledge—stuff that’s not exactly stored in a file. We’ve learned that we cannot ignore this and have worked hard to harness relationships with people in the institutions we work with to see how they’ve seen these groups have evolved. Technology is about people not the solution. The joy I derive is from bringing a sense of equity and opportunities for women to grow  

How does being a private vs. public company influence your decisions around social impact? How does the board influence these decisions as well?
Naturally, private companies are driven by profit maximisation, but that is not the case for Wonderkid. Perhaps, it’s due to the conditions this company was born out of. We have a sustainable business model, focused on bringing a lasting societal impact balanced with financial sustainability to feed our growth, build our human capital and meet shareholders value.  

Our Board has now decided to diversify the company product profile to include e-commerce product that enables us to scale our social impact without having to speed up the maturity period. We are confident that by next year, this strategy will be up and running. As opposed to a publicly listed company, we don’t have pressure to show returns for shareholder value. For us, we’ve been lucky enough, that since we have operated this way for so long, combined with our leadership team, we have the ability to wait.    

What has been the role of investors, venture capital or private equity, if any, in your business? Has that impacted your purpose and in what ways?
We’re not unique in that we’ve been bootstrapping while building our team and products. We’re now having discussions with our board and are seeking angel investors who are like-minded, understand our value system and are focused on impact. We’re hoping to increase the team which will enable us to manage bigger projects, innovate our own products and move into more markets.      

How has working with other key stakeholders, from NGOs to consumers to governments, affected how you set and implement your mission? What are some of the key learnings you’ve taken from these partnerships?
Government agencies make a large segment our partners. Each agency requires a hands-on approach.  Immersing oneself to understand their mission and vision and how they see tech as a mechanism to achieve their strategic objectives. When these things are aligned, the initial uptake of our platforms is quite good. This is accompanied by custom change management and impact measurement mechanisms, which more often result in the agency adopting citizen-centric service delivery models that are informed by data to allocate resources efficiently.

We’ve also partnered with GSMA. Through that partnership, we were able to demonstrate how mobile money can change utilities and improve operational efficiency by investing in our accurate, verifiable billing systems and customer care management. Having citizen feedback is crucial toward maximising efficiency. Inefficiencies in billing erodes trust between citizens and governments. Citizen feedback creates a sense of accountability and transparency between citizens and utilities. If I was to make a mobile money payment, I have an easy way of reaching out to the utility should I want to dispute the transaction. It builds trust. One of our utility partners saw a 28 percent increase in the value of mobile money payments, through GSMA-supported verifiable and accurate readings, after reviewing citizens’ feedback.

What do you think is holding social entrepreneurs back? What recommendations do you have for policy makers, regulators and investors to shift to enabling environment for purpose-driven entrepreneurs?  
From conversations that we’ve recently had, we’ve seen one of the trends coming out of this is that banks are reluctant to lend to SMEs and social businesses. The main issue is about accessing capital. We have been lucky enough to have sufficient capital, but not everybody has that flexibility or access. We need a wider conversation with bankers and investors on how we can open up various levels of capital.

Explain your vision for how your business will help “create the future we want in 2030.”
We look forward to a world where all citizens have access to essential services—where there are workable models for delivery of water, energy and health to low-income communities, especially rural ones. In our journey, we have encountered visionary leaders who have moved up in their careers to policy-level with the influence to make a grander impact. It’s powerful to have allies and change-makers who understand how technology can be used in their countries and communities.

Our vision is to see every person lead a better life because of our accessible technology. We want to see technology enhance transparency, accountability and empowerment of the consumer.

Photo Courtesy of Wonderkid

 

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