How a passionate startup is driving the growth of East Africa’s tech industry

by Jobbatical October 06, 2016

Uganda’s emerging tech scene is ready to welcome engineers with a sense of mission

Motorcycle taxis are incredibly popular in African cities, with more than five million of them operating across the continent. Quicker and more affordable than cars, motorcycle taxis—boda boda—are a vital part of daily life for millions of people.

Founded in 2014, SafeBoda is a Ugandan startup that aims to make motorcycle taxis more safe, affordable, and convenient across cities in Sub-Saharan Africa.

View of Kampala from SafeBoda offices

Jeff Whitlock, Head of Product at SafeBoda, joined the team in Kampala two months ago. “While I was in college, I spent a few years living in West Africa—in Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Ghana—and just really fell in love with the region,” says Jeff. From then on, he knew he wanted to tie his career to Africa in some way. It was a friend’s recommendation that eventually brought Jeff from the States to Uganda’s sprawling capital to fulfil his dream of doing meaningful work in an environment he finds inspiring.

The story of SafeBoda

SafeBoda was founded when one of the company’s cofounders, in Kampala on business, noticed that most people using motorcycle taxis weren’t wearing helmets and didn’t seem to be paying much attention to safety in general. “It was a really big market failure. You had all of these bodas — there’s something like a million trips taken a day in Kampala — and probably less than 1% of them had helmets or thought about safety in any systematic way,” says Jeff. “That was the germination of the idea. And that idea still really connects to our mission.”

SafeBoda drivers on the streets of Kampala

“It’s a huge market that’s largely informal and very disorganized, so our mission is to solve this problem of safety, convenience, and transparency,” says Jeff. The company does this today by providing helmets and reflective jackets for drivers, and building a community of drivers committed to customer service, traffic rules, road safety and bike maintenance. The SafeBoda app allows passengers to reward and rate drivers, as well as to see who’s picking them up.

The SafeBoda driver community works hard to keep standards high

While the community of 1100 drivers (and counting) is the literal driving force behind SafeBoda, the team is much smaller on the tech side, comprising five young developers hungry for mentorship. That’s why, as a side quest in addition to their bigger mission, SafeBoda is now looking for an experienced CTO to lead and inspire the team behind the app. “We’ve had quite a bit of success drumming up candidates, but we’re still not sure we’ve found the person that’s just perfect,” says Jeff. And it’s no wonder—being a startup CTO in an emerging economy is a challenge that takes serious hustle and passion.

The future of tech in Africa

In Kampala, there’s plenty of hustle and passion to go around. “The tech scene is nascent. It’s got that early energy that’s exciting,” says Jeff. “When I came here, it was my first objective to plug into the scene, and I’ve been really impressed with some of the things that are happening.”

Regionally, too, there’s a lot of focus on tech and things in the industry are speeding up. “I think Kenya had its first unicorn a while back, and Kenya also pioneered mobile money. That’s been an innovation that’s influenced the West. So there’s definitely things happening in the region—it’s exciting to see and it’s exciting to be part of it. ”

What does the future hold for tech in Africa? “I think you’ll see a few hubs develop across the region,” Jeff predicts. “I hope Kampala’s one of them. Nairobi will certainly be one, along with Lagos, Johannesburg, Cape Town, and a few others. You’re seeing increased economic collaboration across African states, decreasing barriers to capital and human flow. These developing hubs will be magnets for talent in the region, and you’ll see quite a few innovations that solve problems unique to Africa. I don’t know if I believe that tech companies in the West will be the ones to solve these problems. It will be African companies, using technology in an exciting way, and I’m really excited to see what happens.”

Why is Kampala a good destination for global talent on the move?

“It’s a very liveable city with lots of cool stuff going on and great regional attractions,” says Jeff. “You’re a few hours from going rafting on the Nile or hiking glaciers in the west of the country. You’re very close to safari game drives, to going mountain gorilla tracking… You’re also a short flying distance from some of the most beautiful places on the planet, such as Zanzibar, the Kenyan coast, Kilimanjaro, or the largest active lava lake in the world.”

A mountain gorilla in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. Photo by Andrey Gudkov/Shutterstock

The appeal is obvious to outdoor enthusiasts, but the cultural side of the country is equally fascinating. “It’s very neat to get exposure to this culture of people who are very friendly and kind and welcoming to foreigners. There’s definitely a strong, unique culture here,” says Jeff.

Like any developing country, Uganda offers its own set of challenges to those who make it their home. “I’d be totally salesy if I didn’t say there were challenges,” Jeff concedes. “Internet is spotty. At SafeBoda offices, we’re getting Fiber, so that should help a lot. Generally speaking, access to internet is frustrating but manageable, and we’ve found ways to make it work. There are conveniences that you don’t have easy access to — fast food isn’t really common at all. Maybe you’re not going to be able to find your favorite brand of cereal every time you go to the store. The power goes out every now and again. The traffic can be quite bad. If you’re married to your car, that could be a bit of a problem. But if you’re working for SafeBoda, you get around it — I use SafeBoda exclusively to get around the city!”

All things considered, is it worth it?

“It’s great. Someone who can’t function without Whole Foods, Starbucks and Amazon might find it frustrating. But if you’re looking for a really great experience doing something that’s meaningful, it can be awesome. And the challenges are, at the end of the day, really not that bad. Just do it,” says Jeff, his advice based on his own search for a worthwhile challenge. “I had always wanted to come back to Africa and do something that I truly felt was meaningful.”

“I had a very comfortable life. But did I really feel inspired every morning when I got up? Was I contributing in a way that I found meaningful? At the end of the day, the answer was no.”

“There were always reasons to not get out and take these huge risks and do something that I thought was meaningful. But people who make contributions to humanity take huge risks that are in line with their passions. And my advice would be just to do that.”

Got the passion, hustle, and tech experience to lead a driven team of developers in a truly exciting environment? Apply for the CTO position at SafeBoda here.

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