At the peak of the Covid-19 pandemic, Kenyans and organisations relied on the Ministry of Health (MoH) to provide daily briefings and infection models to curb the spread of the virus.
Unknown to many, little-known digital consultancy firm Qhala was the brain behind the health data platform that was used to collect and model Covid-19 infections and deaths to better manage the situation in the country at the time.
Qhala is an innovation company that helps organisations including governments to digitise their processes in the race to meet people's needs.
“There's a lot of promise in digital technologies. I mean digital is the future, and so for us at Qhala we try to help organisations transform their operations not just for the sake of it, but based on research and data," says Shiko Gitau, co-founder and CEO of Qhala.
While for the past decade organisations have been pivoting by adopting digital technologies in the race to improve operations, most are facing capacity issues with a shortage of talent to help firms in their transformation journey.
Dr Gitau says that Qhala was formed as a result of her experience in setting up three innovation initiatives that helped her former employers introduce digital processes into their work.
"I realised that digital is not a preserve of the tech world because it permeates our whole world," says Dr Gitau.
This realisation is part of the reasons for starting Qhala to assist in integrating digital technologies in all areas of a business, to change how firms operate, and to increase the value delivered to their customers.
The former head of products and innovation at Safaricom was responsible for setting up the telco’s innovation hub dubbed Safaricom Alpha and has also been part of similar initiatives at Africa Development Bank (AfDB), Google, and Microsoft.
She formed Qhala in 2019 together with Nicholas Loki, a software engineer whose experience spans the banking, insurance, and telecommunication industries.
The Covid-19 modeling platform may perhaps be the firm’s most visible innovation, but the Nairobi-based start-up has worked on several other projects with private companies, non-profit organisations, and governments across the region.
The platform was a collaboration with the University of Nairobi and the Ministry of Health.
"We have worked on the iHelix programme which connects corporates to start-ups and the Kenya Airways Fahari innovation challenge. We have also worked with Stanbic Bank Zambia on their innovation challenges," Dr Gitau says.
The firm has operations in Kenya, Ghana, Rwanda, Uganda, South Africa, and Nigeria.
Massive investments by Big Tech including Microsoft, Google and Amazon have intensified pressure on local firms to adopt technology in their operations.
Amid a shortage of talent, companies are turning to firms like Qhala to help them pivot by adopting new trends and technologies.
As blockchain, cloud computing, artificial intelligence (AI) and other new technologies redefine how people live and work, firms regardless of size, are being forced to expand their products and services to meet new consumer needs.
Qhala believes it is on the way to being a major player in Africa's digital transformation journey.
Dr Gitau says they are working to expand its healthcare platforms as they race to provide solutions that will make access to treatment and lab services easier and cheaper.
They are also concentrating on making organisations understand the importance of making digital investments based on research and data, which she says has been lacking.
“What we do differently at Qhala is take our clients on the digital transformation journey step-by-step. We tailor our solutions based on extensive research and data which makes our solutions effective,” says Dr Gitau.
The challenge facing most firms now, big companies and start-ups alike, is to have the right brains to create platforms that improve processes, she reckons.
Digital technologies have gained a lot of significance, giving rise to start-ups that have upset the dominance of large corporations.
The inaugural FT annual ranking of Africa’s fastest-growing companies early this year showed that some of the start-ups are raking in billions by having full digital operations.
Except for retailer Quickmart and agricultural inputs distributor East African Business Company, the Kenyan fastest-expanding firms on the FT list, two others topped the rankings in the continent for leveraging technology in offering products.