Jay Shapiro on building a gaming business


Jay Shapiro is founder and CEO of Usiku Games. PHOTO | POOL


  • A nomad through and through, Jay, 49, is a devoted backpacker.
  • The Canadian spent 13 years in Singapore and three years in New York until 2016, with stints in Cambodia and Mexico.
  • Three years ago, Jay came to Kenya and set up Usiku Games, his current enthusiasm.

Jay Shapiro is always on the move. If anything defines the founder and CEO of Usiku Games, a gaming company, it is his knack for developing and selling brands before moving on to his next project.

A nomad through and through, Jay, 49, is a devoted backpacker. The Canadian spent 13 years in Singapore and three years in New York until 2016, with stints in Cambodia and Mexico. Three years ago, Jay came to Kenya and set up Usiku Games, his current enthusiasm.

His family is as multi-cultural as it can get. Jay is of Jewish ancestry while his wife, a Harvard graduate, and CEO of an NGO, is from St Petersburg, Russian. Their son and daughter, aged 15 and 12, were born in Singapore.

“There isn’t a place in the world I wouldn’t want to travel to,” he says.

On any given day, the Nairobi Game Development Centre at Diamond Plaza in Parklands, his headquarter, is abuzz. Here, Jay hosts more than 20 upcoming game developers, animators, illustrators and marketers under subsidised rates to jump-start their careers.

“It’s essentially a place where creators come together to create and interact,” he says.

At $120 billion, the global gaming industry has outstripped entertainment in revenues. But outside of South Africa, gaming in Africa is only starting to crawl out of obscurity.

Popular games

Big-money games such as Fortnite, Control and Microsoft Flight Simulator may be popular globally, but Jay notes that the bulk of gaming revenue comes from mobile-based “casual” games such as Candy Crush, Angry Birds and Sudoku –played predominantly by women in their 30s.

“Few people in Africa can afford gaming PCs and big consoles. But gaming is now moving to mobile phones. Google Stadia, for instance, is now streaming triple-A games through mobile devices,” he says.

It is easy to understand his brimming zeal. There are 412 million smartphone users in Africa, according to statistics from 2018. It is on mobile that the growth of gaming will implode. “I want to be here to witness this transformation and to be a part of it.”

This was his rationale for founding Usiku Games.

“Three years ago, $37 billion (Sh4 trillion) was leaving East African countries through gaming and sports betting every year. One of the betting companies had one million active daily users in Kenya alone. Usiku Games wanted to stop this outflow of money.”

To Jay, having a local gaming platform would not only prevent wealth drain but also create jobs.

“Most Kenyans ordinarily placed bets worth about Sh100. Betting wasn’t entirely about the money but the excitement that comes from the potential of winning. People were bored and wanted something to cheer them up,” he says.

Usiku Games incorporates content from local heroes and music in games that are also non-violent.

But why Kenya? Being in Kenya, he says, reminds him of Singapore in the 1990s when he settled there. “The youth bulge that’s currently happening means there’s a huge level of optimism and entrepreneurship opportunities. It’s an amazing time to be here,” he says.

Currently, the gaming space in Kenya is at what he calls the “cottage” level. Gamers, usually developers, play amongst themselves, with little, if any, revenue involved.

To make gaming a money-making venture, Jay says Kenya requires more than mere creators. “Building a gaming business is different from building a game. You need among other resources investors, office space and staff.”

Jay isn’t in gaming because he’s fanatical about it, he tells me, rather as an entrepreneur. “What Kenya needs is investors who can bring different components together, a source for funding, educate the market and build the industry.”

Already, institutions such as Strathmore Business School have started to offer courses on gaming industry elements. “There has to be mentorship and apprenticeship. Kenya needs people with these skills.’”

Away from work, Jay is an adventurer. In the past two months, he has climbed Mount Kenya, Mount Suswa, Aberdares Mountain ranges, and Mount Longonot.

“I love to hike and the nature that Kenya has. My family and I go camping as often as we can. My children love it.”

He is also the principal of the micro-school that he started for his children when Covid-19 started.

“Other than my two children, we have three others. Setting up all that and making sure that they get quality education takes up most of my time.”

His children, have taught him resilience and curiosity. “It’s a constant, wonderful journey of education. I can’t keep up with them.”

But how different is his perspective from theirs? Jay says he grew up as a consumer of media content, from comic books to music and TV. His children are creators.

“My daughter reworks everything on TikTok. She has her own YouTube channel. At only 12, she’s proficient with video editing and Photoshop because these are skills her generation needs. It’s exciting to imagine how much she will be doing at 25,” he says.

Last year, Jay took a more audacious leap. As the pandemic forced millions globally to telecommute, he created Gumzo, a teleconferencing platform, to compete with big players Zoom, Google Meets and Skype. Launched in June, Gumzo has so far recorded more than half a million meeting minutes.

“When you make calls within the Nairobi, the connection is direct and quality much better. The connection isn’t rerouted through China and other countries as with other platforms.”

But even more fascinatingly, Jay fabricated from recyclable material a few years ago a 4×4 family-sized expedition vehicle that runs entirely on biodiesel and solar power.

“I had just sold my first agency, and my wife and I needed a break from work. We wanted to explore the world with our children, but we wanted to do it in a way that wasn’t damaging to the environment,” he recalls with nostalgia.

Life lessons

He named it EcoRoamer, and in it, he and his family would embark on a tour of the world for the next 18 months, travelling 80,400 kilometres from the Arctic Circle in Alaska to California and Florida.

“The car is packed in Redwood City, California, facing southwards ready for the next expedition when my children graduate from school,” Jay says with a laugh.

A multi-culturalist, food is a major fascination for him. “Singapore is very diverse from a food perspective. There are Chinese, Japanese, Malay, Indian and European influences. There are amazing restaurants coming up in Kenya and pride in food is developing. I think container eateries are very cool.”

A TED Talks enthusiast, Jay delivered one before and is already working on his next one. “I’ll be talking about the transformation that needs to happen in the education sector.”

“The education system is preparing learners for a world that won’t exist by the time they leave school,” he observes.

As the regional gaming industry evolves, Jay says players have an opportunity to develop ethics and the right operating environment within which it thrives.

“Let’s not create games with guns and bikinis. We could start on a positive note by developing games that are both entertaining and have an element of positive social impact.”

He sees gaming as a different medium of storytelling, and to him, games should be educational and spur positive behaviour change. “By operating in this kind of model, we can make gaming for good the norm across the continent,” he proposes.

His biggest struggle as a person? Focus, he says. Valuable life lessons? Letting go. “There are so many opportunities that I would want to take, but I just can’t. With age, I now appreciate that I can’t be a part of everything.”

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