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Technology

Lessons that shaped Cellulant into billion-shilling revenue firm

Cellulant co-founder and Group CEO  Ken Njoroge during an interview at his Nairobi office. PHOTO | FILE
Cellulant co-founder and Group CEO Ken Njoroge during an interview at his Nairobi office. PHOTO | FILE 

Ken Njoroge’s Cellulant first burst into public limelight with his music ringtone business that saw musicians earn a share of the money paid by music-lovers to access their favourite songs.

While Mr Njoroge enjoyed the limelight, 80per cent of the proceeds were swallowed by mobile operators forcing him to abandon the business and go back to the drawing board.

“I looked at what a mobile phone could do and used my Information Technology knowledge to create a new programme that enabled people to gain access to their bank savings to pay for goods and services as well as withdraw cash,” says Mr Njoroge, Cellulant Group chief executive.

But his new ‘baby’ did not find any suitors and he went ahead to create a new mobile platform that enabled bank account holders to operator their accounts on an online platform from their computers or hand held Internet-ready sets.

Struggles

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Mr Njoroge had then met Nigerian pharmacist Bolaji Akinboro who worked in Nairobi with the World Bank in launching the African Virtual University and they spent endless manhours formulating different programmes that hardly flourished.

“I and Bolaji know one another too well…..he can finish a sentence I started and I can tell you an answer he would give for any problem before him since we spent many hours together living in the same room for a whole eight years,” he adds.

It was Bolaji who used funds generated from his World Bank job to bankroll their entire venture while a jobless Njoroge spent all day and night worrying about Cellulant which had been registered as an IT firm in 2004.

“Lacking capital or angel investors to fund a struggling start-up is holding up Kenya’s potential of unlocking new revenue streams, solutions and jobs,” he adds as he reflects his struggle that ended with Cellulant launching operations in 10 countries, employing 300people and its annual revenue rising to several billions of shillings.

Cellulant nearly shut down as Bolaji overstretched his debit card limit on several occasions when their products lacked customers, but all changed when M-Pesa started operations and Cellulant received several offers to develop an online and mobile banking platform for several banks.

It quickly expanded across Uganda and Tanzania as the banks sought it services in their subsidiaries.It now serves 50 banks via 40 mobile phone operators and has a clientele of 40million people in 10 countries.

“Companies must never look back when such an opportunity strikes. Do not fear to expand or go beyond your traditional markets, but go out there in uncharted markets.Our dream is to provide Africa with a virtual payment mall for people to transact business anywhere and pay for the same securely via a mobile phone payment platform linked to their bank accounts,” he adds.

Mr Njoroge remembers his days at Nakuru’s Menengai High School where the motto was ‘Labor Omnia vincit (Hardwork conquers all) and urges start-ups and other entrepreneurs to put in all efforts and hours until they get a breakthrough.

“My mother kept driving one message, excellence hardly looks at how much money you have, but a thoroughness in your work, disciplined and an ardent reader.”

While doing his undergraduate studies at Strathmore Univesity Mr Njoroge worked at Internet firm, Interconnect  and after a while moved to Formnet where he had a first shot at generating solutions for various statistical challenges for private companies.

He joined hands with two friends and founded 3Mice(three small people) but sold it to Africa Online when they were unable to make ends meet and then went ahead to found Cellulant with his close friend and later his ‘bestman’ Bolaji.

To grow their business, they lured investors into the business and gave out 50per cent stake and a further 16 per cent which helped them fly around Africa seeking customers.

In 2011, Cellulant was contracted develop an e-wallet, a phone-based platform to distribute fertliser and improved seeds to farmers in Nigeria.It took off in 2012 and has todate moved over Sh100 billion subsidy payments to 15 million peasant farmers inthe West African State.

The programme’s success has also been replicated in Liberia with Cellulant expanding its operations to Nigeria, Tanzania, Malawi, Uganda, Zambia, Ghana, Zimbabwe, Botswana and Mozambique with 12 more new businesses planned for opening in the next four years.

“Our company’s value is in the Afria-wide dream and that is when we shall look at the possibility of listing our businesses either in individual countries we are in or as one big conglomerate in a single market. We are not there yet. Africans must show the world they can solve their own problems technologically,” he says.

Among their offerings include mobile payment solutions and the One-Stop Payments platform where banks link customers to their accounts via a mobile- based system enabling them to perform various tasks.

Billion dollar company

They also boast of a Tingg Mobile Card Reader that enables customers to pay for goods and services using a credit or debit card from any bank across their markets.

“We are a people company that transformed the lives of 15 million farmers improving harvests and incomes from Sh70,000 to over Sh180,000, connecting them to 2,500 agro-dealers, 115 seed companies, 75 fertiliser suppliers and a number of insurance companies,” he adds.

Here in Kenya Celulant, which has managed to keep a low profile has lucrative contracts with among others DStv, Jambojet, Nairobi Water, Zuku and Startimes.

“I want to see Cellulant subsidiaries across Africa run by indigenous chief executives and teams in those respective markets. We can also have our billion dollar Pan-African company enabling our people to trade goods and services seamlessly across national borders,” he says.

Mr Njoroge adds that successful businesses must also be ready to expand via sale of equity as family sources do reach a saturation point and can no longer fund a company’s expansion.

“Bolaji and I own n iota of the business- 34per cent - while the rest was taken up by equity investors,” he says.

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