A Kenyan Named Africa’s Most Successful Women By Forbes
A Kenyan Named Africa’s Most Successful Women By Forbes
Isis Nyong’o, 35, is the Vice President and Managing Director of the African operations of InMobi, the world’s largest independent mobile advertising network. A native of Kenya, she has degrees from Stanford and Harvard and has previously worked in senior management positions at MyJobsEye (Kenya’s leading Job site), MTV, and most recently, Google.
In January, she was selected as a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum She recently opened up to Forbes Contributor Mfonobong Nsehe on her career, her thoughts on the future of mobile advertising in Africa and her African legacy.
Your entire career has spanned the media and technology sectors – from MyJobsEye to MTV, then Google and now Inmobi. What’s the fascination?
I find media and tech to be the most exciting and challenging industries in Africa. This is where the level and speed of innovation is at its highest; when it comes to media, the continent is experiencing the same paradigm shift facing global media houses. They are grappling with how to engage with and monetize increasingly fragmented audiences who are consuming media through digital channels including mobile. Technology is an enabler for things to progress and move forward and it is inspiring to see the projects developers are working on in the technology hubs in Nairobi, Lagos and Cape Town. It is great that InMobi can play a pivotal part in monetizing many of these projects given how central mobile devices are for everyday life in Africa.
What exactly does Inmobi do? Explain this to my grandmother who doesn’t have a college degree.
InMobi is in the business of connecting brands to consumers through their mobile devices. We do this through a mobile advertising network. In simple terms we partner with developers who have created applications (or software) for mobile phones, and publishers who have mobile websites such as news or sports websites. We then find brands who want to advertise something to these people visiting these mobile websites or using these applications, and we display their banner adverts on these platforms. We then pay the publisher or developer a percentage of the revenue that was received from the advertiser.
You’re running the African operations of the world’s largest mobile advertising network. How has the ride been so far?
This is a fast paced and ever changing environment. My day is filled with back-to-back meetings, and I could be in 5 different countries within a 5-day work week. My peers at InMobi who head up the other regions around the world are some of the top people in the digital media industry which makes them an extremely dynamic team to work with. As we are a global organization, there are often conference calls in the middle of the night and early hours of the morning; InMobi never sleeps. [Editor’s note: InMobi is a San Francisco company with offices worldwide.]
How many people are connected to your network in Africa, and how many ad impressions do you serve every month?
We currently reach 35 million consumers on a monthly basis in Africa, and this is done through serving over 8 billion ad impressions a month.
How would you describe your work at InMobi? What are some of the biggest challenges – personal and professional – you’ve encountered thus far?
I’ve faced innumerable challenges in my career but would distill it to 3 recurring themes. First, since I have worked for such cutting edge companies, I’ve faced uphill battles convincing customers to take risks and test products/services completely new to the market and/or disruptive to their current operations. Second, the lack of accessible and accurate data on key market indicators needed to shape business decisions creates more uncertainty and amplifies risk perceptions of Africa – which has a knock on effect of slower pace of investment decisions, whether that investment is people or other resources. Third, there is a very real scarcity of talent for emerging industries operating in Africa, which can be a limiting factor to business growth.
I know mobile phone penetration across the African continent has hit record highs in the past few years- over 600 million Africans are now active mobile phone users. But does this naturally translate into success for mobile advertising? I feel mobile advertising is still a relatively new concept to Africans. How receptive are Africans advertisements on their mobile phones?
Africans are mobile centric, we are comfortable with our mobile phones and use them extensively. We conducted research in February and found that Africans (South Africa 79%, Kenya 89%) are more receptive to mobile advertising than consumers are in the rest of the World (66%). Having said that, mobile advertising is still in its infancy in Africa – brands are only beginning to realize the opportunity while consumers are ahead of them to the tune of 100 million (current number of users in Africa accessing the Internet through their mobile devices). Since feature phone penetration is much higher than smart phone which limits the use of rich media, as we see the growth in smartphones, we will see highly engaging and creative campaigns being deployed.
Do you think mobile media is a very viable and effective advertising channel?
Yes, a mobile device is unique in that people are highly engaged with it, it is often the first thing and last thing that is used each day. People have their mobile devices with them constantly; they facilitate social sharing, they allow for instant interactions, whether that be an instant search, or buying something. People use their mobile phones while they are economically active, not during downtime like when they are reading a magazine or watching TV. Lastly, when people are watching TV, many of them are multi-tasking, and using their mobile device at the same time, most likely during the commercial breaks.
What’s the future for mobile advertising in Africa?
As I’ve already mentioned, the future lies in the increasing adoption of smartphones, which will enable rich media, and other more engaging ad formats. In addition, we are beginning to see much more locally produced content that mobile advertising will fund.
What are your long term goals for your work at InMobi?
My long term goals are to grow the mobile eco-system in many more African countries. Currently the main players are Nigeria, South Africa, Kenya and Egypt, so we have many places to help grow this eco-system. By growing the mobile eco-system, many jobs are created which in turn enriches the lives of Africans.
You’re a lady who has thrived in tech – an industry which has traditionally been regarded as a domain for men. What advice would you give to young, ambitious women who are looking to compete in a male-dominated industry?
The tech industry is in its infancy in Africa so the rules can be redrawn. Women who are interested in exploring a career in tech should strive to seek out any opportunity to learn, gain experience and contribute. I’d encourage everyone keen on shaping our continent’s future to focus more on what they can contribute individually and collectively than on perceived status quo such as imbalance of men and women.
Provide some perspective: Should people pursue what they love doing or what they possess a natural talent for?I think if you pursue what you love doing, you probably have a natural talent for it, and if you don’t, it won’t be long before you do.
What is your philosophy in business and in life?
I’ll save this one for my book.
Congratulations on being named as a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum! How did that make you feel? Relive the experience.
I’m extremely proud that my work in Africa has put me on the World Economic Forum’s radar – recognition of this caliber is truly an honor. In my everyday business I meet many people working on amazing projects across the continent so to be noticed is both rewarding and motivating.
I’m eager to engage with the YGL fraternity at large and have received a warm reception from my fellow African members.
What will your African legacy be?
I never faltered to reimagine Africa and contributed to this unique phase in our continent’s history in a meaningful way.
By Mfonobong Nsehe, Forbes Contributor