Former Kenyan Diaspora sees opportunity back home
When James I Salamba left Kenya to study in the US 17 years ago, mobile phones were a preserve of the rich, rural areas were mostly inaccessible and mobile money was non-existent. Three years ago he moved back home to run his IT business, Jamo Designs, which focuses on digital marketing, strategy and training, as well as app development.
Founder of Jamo Designs, James I Salamba
Salamba says coming back home to participate in a nascent industry gives him the opportunity to “shape the rules of the game”.
“In the western world the rules have already been defined. Here it is a new territory and that is where the opportunity is,” he says. “I like being an outlier, not swimming where everything is happening but swimming where it is much tougher. You can really make it big here.”
The 37-year-old entrepreneur told How we made it in Africa that “opportunities here are endless”.
“We haven’t done half the things that have been done in developed economies. We are just now building highways. The beauty of it all is that here even the small accomplishments and the small miracles are indeed huge miracles.”
Salamba started Jamo Designs in the US two years after graduating.
“It was after the September 11 bombing so the economy was not doing very well. The company I worked for went down and in my next job I just didn’t feel I was getting anywhere. I am just too ambitious. I figured it was time to start my own business. I didn’t have the luxury to wait. I started in my own apartment doing graphics and web design.”
Salamba describes his initial experience trying to acquire customers and build a brand in a foreign country as “tough”.
“Can you imagine, you are a foreigner, you have an accent and you are trying to tell people that you know technology… it took a lot of networking, talking to small businesses, especially the mom and pop stores. I was focusing on restaurants, pizza places, dairy shops…”
Eventually business picked up and Salamba was able to move into an office and hire staff. After seven years of running the business Salamba relocated.
“While in the US I had tried to be an investor here and it just didn’t work,” he says. “I left Kenya when I was 20. I just did not have a good understanding of the market anymore. That is why I decided to come back, build partnerships, get to know the other players and help improve this ecosystem.”
Jamo Designs offers a wide range of services including online branding, e-commerce, web design, social media strategy and management and traffic generation. The company targets mid to high level businesses that are keen to have an online presence and build their brands, increase revenues and fight off competition.
Although social media is popular among millions of mobile phone subscribers in Africa, Salamba says many businesses are yet to figure out how to transform the numbers of “followers and friends” into actual sales.
“The leading companies in Kenya, for instance, mostly use social media for customer care issues like handling customer complaints, and not really to sell products and generate revenues. This is a new market and it will take years to really shape up the product and the market.”
He notes that there is a need for research to find out if customers who use social media channels actually ‘listen’ to brand messages, how effective it is and how companies can transform this into revenues.
One of the hurdles Salamba faces is adapting to the local business culture.
“Having come from a culture where people mean what they say 90% of the time, the big challenge here is that people don’t always mean what they say. So it is harder getting commitment and information. Things always drag for a while. You know the culture of hakuna haraka tutafanya hiyo (there is no hurry, we will do that),” he says.
He adds that existing technology information gaps among businesses are also a big challenge.
“Corporate firms don’t quite understand how to effectively use digital media to improve their business. There is still a lot of education gaps [and] technology gaps between the users and the customers that we serve.”
Salamba’s ultimate goal is to run a leading regional digital company, but in the meantime his focus is on maintaining gradual growth and building a strong brand.
“I am not looking at having VCs to invest in me so that I can have all the money and hire whoever I want. I need space to create, figure out my journey and focus on the direction I want to take. The good thing about being an SME is that you can see the growth, you can easily make changes and do research on consumer patterns and behaviour. All this gets me on the path to becoming a leading digital company in the region.”
Salamba urges other technology entrepreneurs to focus on simplicity to be able to reach the masses, not just the elite in cities.
“The genius of Microsoft and Google is that they made it a lot simpler for an ordinary person to use their services.”
Entrepreneurs should also ditch the “instant millionaire mentality”.
“I think the biggest mistake we are making right now, especially in technology is the impatience,” says Salamba. “People want the million dollar deal today. We have to be patient, build the local industry, have a workable plan, get the right partnerships, be consistent and find people you can work with here and in outside markets.”
He adds that young emerging entrepreneurs should look beyond coding and beef up the business development side of their startups.
“The young entrepreneurs in university are doing well but my issue with them is on the process of building a sustainable business. If you look at [at the founders of Microsoft] Bill Gates and Paul Allen, you will see that they were successful because they focused not just on the tech but on the business as well. Yes, we should be good at the coding but we also need people to enhance the business development side of things.”
Salamba says he is optimistic technology alongside other industries will prosper in the continent in coming years. Africa, he says, is taking the path of Brazil and India which transformed their economies two decades ago.
“We are getting there and that is why it is so exiting to be back home and to do business in Africa.”
Salamba explains that with the improving business environment and with immense opportunities for growth in various sectors, now is the best time for African migrants to come back home.
“When people left Kenya in the 1990s, the country was basically dead, no houses were being constructed, no roads were being made and today we are sitting at Java (a homegrown leading coffee chain) with all these people in here. So much has changed in the last decade. People in the diaspora should come back home before it all goes and they become the foreigners. Things are changing quite fast.”