3 March 2016

East Africa: Grocewheels' Founder On the Raw Realities of Entrepreneurship in Rwanda

interview

Entrepreneurship can be painful -- literally. Gael Murara knows this firsthand. The founder of GroceWheels, an online grocery delivery service in Kigali, Rwanda, broke his leg when the delivery vehicle he was riding in crashed. In typical startup fashion, he was personally running orders to his clients.

But he's focused on the silver lining. Prior to the accident, he'd been doing everything -- running deliveries, liaising with suppliers, taking orders. The incident confined him to the house and forced him to focus on the company's website, which he turned into a platform for listing products and taking orders.

March 2016 marks the one-year anniversary for his first delivery. Since then, he's accumulated some 100 customers -- including families, offices, and NGOs -- and completed several hundred orders, which average around Rwf 35,000 (US$50) each. He's hired four full-time employees and works with dozens of suppliers. This month, he'll launch an Android app and one for the iPhone shortly thereafter.

All in all, it's been a busy year. AkilahNet caught up with Murara to find out what it takes to get a fledgling business off the ground and pursue your dream. Spoiler alert: It's not easy, nor always fun, but for many like Murara, it's the only thing they can imagine doing.

How did you get the idea for GroceWheels?

I'm Rwandan, but I'd grown up in Ivory Coast, Tunisia, and Canada. After I graduated from Polytechnique Montréal with a degree in civil engineering, I wanted to reconnect with my roots in Rwanda. I moved to Kigali in July 2014 and found a job as a civil engineer that took me upcountry; I traveled there once or twice a week.

I noticed my driver would always buy foodstuff in the upcountry. He told me it was much cheaper there than in Kigali. One morning I woke up very early before work, went to market, and started asking around about pricing. I found the products there were 100% to 200% cheaper than in Kigali.

I started looking into price margins and how people grocery shop. I realized that people don't really know how much things cost. You negotiate and end up with the price depending on your income and social status; the price might sound right to you, but no one really knows the exact price except the farmers.

What did the early days look like at GroceWheels?

I started in March 2015 by delivering to family and friends on weekends to test the idea and get feedback. I did that for six months, and people really liked the service. It allowed me to understand the markets and pricing trends.

By August, I was ready to launch a platform. After I broke my leg doing deliveries myself, I was able to sit down and actually thoroughly think through the business, and GroceWheels became what it is today. In November, I launched the GroceWheels website.

I'd ask clients for their order lists and week after week, I would add their products to the website. I made sure the product categories were what the customers were looking for. I work directly with suppliers, so if we don't have something, I'll make a point of trying to find it.

Your background is in civil engineering. Why leave the cushy corporate world for entrepreneurship?

I always thought about myself as a intrapreneur and not an entrepreneur. I wanted to go up the corporate ladder and maybe end up at the top. But I believed in my idea. I also didn't really like how some companies were managed and how you might be only one motivated to do your job. I wanted to see if I could create a new company culture and new style of management. It's easy to complain about other bosses, but I wanted to see if I could become that good boss.

I just knew it was now or never. I have the time, and I'm young, so I can still do something else if it doesn't work out.

Were you able to transfer any of your past work experience to your new role as CEO or did you have to learn everything fresh?

I specialized in project management, and what I'm basically doing now is managing resources and trying to bring efficiency to my clients. But instead of concrete and building materials, I'm working with tomatoes these days.

What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in starting GroceWheels?

I realized that the model is very innovative, even with other online delivery services, such as hellofood [a restaurant delivery service] , people don't always understand our business. I'm not selling a product like tomatoes; I'm selling convenience and saving you time. But many people don't understand why they are paying for something they cannot see.

People will say that my product is expensive and they will stop at the price tag.

My prices are probably 10% to 15% more, but when people actually sit down and factor in transport costs, their time at the market, and the overall convenience, then it's really close. And the more we grow, the products will be become cheaper.

I'm a service, but I'm not a luxury service. You need Internet to place an order on the website, but you can also call us or send us an SMS.

What advice would you give to entrepreneurs considering starting a company like yours?

You need to form a good network so you can send an email to a group of people and get their advice. It also gives you credibility.

You also need to understand people. I work with a lot of suppliers at the market; they are mostly women who didn't have a higher education, but they know their stuff. You need to understand what motivates them. Maybe they've raised the prices on you because they have kids at home they need to feed. In that case, you could say, "I'll pay you more, but I want higher quality in return." You'll still get screwed over sometimes, but you'll end up finding people you can trust.

Also, it's simply hard work. I was doing everything myself. I broke my leg for this company. So you really need to believe in what you're doing and be stubborn. You need to get hands-on in your business. Sometimes my employees take three hours at the market instead of one, but I've gone to the market myself. I remember what it's like and what it takes. I used to deliver all the orders myself, and you can get good customer feedback that way. I'm a service -- I'm moving tomatoes from point A to point B, so customer service is everything.

Are you seeking investment at this stage?

I don't have investors right now. I'm using my savings and profits right now and growing slowly. I want to keep growing and building that way, and once I have big contract, then I'll go looking for funding.

When I started, I was always looking for money and pitching, but I realized it takes a lot of time and pulls you away from your business. I think when you have a lot of money, you tend to spend it. I'm not sure I'd be as efficient. When you have to do things with a small budget, you're more imaginative. With inventors, you also have to report to people. We're not ready for that yet.

What are your plans for the future?

We have a very strong business model, and I think we can export it around the region and to other areas of Africa. I've lived in Ivory Coast and Tunisia, so I have good networks there. Rwanda is the perfect place to pilot projects because it's a small market without much competition. It's easy to show that we did it here for a year, and it worked. Then we just need to adapt it for other countries.

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