19 February 2019

Rwanda: Truecaller Seeking to Work With Rwandan Firms

Photo: Nairobi News
interview

Global tech firm Truecaller, which has over 200m users putting it in the league of top tech firms, is seeking to increase relevance in the Rwandan market by working with local start-ups and firms.

Last week, Zakaria Abdulkadir Hersi Truecaller's Director of Business Development and Partnerships, Africa, was in Kigali for an Africa tech summit. On the sidelines of the Summit, he spoke to Business Times' Collins Mwai on their interest in the Rwandan market as well as experts' opinion on Africa's tech industry.

Excerpts below:

How does Truecaller currently feature in Africa and in the global market?

Truecaller has more than 200m users globally and over 100m active users daily which puts us in the same league as global tech firms. In Africa, we have about 50 million clients. In Africa, we are trying to solve emerging market type of problems. We are mobile first, phone centric. Compared to other parts of the world such as where people use platforms such as emails more, people here call directly. However, some people also take advantage of that. For instance, in Kenya, we block 14m messages a month and 4m calls a month.

The firm is about 10 years old, how have you maintained relevance amid intense disruption?

Everything that we have done in innovation is out of our users' trends, previously we only provided incoming caller ID, then we found out that SMSs are also a huge issue with spam. Now we have become more of a communication platform because now we are able to send quite messages efficiently.

What have been some of your biggest innovations so far in regards to the emerging markets?

We have a number of innovations so far. We have the ability to have truecaller on feature phones without requiring any data. We are working with telcos in that aspect where we are able to send out a number once a person is being called and they can receive it as a flash SMS. A majority of phones are feature phones and we have a responsibility to be able to provide them with services.

We are also into payments now. In India, we bought a payments company and are looking at working with other companies in this region. The payment providers or partners can be able to facilitate payments within our eco-system which has a wide reach. We are also facilitating logins into platforms using our verifications for easy login into the various platform as opposed to the traditional email based login.

Is Truecaller looking to have any such involvement in Rwanda in the coming days and are there opportunities for emerging start-ups therein?

I have been in the country for a number of days, to explore the country and interact with the ecosystem. I wanted to figure out the solutions that we can have in the market given that there is not much of a problem in caller IDs. We are trying to figure out ways we can be relevant. We have been talking to a number of partners such as telcos and start-ups. There are plans for us to partner with local startups and players. We want to work with locals where we bring in our expertise but work with locals. I feel that Rwanda is the best case study to use, it's a growing market, tech-savvy, there are processes and the government helps out in the ecosystem.

With the East African region attracting a lot of start-ups in the tech sector, what could be the biggest cause of failure at the moment?

Change is inevitable. A lot of start-ups fail because they do not listen or engage the users. We engage a lot with users to take feedback, criticisms, users' experiences etc. To survive in East Africa, you cannot copy from somewhere else and paste it here. You need to tailor it to the needs of the region. We started as an incoming caller ID, if we had stuck to that, we would not be relevant. We began in Europe, spread out to the Middle East, India and Africa. East Africa was one of the markets that grew organically.

Any start-up can adjust itself to the trends of the market. There is no shame in moving away from what was your core. You need to find a way to pivot after listening to the users.

How significant is the role of research for firms in the ICT sector as they seek to be relevant?

We always collect data and analyses to figure out trends and what is going on. There are factors that we are not responsible for such as smartphone penetration, data costs. We see that we have succeeded in areas where smartphone costs and data have gone down. We have noticed that most things we are doing are very much connected to the macro-environment, disposable incomes etc.

Every day we look at the numbers, active users trends among other things. We also do collect feedback, at times have focus groups and conduct market research to understand trends. My responsibility is to understand the numbers and trends.

To become more relevant and impactful in the regional market, what are some of the ideal conditions that tech firms are seeking?

We need to work with different industries; banks and telcos need to work with a lot of start-ups. Those are some of the industries that will get highly disrupted. Also, there are things that should change in the interest of the environment, I still do not get the reason why data costs are so high. They also have a responsibility if they want to grow the tech industry as they are interlinked.

From where you stand, do you think we are likely to see more tech firms emerge from the continent with a global appeal?

Currently, we are about 1.5 billion citizens on the continent. Going forward, it is estimated that we could reach about 4 billion. That means that the mass market will be in the African market. We need to start building companies that are for the continent and that have a global reach.

We already are exporting arts and other things but we need to export much more technology. It's already happening if you look at mobile money trends.

What are your thoughts on the much-dreaded disruption in the tech sector?

Disruption is key and a good thing, it helps the ecosystem to keep building. For ourselves, like three-four years ago, we had to disrupt ourselves and be more fit for purpose. You need to build companies that are made for infinity and can keep on surviving and grow at low cost. You need a strong user base to allow expansion.

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