Ghana’s Kofi Dadzie is one of the founders of Rancard, a company that offers mobile content solutions. For example, its application, Rendezvous, is a social recommendation engine that delivers targeted content from clients, such as mobile operators MTN and Vodafone and content providers BBC and MTV. Since its inception in 2001, Rancard has grown to operate in 20 African countries and its success led to Intel Capital and Adlevo Capital recently investing an undisclosed amount into the company.
On a continent where the majority of people access the internet through mobile phones, Dadzie tells How we made it in Africa about Rancard’s success, expansion plans and the growth of IT across Africa.
Tell us a bit about your inspiration for establishing Rancard
Being in college in the US during the dot-com startup boom definitely opened my eyes. I was raised with a can-do attitude, but developing the engineering skills to actually do stuff and seeing it happening all around in a very tangible way had me brimming to get into action.
When Ehi (Rancard co-founder, who had also experienced the tech startup fever in the emerging ISP business in Ghana at the time) and I started discussing the opportunity, we found that we shared a very similar view and desire to build world-class custom software that would be at the heart of enterprise scale problem solving, bringing new capabilities and efficiencies to businesses in Africa, starting in Ghana.
Drawing from your 11 years experience in the industry, describe the progress of IT in Africa over the past decade
IT, like all other industries, needs the right amount of infrastructure, human capital and some good old leadership to really take off – I mean the type of leadership that spearheads innovation and creates an ecosystem. I think as an industry our creative juices in most of sub-Saharan Africa, in particular, have not been kindled to a significant degree. Policy and infrastructure are finally catching up though, examples being proliferation of fibre optic networks and expansion and upgrading (3G, etc.) of mobile telecommunications networks.
It usually takes a few companies and their leaders to show some boldness – think of GE, Microsoft, IBM, Intel, Apple, Google, Facebook – each in their time created a platform for industry-wide innovation based on the boldness of their vision, investments and execution. I can’t yet point to an African pure play technology business that has enabled the ecosystem on a similar scale continent-wide and we hope to fill that slot over time; that is to be a platform that enables an ecosystem fostering innovation. However in the broad IT sense, the mobile carriers have definitely led the way.
What is the greatest challenge currently facing Rancard and how do you plan to overcome it?
More than anything else, our greatest challenge is building a truly world-class team with the skills and experience to grow successfully across Africa. Our approach is to create a world-class working environment and culture, as well as to provide the essential leadership needed to drive the right kind of change within the organisation to strengthen the team. Effective communication of who we are, what we do, where we’ve come from and most importantly where we’re going, is how we intend to attract the best minds, highly skilled and motivated people who can help achieve this vision. If we can build such a world-class team, then there’s no limit to what we can achieve.
In your opinion, what was the best decision you ever made for the company?
Appointing a board. In 2007, Ehi and I agreed that it was time to create the governance structures required to hold us accountable to our goals. And it worked – it wasn’t at all easy at the start, but it was by all means the best decision we ever made as a company. The second best was the decision to refocus the business entirely on mobile, but without the board in place at the time, we would not have maintained the discipline required for the breakthrough that occurred 18 months after we took the plunge.
What are some of the pros and cons with doing business in Ghana and West Africa?
Pros: Limited investments in technology mean significant opportunity to innovate and grow. The ECOWAS [ Economic Community of West African States] protocols remove the need for visas across West Africa and generally supports doing business across the region. By the way, it’s long overdue for this to be applied across the AU [African Union]. I want de jure African citizenship.
Cons: Infrastructure limitations – power, connectivity, transportation. However, some of these gaps have led us to build a level of efficiency and robustness into our business, which are useful ingredients to have. Travel across West Africa can be a challenge – Lagos to Accra, our most important route – takes only 45 minutes in the air, but often more than four additional hours on the ground.
Of the 20 markets you are currently established in, which are the top performing countries?
We currently have an on the ground operating entity in Nigeria and in Ghana (with a Mauritian-based holding entity), while we deliver service additionally across Senegal, Guinea, Benin, Cote d’Ivoire, Egypt, Tunisia, Cameroon, DRC, Botswana, Niger, Algeria and other countries in the Middle East and Asia. Our direct presence in Ghana and Nigeria make them the obvious high performers, with Nigeria’s dynamism and burgeoning content creation industry – think of Nollywood and IrokoTV – creating the best opportunity. Over the next few years we will be expanding our operating capabilities in more countries and regions across Africa – this is one of the key reasons for which we raised capital recently from Adlevo and Intel Capital.