Mobilising Kenya’s public transport

Mary Mwangi

After 15 years in the United States, Mary Mwangi planned to return to Kenya, launch a payment product, let it run itself and head back to the States.

However, after launching Data Integrated, she found that SMEs were facing intricate issues that would see her stay and launch the first IoT (Internet of Things) powered public transport management system in Kenya.

Take us back to the beginning of this business

“I worked a lot in banking and in business auditing while I was in the US,” Mwangi says. From her audit experience, she understood the power behind efficient digital infrastructures. In 2011 she was attracted to the growth of mobile money in her home country Kenya, where she saw the opportunities in the system that brought her back home.

Mwangi started Data Integrated, a digital payments company, in 2012 to bridge a gap in the mobile payments market. “A lot of people were using mobile money, but for money transfers and not for commercial purposes,” she said. Customers would withdraw money from their mobile wallets and use hard cash in transactions. Business owners would then transfer the hard cash to their mobile wallets.

“I thought it would be helpful if the businesses could actually be paid using mobile money.” She said installing an accounting system through which mobile money transactions could be recorded would be to the advantage of businesses, and so she began to solve these challenges.

How did the she grow the company into the business it is today?

Mwangi says she owes her success to her family, as they have been supportive by financing the business to grow to where it is currently.

“Most of my family members have been in business for a long time, so they understood my venture,” she said. It is also her family who urged her to come back from the US and settle in Kenya.

Her dream was to stay in Kenya for two to three years to get the business to work or give it to someone else to run, and then go back to the US. “But as I got into it, I realised there are actual people in the background who we are trying to create a solution for.”

Today, Data Integrated has several payment products. This includes the MobiTill Epesi Smart Public Transport app, which is revolutionising how vehicle owners manage their fleets. The digital payment app also calculates earnings by using a smart camera to count the number of passengers that board a vehicle – a first in the Kenyan market.

Other products include a payroll system for SMEs and point of sale machines. As Data Integrated gears towards local production of these machines, it expects to see a rise in employee numbers, which currently stands at 23.

The company hopes to capture the Kenyan transport market in the coming months with their solutions and have signed up several public transport associations.

She says returning to Kenya to start the company will always be one of the best decisions she has made, and she is no longer contemplating going back to the US.

Surely it couldn’t have been that easy. She must have faced some challenges?

“Being a payment platform, we need to integrate with banks and telecoms for payments. Establishing those partnerships has been a real challenge. A contract that should take something like two months, takes two to three years before we close,” she says.

Being unknown in the market was another hurdle she had to overcome. “There is bias against local founders. You have to prove yourself more than a foreign founder to some of the telecoms and banks,” she says.

“It slows down [the] progress of many local companies, and most ventures have died because of that,” she observes, adding that it also takes longer for integration to happen due to banks’ and telecommunications companies’ concerns about cyber security.

Anything we can learn from her experiences?

Having a product that works has been more valuable to Mwangi than traditional marketing. Her company started getting calls from potential customers after they witnessed how the solutions worked for other companies.

She says customers’ testimonies about the company’s products were its initial marketing. “We didn’t even think we were doing marketing. We were just trying to finish and test the product.”

The company has now created a marketing department to come up with an awareness campaign for its solutions.

“I don’t think my employees are motivated by money, but rather by the goal we are working towards – to build a better payment system for the SMEs. We are building products to benefit others. They are also learning a lot in the process.”

Mwangi hopes that in 10 years’ time she would have sold her business, after having achieved what it set out to do – offering reliable payment and accounting tools to businesses. After that, she hopes to venture into fixing other challenges in the systems around her.