The journey so far: Joanna Bichsel, CEO, Kasha (Rwanda and Kenya)

Joanna Bichsel

Joanna Bichsel is the CEO of Kasha, an ecommerce platform selling health, hygiene and self-care products in Rwanda and Kenya.

1. Tell us about one of the toughest situations you’ve found yourself in as a business owner.

I believe entrepreneurship is a constant series of tough situations that test your commitment to your company and its mission and vision; your commitment to your customers; and your commitment to your team. I think one of the most challenging situations for me was the early stage of fundraising, right when Kasha was in the first year operating only in Rwanda. Especially for consumer-focused tech startups, fundraising is a major contributing factor for growth and if you don’t get a handle on it quickly, your great idea won’t survive to see its potential.

When I first started out I was doing fundraising all wrong: talking to investors with no experience investing in Africa, investors investing in different stages from where we were at, and investors whose business interests didn’t align with the problem we were trying to solve and the customer segment we focused on.

One thing I learned: Don’t even waste your time … as a startup founder and CEO, you don’t have the time and resources needed to convince them to invest in a geography/stage/sector that they don’t invest in today. Your job is to find exactly the right investors who fit your business. You will find them if you look long enough resourceful. Also, don’t even start approaching investors until you have a professional-looking pitch deck (get some help in putting this together) and a three- to five-year financial model (even if you are in month one of your startup). Without this, you won’t have the credibility to close the deal.

The most important lesson I learned from fundraising for an early-stage startup in East Africa: No one cares about your idea, they only care about your results.

2. What business achievement are you most proud of?

I started Kasha because I wanted to make sure women were never blocked from getting the health and personal care products they want in order to live their best lives. You often hear how women are so influential in society and in the economy, yet, in reality, women are still massively underserved because of the way the world operates today.

To this day, women still experience embarrassment in getting products like menstrual care and these purchases are sometimes deprioritised. Women are still the gender most at risk of contracting HIV and they often don’t make the choice about whether or not the time is right for them to have a baby. Kasha stands for women’s rights to products and accurate information, so that women have a true shot at living their best life.

With Kasha, I am most proud of the fact that we are able to offer women a confidential and discrete way to order contraceptives; that we have a wide variety of menstrual care options; and that one of our fastest selling products is an HIV rapid self-test. These products get delivered confidentially and discretely direct to the customer’s preferred location. I am proud that the Kasha team has served tens of thousands of women with these products and with other products that women want.

I am also proud of the fact that we employ hundreds of Kasha agents to do the last mile delivery to upcountry areas in Rwanda and Kenya, and through this that we are effectively able to serve many different women.

3. Describe your greatest weakness as an entrepreneur.

I have many weaknesses and the difficulty in leadership is that your weaknesses get magnified as your business and team grows. One of my weaknesses is that I rely a lot on myself and I don’t communicate as much as I should to ensure that we are learning together along the journey and that every person in the team is up to date on changes and aligned with the direction. While I am able to appear outgoing and social, I am actually an introvert. As the company and number of people in the team grows, I’ve had to change the way I operate so that I can be as helpful and as effective as possible in moving us all forward together.

4. What conventional business wisdom do you disagree with?

There is a common belief in the startup community that you need to give up or deprioritise everything other than your startup if you really want your business to succeed. I am a mom of two and married for over 15 years. My family is my rock. While the business has definitely created some negative impact on the family (long hours, stress, lots of travel, etc), I believe I am a better entrepreneur and business leader because I have a loving and supportive family. I’m not saying that you can have it all, but I’m saying: don’t give up on the life you want and don’t settle for less because someone else tells you to.

Further reading

[January 2020] E-commerce: a fresh sales channel for young African traders
[November 2018] Africa offers tremendous growth for e-commerce: Could it save retail businesses in the West?
[March 2016] How a Nigerian built an African e-commerce empire from his bedroom
[November 2015] KiliMall: Kenyan e-commerce company sees opportunity in secondary cities
[September 2018] Rahul Ghosh: How Singapore companies can support Africa’s e-commerce boom