Lilian Makoi is a technology entrepreneur based in Dar es Salaam. She specialises in building mobile solutions that provide access and affordability of basic services to the low income segment of the Tanzanian population.
Lillian’s businesses share the same core expertise – identifying needs and coming up with technological solutions that can serve them. They include Jamii, a mobile micro-health insurance product, which started by providing access to hospital care at $1 a month, and a waterTek project that provides access to clean water, collecting fees via a mobile prepaid smart metering system. More solutions around access to employment and health education are on their way.
Last week, Lilian took time out to tell the Owl about the multi award winning Jamii Micro Health.
When my house help lost her husband in a car accident only because he did not have $25 to access hospital care, it was a wake up call for me. I knew something needed to be done and it moved me to research how common such scenarios were. It turned out that 76% of the population were at the exact same risk and had no affordable health insurance options. I contacted various insurers to investigate why they were not addressing such a huge and obvious opportunity, and always got the same response “high administration costs do not allow us to quote affordable policies to anyone making less than $200 a month.”
Once the meaning of ‘administration costs’ had been unpacked, we found these could all be cut down by 95% with technology and strategic partnerships. And Jamii was born!
Initially, it seemed easy getting the business up and running. Although I started alone, I soon got assistance from an angel investor – who is also my husband. Later we formed strategic partnerships as we built the product. But in our 4th month of starting Jamii, everything got complicated and I was forced to face the realities of the entrepreneurship journey.
Although we already had a great product and solid partnerships in place, we had not considered the level of education of the target market, which directly impacted their comprehension of financial services as well as their appreciation and understanding of health insurance. Fortunately, we acquired funding from The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and were able to access expert research and product design expertise from IDEO.org. This enabled us to better understand our market and amend the product accordingly. We then had the privilege of getting assistance from The Barclays Accelerator, which helped us form a strong education and marketing strategy. They gave us our first platform to pitch to a pool of investors. In no time, we were all over the world raising capital in order to finance the strategy implementation. It was a tough journey – at one point, I was forced to take out an informal loan against my car, foregoing luxuries and spending 150% of my salary financing the business. Looking back, it was worth it and exciting!
These days I spend most of my time building strategies and managing marketing, sales, finance and technical teams. Each morning I get a run-down of where we are on each team’s targets and my afternoons are filled with meetings with potential partners, clients and investors. I also spend a lot of time reading books and doing internet research in order to equip myself with knowledge to grow the business, better manage my team and spot new opportunities for investment or investors. Twice a month I will be in a different country pitching to investors or forming new partnerships for product expansion.
I would say forming the right team is one of the most important ingredients of a successful venture and probably twice as tough as raising capital. Finding equally driven and motivated staff was a journey in itself, we ended up hiring a few top managers from neighbouring countries with most junior members being locally experienced staff.
My own educational background is a degree in Public administration and a Masters degree in international business. This gave me the theoretical tools to run a multinational company, whereas my work experience had exposed me to the corporate world. Also, my two year journey forming a startup taught me high-level IT and entrepreneurship skills. Before starting my own business, I spent six years working in the telecom industry doing business development management, big data analysis and account management. On the side, I also engaged myself in small businesses like movie rentals (when in university), diet foods cooking and delivery (when in my first job), and grocery shopping and delivery (immediately before forming the digital business). These experiences taught me people skills and the importance of endurance and also provided me with the tenacity to hold onto a business that I believed in. (My parents were successful business people too, and having watched them build and run businesses was also very educational for me).
Our plan is to continue to grow the business across African countries with similar market characteristics to Tanzania and personally I also plan to do coding courses in the next year to enhance my IT skills for the fun of it. But generally, I believe experience is your best teacher! My advice to new entrepreneurs would be to do something you are passionate about. It will be easier that way!