Episode 016: Samuel Gikandi – The CEO of Africa’s Leading Mobile Solutions Company Africa’s Talking


About Samuel Gikandi

Sam Gikandi is the CEO and co-founder of Africa’s Talking, a pan-African mobile technology company empowering developers across the continent.

Prior to Africa’s Talking, Sam worked for Morgan Stanley, the investment bank, in the US and Hong Kong. In the Asia office, he helped build the high frequency trading platform and led a team trading hundreds of millions of dollars per day.

In 2010, intrigued by the burgeoning tech scene in his home country of Kenya, he set up with a co-founder Africa’s Talking. While it started as a side hustle, two years later, Sam took on a full-time COO/CTO role in the company, developing the software developer-facing part of the business.

As demand for business APIs in Kenya exploded with the strong growth of tech startups and mobile money payment solutions, Africa’s Talking software developer business took off. The company turned profitable after only 1 year of operations.

Africa’s Talking helps the growing software developer community across the continent integrate into the telecoms infrastructure by simplifying the required processes and technologies. It offers APIs for short codes, payments, and communications, including bulk SMS, USSD, and voice.

Africa’s Talking is in seven African markets with its hub based in Nairobi, Kenya. Last April, Sam and his team closed a $8.6mn fundraising round that was led by the IFC’s venture capital arm which Africa’s Talking will use to further its expansion, especially into Francophone West Africa.

I thoroughly enjoyed my conversation with Sam who’s a real thought leader in Africa’s tech space. Make sure you listen to our entire chat. He explains why he’s bullish on Ethiopia, why capital is overrated in the early stages of a startup, and why he advocates sharpening your toolkit before diving head first into entrepreneurship.

Without further ado, here’s my conversation with Sam Gikandi.

What We Learn from Sam: Don't Get Paralyzed by Fundraising in the Early Stages of Your Startup

Sam shares how capital is overrated in the early stages of a tech startup. Entrepreneurs can be paralyzed and not advance with their ideas if they focus on fundraising early on. Sam argues that entrepreneurs need to figure out the pain points of potential customers, which will help determine how to create value. 

Sam’s Actionable Tips

  1. Don’t use a lack of capital as an excuse to not advance with your idea. Take advantage of Africa’s low cost environment to refine your product/service.
  2. Don’t equate making mistakes with failure. Use mistakes as an opportunity to change strategy.
  3. Work in an entrepreneurial environment before diving into entrepreneurship headfirst. Join a startup that is getting traction so that you can gain experience and make connections.

Sam’s Top Quotes

  • “The only thing that's stopping you is your imagination about what you can build.”
  • “I think the overbearing messaging that's capital is super important leads people into a bottomless pit. “Ok, I can't do this because we don't have capital.” While capital is important, I think the capital that entrepreneurs need in Africa, especially in technology, is enough to feed yourself.”
  • “The biggest thing that we will hold back the tech revolution -- and that will turn us into consumers and not creators of technology – will be the lack of education. For four years [at university], the brightest kids are not getting exposed, learning very old technologies or being taught by lecturers who don't understand where the industry is going. For me, that's the biggest problem that we face….if we really want to take hold of the tech narrative in Africa, we have to create an environment within the education system that allows these geniuses to be challenged, to shine, to gain access to the best in the world.”

Sam’s Links

Sam’s Mentions

  • Better Ventures
  • Twilio
  • Stripe
  • M Kopa
  • Kopo Kopo
  • M-Pesa / Safaricom
  • IFC
  • Social Capital
  • Andela

Key Timestamps

  • Sam got into entrepreneurship by accident [3:17]
  • Lessons learned from his career at Morgan Stanley [6:26]
  • Why his experience at the Silicon Valley accelerator Better Ventures led him to develop APIs  [14:07]
  • How Africa’s Talking’s transparent pricing model disrupted the market in Kenya and unlocked demand for its API platform [20:50]
  • Regulatory requirements [21:50]
  • Short codes [24:01]
  • The popularity of SMS as Africa’s Talking’s best-selling product [26:21] 
  • USSD vs. Android apps [28:16]
  • Overhauling the company’s tech infrastructure [31:13]
  • Negotiating with the telecoms  [33:36]
  • Expansion plans after raising US$8.6mn from investors [38:27]
  • Why Sam is bullish on Tanzania, Ethiopia and Nigeria [41:22]
  • Not allowing failure to dominate the conversation [44:16]
  • Where Sam would go in Africa on a 1-year sabbatical [49:20]
  • How he’d invest US$1bn in Africa [52:42]
  • Misguided advice for African entrepreneurs [55:18] 
  • His once piece of actionable advice for aspiring African entrepreneurs [58:46]