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Massachusetts Institute of Technology Legatum center for development & entrepreneurship

Legatum Center Blog

Below is an article from the Legatum Center

Ajua Makes Consumer Data a Force for Good Again

Reframe challenges as opportunities. This is one of the core tenets the Legatum Center attempts to cultivate in the entrepreneurs it supports. Those who do internalize this principle, especially those operating in emerging markets, have a greater capacity to innovate and are thus more likely to lead sustainable and scalable enterprises.

When the challenge in question is a pandemic threatening millions of lives and livelihoods, the notion of seeking business opportunities borne out of crisis may seem, at first, like a form of profiteering (and sadly in a few cases, it is) but entrepreneurship—especially entrepreneurship driven by innovation and a desire for positive impact through shared value—will be a vital factor in the world’s COVID-19 response and recovery. Besides contributing to a more resilient economy, such ventures are helping consumers access critical products and services.

One Legatum Center alum who embodies the challenge-as-opportunity principle is Kenfield Griffith, a 2010-2011 Fellow who is cofounder and CEO of Ajua, an integrated customer experience company headquartered in Nairobi, Kenya. Since the COVID-19 outbreak, Griffith has not only been making swift adjustments within his own company, he is also enabling numerous other businesses to do the same, in part by helping them make data-driven decisions during a period of great uncertainty.

According to Griffith, the high-profile data scandals emerging over the last few years have led consumers to distrust companies’ handling of personal information. “Our number one goal right now is to change that dialogue.” By furnishing proprietary market data along with tools to capture, organize, and analyze customer experiences, Ajua can help client businesses predict customer behavior in unprecedented circumstances, collect feedback on alternative ways of accessing products and services, and facilitate realignment towards cashless payments and e-commerce engagements. “We’re trying to educate everyone, from consumers and small businesses to hospitals and governments, that now more than ever it’s important to appreciate the power of data to transform economies and improve quality of life.”

“Transparency is key,” Griffith added. “Everything we do is opt-in.”

Generating voluntary consumer feedback has been a core strength of Ajua since it launched in 2011. As a Fellow, Griffith had traveled to Nairobi to perform market research, originally intending to collect data to inform computer-aided design solutions for remote area structures. Once on the ground, however, he realized that data collection itself was the more compelling problem. “I saw how the lack of infrastructure makes access to data a significant pain point for emerging markets.”

Sixty-six percent of Africa’s economy was informal, making the collection of reliable consumer data especially challenging—but the widespread use of mobile phones struck Griffith as the key to changing this. Upon returning to MIT, he pivoted his PhD toward development of an SMS-based survey platform to make on-demand data as accessible as possible. Just hours after turning in his dissertation, he successfully pitched his first investor.

Ajua (at the time called mSurvey) began delivering surveys as real-time, structured conversations between client businesses and consumers while integrating their feedback with mobile money transactions. Not only could clients now gather live, internal feedback from their customers at mobile money touch points, they could also gain external market insights by tapping into a much larger consumer audience (Ajua’s total audience is over 231,000 as of this writing) and defining a specific subgroup they wanted to engage. Respondents would, in turn, receive a mobile-based reward.

Last August, mSurvey rebranded as Ajua, named for a 1,300 year-old game of strategy believed to have originated in Africa. The rebrand represented a shift in focus from perfecting what Griffith called “the mechanical part of what we do” towards an emphasis on Africa-focused impact and scale (beginning with a launch in Nigeria two months later), as well as an ever-expanding suite of services that bridged the gap between businesses and customers. Besides cutting-edge feedback tools, Ajua now offers proprietary market data and insights, powerful analytics to predict customer needs, and machine learning tools that recommend precise actions for accelerating business growth and expanding consumer options.

By the time COVID-19 was declared a pandemic, Ajua was capturing and organizing consumer experiences in transactions totaling over 250 million USD annually. The company mobilized quickly to transition to a distributed workforce, providing team members with all the tools and training necessary to stay healthy and productive while working remotely. Griffith said the greatest challenge (and opportunity) of this transition has been finding ways to maintain, and perhaps enhance, autonomy and decision-making processes. The company has experimented with how teams are structured, forming them into “modules” or smaller, functional teams with a lead decision-maker and a low dependency on the core team which oversees Ajua’s intellectual property. “We’re still figuring out how to be as agile as possible. Our motto throughout this pandemic has been, ‘Let’s keep moving.’”

The “Let’s keep moving” motto has also become a key slogan in their communications to clients and marketing campaigns. To reach potential new customers who may benefit critically from data-driven insights, Ajua has also started offering a variety of free content to help businesses cope with and adapt to COVID-19 disruptions, including a series of Webinars on topics ranging from the impact on mental health, to implications for venture capital, to insights on transitioning to distributed workforces and digital platforms.

Ajua also publishes quarterly reports on customer loyalty in Kenya across nine industries, which businesses can use as a source for performance benchmarks and other insights. The most recent report provides a panoramic view of how Kenyan businesses have been adapting to the pandemic, and points to several areas where they still have work to do. In the healthcare industry, for instance, fear of contracting COVID-19 has made Kenyans increasingly hesitant to visit hospitals. Moreover, social distancing practices may occasionally compromise patient privacy, in that some consultations (e.g. at the pharmacy) require that patients remain one meter away from the healthcare worker, which forces the patient to shout sensitive information.

And across industries, businesses are actively encouraging customers to engage them through their call centers, social media, and other platforms, yet customers are in turn complaining about how “dormant” these platforms are and how poor online customer service is. Griffith believes this longstanding gap, now made readily apparent in the face of the COVID-19 disruption, represents an extraordinary opportunity for Kenyan business to leap forward. “Technology is enabling so much in emerging markets because historically we’ve been fragmented by a lack of infrastructure.”

Yet technology solutions, when implemented without a deep understanding of the customer, often prove a wasteful investment. In fact, any customer-centric solution, when developed in the absence of robust consumer feedback and data, is likely to falter. Griffith emphasized that the pandemic is making traditional, in-person forms of consumer feedback increasingly untenable, and that is why Africa needs better data solutions now more than ever. “We’re helping our client businesses understand that they need to innovate, but they cannot successfully innovate without keeping the consumer in mind. We can help them do that.”

Interview & Article by Jim Cooney

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