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The following article is written by community newspaper Harare News editor, Harry Davies, about how local startup Figjam is finding success in the Zimbabwean market. Figjam is behind a mobile app developed specifically for the African retail and distribution market that allows seamless transfer of data to and from the field.
A search online reveals millions of articles on how to and how not to enter the tech startup industry. With a failure rate worldwide of over 90%, it’s no wonder that there’s so much conversation around the right and wrong ways to enter the tech market taking place.
In Zimbabwe, with the dubious reliability of mobile internet, power cuts, the lack of a widely adopted e-payments system, and the low penetration of smartphones capable of hosting the apps that so many budding developers envision, startups have a huge battle ahead of them.
One local technology system, Figjam, has managed to buck the trend. After two years of operations, the app is proving itself to be an asset to numerous local businesses, from giant players to small enterprises. So what sets it apart?
Founded by David Boaler and Winston Taylor in 2013, the primary product is an app for producers and distribution companies selling from multiple locations. Amongst a suite of functions are simple tools to help manage ordering and merchandising. They have won the trust of thirty of Zimbabwe’s biggest fast-moving consumer goods companies and distribution specialists, including Pro Brands, The Cheeseman, Crystal Candy, and Lobels Biscuits.
“For any app to be successful it has to solve a real problem,” says Taylor. “Figjam has taken the pen and paper processes that companies with wide distribution networks were using and put them into a digital environment. Some companies had cars driving from city to city across Zimbabwe to gather paperwork to return with to head office. We’ve solved that problem, and it all happens in real time now.”
Taylor says that his background in biology and work as a safari guide have helped him in business. “Biology and business are both about systems, and my time in the safari industry was invaluable. You have to make real-time decisions with real life or death consequences when walking in the bush, and the same goes for business,” he says.
Asked for advice for incoming developers, Taylor urges them to have realistic ideas:
People always think about creating the next Facebook, but that’s not going to happen. Zimbabwean developers are too focussed on building general market apps. You need huge marketing costing millions to reach a mass market, and the mass market in Zimbabwe doesn’t have the money or means to make online payments. We wanted to be sure that all of our customers, when presented with an invoice would be willing and able to pay up. Once operational, Figjam becomes absolutely central to the business of the customer, so we haven’t had any problem with debtors.
He urges techies to think more about developing niche apps for business if they hope to become viable in the current market. Boaler agrees: “In this line of work you have to target a person, a business or an advertiser. Right now a business is the only way in Zimbabwe.”
Boaler, who has a degree in computer science from Rhodes University in South Africa and seven years IT experience in London, describes the Figjam journey as a long, gradual one. “Building an app is not like building a website, but a system. Figjam is in the realm of the complicated app — dynamic rather than static like your basic web page,” he says, revealing that the current incarnation of the app is nearly the 100th version.
According to Boaler, Figjam’s greatest strength is that it is continuously evolving to meet market needs. “We’ve spent a lot of time talking to our clients as we’ve gone along to find out what they want. As a result, Figjam now allows a manager at head office to efficiently oversee lots of different things such as time tracking, photos for shelf layouts, breakages, promotions, and so on. Ordering, including product searching, manager sign-off and invoicing have been key. Figjam hugely helps with the logistics and timing of getting an order from the market back to the distributor,” explains Boaler.
With users across the country, Figjam has had to overcome unreliable internet in some remote areas. “The app has offline functionality too,” says Boaler. This is a challenge that they hope will be less severe in other markets, such as South Africa, Kenya, and Zambia, which they have started to explore. Taylor believes that their track record at home will help them penetrate and adapt to new markets. “Our clients here are networked with the guys in Zambia and other countries, and their word counts for a lot so we have to support our current customers very well,” he says.
Harare News checked in with Artisan Paints director, Laura Tofts who commended Figjam for the product and service. “Figjam is invaluable to my business in monitoring my sales reps throughout the day. Their rates are affordable for a small business like mine, and the reporting features are versatile. They are also really responsive to my needs, doing whatever they can to adjust the app to suit our work,” said Tofts.
The story of Figjam will hopefully inspire entrepreneurs to really refine their ideas and ask critical questions about where the money is going to come from, and the true value of their idea to the end user. It also exemplifies how the customer is king, and if an app can solve a problem for them, and they have the means to pay, then pay they will.
This article originally appeared on Harare News and was published with the author’s consent.