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Kenyan data startup planning global mobile survey domination

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Bamba Group founders Faiz Hirani, Al Ismaili and Shehzad Tejani

The feature phone is dead. Long live the feature phone! The ongoing debate of the future of feature phones in the face of cheaper smart-phones and increasing internet connectivity is far from over.

The arguments usually centers on the reducing utility of the feature phone compared to its smarter successor. For a majority of users, having a phone with no or limited internet access, a high-end camera and apps as the primary phone is unimaginable.

But a Kenyan company has found a way of stretching the value of the ‘dumb phone’. Bamba Group has built a product that fits squarely at the intersection of feature phones and data collection.

Through SMS, Bamba data collection software enables organizations collect accurate and timely data from their beneficiaries, clients, suppliers and the public.

Now, just three years after launch, Bamba Group has set its eyes on taking their platform beyond Kenya and Africa to the rest of the world. The co-founders are already talking to clients who want to deploy the solution in six countries in Africa and 70 across the globe.

“Since the beginning, we wanted Bamba to be a global company. Both the company and our product have been built to achieve this ambition. Accurate and reliable data is one of the key reasons organizations across the globe succeed,” says Bamba Group CEO and co-founder Al Ismaili.

Ismaili, together with co-founders Faiz Hirani and Shehzad Tejani, are confident their platform has the potential to scale and compete at the global level. The question is how fast they can do it.

“We recently adopted a new saying in the office – ‘Do More Faster’. The company has a limited time to become successful. We can’t wait for opportunities to come to us. We have to get out there and get them,” explains Tejani, the CTO of the group.

The faith in the product is not just shared by the co-founders. Bamba Group has attracted the interest of US accelerator TechStars which will invest and provide intensive training in Austin, Texas, to fast track Bamba Group’s growth.

The fact that Bamba is the only company in the world that can send mobile airtime payment in exchange for data in as many as 122 countries has made the US accelerator pick the group as its first East African investment.

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It is this unique capability, among other agile specs, that makes Amos Schwartfarb, the Managing Director of TechStars, say Bamba Group could be the next AirBnB or Dropbox within the next five years.

“This is a testament to our globalized world where a startup from any corner of the planet can rise up, pursue their passion and make a lasting impact on the world,” said Schwartfarb.

Acceptance into TechStars is particularly significant, explains Schwartfarb. The accelerator only picks 2% of all startups that apply from all over the world. The Bamba Group co-founders will have access to a network of founders, alumni and global mentors.

Companies picked by TechStars end up raising an average of over $3M in capital after the programme.

Driven by passion

Tejani and Ismaili teamed up with Hirani when the two came back to Kenya for a University of Waterloo project. The ‘triforce’ – as the trio named themselves – had the overall idea of creating technology to help organizations increase their efficiency through data collection within set timeframes. But it wasn’t easy marketing this concept to potential clients.

“Selling is hard especially while the first product is being built. There were many ‘no’s’ before we got our first ‘yes’ from a client. It took almost a year of persistence before we got our first customer. What also helped was our ability to adjust our course quickly enough when things were not working,” recalls Hirani, who heads sales.

Bamba Group charges a license fee for users of its basic solution which allows users to create SMS surveys and deploy to target groups. Bamba says its surveys get an 80 percent response compared to 20 percent of other surveys. The co-founders credit this to the capability of the system to send airtime incentives to respondents anywhere, irrespective of the continent.

“For larger projects where we deploy a lot more features of the system we also charge implementation fees,” adds Hirani, who heads the sales team.

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The founders believe in mixing the best practice developed by Kenyan and global tech startups. One of the core values they hold dear is to keep both employees and clients happy.

“We are very proud of our low employee and client turnover figures. Bamba’s staff are a family who work together to help the company grow,” explains Ismaili

But their biggest challenge now is how to do more, faster.

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