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A Kenyan IT genius

NAIROBI, Kenya, Dec 27 – When most people leave Kenya for the United States of America it is usually out of their own accord and for two basic purposes – to further their education or in search of a better life through employment.

But this was not the case for 33-year-old Julius Mwale, President and Head of Strategy at SBA Technologies Inc.

Born and raised in Butere, Kakamega District, Mwale left Kenya in 2000 under unclear circumstances.

By then, had been working with Kenya Airforce having joined the armed forces technical college for a diploma in telecommunications engineering.

Fast forward to 2009 and some could say he is leaving the American Dream having conquered the telecommunications market and managing to set up a multi million dollar company (SBA Technology).

Capital News recently caught up with the inventor in Nairobi, to get a clearer view into his life.

Q: Give us a background into your life before you went to the United States?
A: I grew up in Butere, Kakamega district and like any other kid I had interests in playing and having fun with my peers. In school my priorities revolved around sports engineering and business. My parents were established business people so I learnt a lot from them.

Q: What did you do while in the Air Force?
A: It basically revolved around a lot of technology research and internet infrastructure design for the military which could be sold to players in the private sector. Unfortunately the regime at the time wanted to have complete control of the technology which led to differences between us and ultimately I was forced to flee the country.

Q: Tell us how that was for you?
A: As you can imagine it was tough. I left by boat to Uganda where I stayed for sometime but still did not feel very safe, hence the reason I then fled to Zimbabwe. Out of other options I sought asylum in the U.S, which is how I ended up in New York at the Charles Gay Homless Shelter where I stayed for about a year before my application for asylum could be approved.

Q: How were you able to continue with your research from a Homeless Shelter?
A: I had my laptop with me so I did most of my research from my quarters. The laptop was however soon stolen and I had to go to the public libraries where I would be allowed thirty minutes on the computer, but this was too little.I tried to volunteer with limited success at the libraries to get extra time for my research.

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My work was centered on two things: creating a technology that would guarantee secure mobile money transfer and mobile commerce while the other was biometrics system to control access to computer systems.

Q: Coming from Kenya with no proper documents, surely no one could take you seriously, even with that kind of research?
A: Luckily for me, word of my research had gotten out to technology circles through my asylum lawyers for and I was able to be admitted into Columbia University for a Masters in Electrical Engineering as a special admit. This was however more of a way to boost my credibility as well as source for partners I could work with.

Q:What would you say SBA Technologies stands for?
A: At SBA we develop technologies that provide secure platforms for mobile commerce and mobile banking. We also develop web based securities that look after web based transactions but this is mainly for the developed countries. When I say mobile commerce it is basically anything you are able to do via your phone be it checking bank balances to checking your grades and index number if you are a student.

Q: What could you say SBA has been able to achieve so far?
A: We have a patent-pending in the US for our Datec (data Aggregation Timer Enabled Console) technology. We have also applied for similar patents in China, India and South Africa and many other countries. From this we were able to develop further generations of Datecs; we have X which primarily for online banking security, Y for remote access and Z for mobile banking.We have also successfully launched the technology to clients in developing markets.

Q: Out of all these variations, which would you say would be applicable for Kenyan and the wider African market?
A: Mobile phone use has witnessed exponential growth over the last decade. Kenya has already set an example with mobile money transfer aimed at tapping into the unbanked people. The service has revolutionised the way business is conducted in Kenya and many countries have been using it as case study on how to incorporate it in their own context.

What our technology does is to minimise the risk involved in making such transactions by making the process as secure as possible. The reason why many countries have been opposed to adopting mobile money transfer is the whole security element and I believe this technology will help boost confidence in the system.

Q:  What potential do you see for the market?
A: By 2013 for instance there will be somewhere close to 200 million phone users in Kenya, South Africa and Nigeria alone according to Forrester research; a leading market research firm .Furthermore another market research firm Informa Telecoms predicts that US$ 860 billion will be transacted via mobile banking by 2013 with US $ 5.5 billion earned through the provision of these services. Kenya alone stands to generate as much as $2 billion from mobile services by 2013 according to Forrester research. What we aim to do is to be able to capitalise on this by ensuring we are ready to capture the market.

Q: Being a relative new comer, you must face serious challenges. How has your competition welcomed your entry?
A: It has been a tough couple of years. We have had instances where our competitors have approached our employees looking to get an insight into what we are developing. This has posed quite a number of issues for us but we have been able to work past that.

Q: How are you going to be able to bankroll further operations?
A: We plan to sell a 10 percent stake in SBA to the public through an IPO sometime next year. We plan to raise $700 million (Sh52 billion). We have successfully managed to raise over US$ 2 million in 2003 in first stage of funding and 10% of $70 million between 2005 to 2007 in the second round of funding which we used mainly for marketing and commercialization of the technology. We are currently completing 3rd and 4th stages of funding by February 2010 to raise about US $ 400 Million
which will accelerate roll out in developing markets and set the stage for IPO next year.

Q: Coming from the US, would you say investors are keen on investing in Kenya?
A: They are very interested. Despite all the political wrangling, the few I have spoken to have shown an eagerness to invest their money in Kenya.

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