The village boy who grew up to harness the power of tech

Clinton Wekesa
“Once you have the problem, you know the solution. What you need to figure out is the journey,” says Clinton Wekesa when asked about the entrepreneurship journey.

Clinton, 25, discovered his love for technology and problem solving when he was in university. He put these two passions together and, years later, is credited with the creation of Safaricom’s Zuri chatbot.

What’s a chatbot? In basic terms, it is artificial intelligence that can carry on a conversation via text or audio. If you’ve been on social media and contacted Safaricom with an issue, it’s likely, you’ve encountered Zuri.

“Zuri was designed to help reduce the calls or texts coming in from customers who need a service or have encountered a problem,” says the software developer.

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“Because of the volume of calls or queries, there are usually long queues of customers wanting to be served. Imagine more than 100,000 people waiting on only 200 available agents to attend to them. That’s a problem that needs fixing.”

Greatest lesson

The problem-solving Clinton is a part of Safaricom’s Call Reduction division. Ironically, he only encountered his very first computer when he was in campus.

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“I was born and raised in a village called Kimilili in Bungoma. In high school, we used those old manual typewriters, you know the ones? That was the closest thing we had to a computer,” he tells Hustle.

“When I chose to do software programming, no one understood why. It wasn’t a degree that anyone thought would make a good career. In my village, they said I was learning how to fix printers.”

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Despite these reservations, Clinton, encouraged by his uncle and mentor, John Wenyaa, pressed on with his degree.

“Everything was going digital, and once I got my hands on my first laptop during my second year in campus, I knew beyond a doubt that I wanted to solve problems using technology.”

After finishing campus, however, Clinton spent eight months back in his village without a job.

When his uncle John discovered this, he brought him to Nairobi and found him work placement at an IT company.

“The greatest lesson I learned while working there was problem solving using the Kepner-Tregoe method, which teaches you how to think through and troubleshoot a problem.

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“We were taught to think strategically, isolating or bunching problems together to get to the root cause of the issue. Once you find the root cause, you can work your way to the solution.”

It’s this methodology that Clinton applied when he was hired by Safaricom in 2017 after going through a rigorous hackathon workshop alongside 72 applicants.  

“Only six of us were employed. I was taken to the Call Reduction department where I worked closely with my boss at the time, Ahmed Yehia. We would have these meetings where we had to pitch an issue in our systems and propose a solution to it, using software development.”

M-Pesa reversal

One of the better known solutions that Clinton was a part of implementing was the automated M-Pesa reversal option.

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“In the past, if a customer sent money to the wrong person, they’d have to call in to an agent to reverse the transaction.

“We realised that the sole purpose of the agent was to verify the identity of the customer. We asked ourselves: what if the customer could do that on their own?” says Clinton.

“The problem was that there were too many calls asking for reversals, thereby hiking the number of customers waiting to be attended. The solution was automating the reversal process to reduce calls waiting. We initiated the #456* reversal option.”

And then when Clinton realised that agents on Safaricom’s social media platforms were also getting overwhelmed by the queries they received, he pitched the idea of using a chatbot to handle the most common problems.

“Ideally, by the time a customer calls in, it should be because their problem cannot be solved via automated services.”

DIY options

So how does Zuri work?

“You go onto the Safaricom Zuri page on social media and send a private message to Zuri asking your question. For instance, ‘What is my M-Pesa balance’. Zuri will then ask for your phone number. Once keyed in, an authentication code is sent to your phone, you put in your PIN and you receive the M-Pesa balance via text.”

You can also use Zuri to reverse M-Pesa transactions, pay bills, buy airtime, check your credit balance and so on.

“People sometimes ask why it was necessary to build a bot when they can just use their phones. It’s about giving the customer the most efficient do-it-yourself options so that they only call in when absolutely necessary,” says Clinton. “This works for everyone because those with complex issues are assisted as quickly as possible, and the rest get instant solutions via automated services.”

Zuri came to life in November 2018 with 40,000 users. Today, the bot has 150,000 users, with a target to reach all of Safaricom’s 30 million-plus subscribers.

“What I love the most about what I do, is that it’s versatile. In 2012, a JKUAT student, Gilbert Rono, came in second at the Safaricom Appstar competition. He took home Sh500,000. The winner got Sh1 million. That inspired me because I figured, as a software developer, your limits are set only by you.”

Clinton’s vision is to develop software that will be used by millions to solve a common problem.

“I want to be counted among the ranks of people like James Gosslin, who is the founder and lead designer for the Java programming language, or Jeff Dean who is the head of Google artificial intelligence. I want to design something iconic that will be synonymous with a certain function or action, the same way people say, ‘Google it’ or ‘WhatApp me.’

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ZuriSafaricomClinton WekesaSafaricom’s Zuri chatbot