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I couldn’t get funding, but I still built a multinational 

By Peter Muiruri | November 18th 2020

In 2006, Dorcas Muthoni (pictured) quit her job in the education sector after four years to concentrate on a new business she had started two years earlier. She founded OpenWorld to help corporate and governmental bodies cope with challenges of maneuvering through the new technology. She was 24. From working solo in her house, today she has a team of 40 in the business. Currently, her web and cloud-based applications are being used by over 7,000 businesses and other institutions in Kenya and around the world including the 54 member states of the African Union. She takes us through her resilient journey and lessons she learnt along the way.

Where did the journey begin?

About 15 or 20 years ago, the internet was still at entry-level and very restrictive. Many businesses would spend lots of money on purchasing computer software developed abroad. Those who wanted to start or develop their businesses stagnated at entry-level. I was a computer science graduate but still found it challenging navigating the computer software world. As one of the first women engineers to work with the local educational network, I was tasked with the development of open learning platforms when I thought of creating software that would make it easy for businesses to automate their operations. I founded OpenWorld while I was still employed.

You quit your job when you had two years left in the contract. Were you not afraid of taking risks?

Yes, I still had two years on my contract when I quit. This was a 110 per cent risk I was willing to take to pursue what I believed in. I have no regrets for quitting my job.

Was there any capital investment required to start?

Not really. I was investing in my intellectual capacity and all I needed was a computer, internet connection and working space. When I quit employment, my house became my office where like-minded friends assisted when necessary. Of course, the only cash needed then was for registering the business. The company’s bank account was opened with an initial deposit of Sh2,000. But at some point, you need money to grow.

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And was that when you couldn’t qualify for a loan?

True. I had attended this high-level workshop organised by an international lender to assess businesswomen who needed financial aid. I was a minnow among top-flight businesswomen in Kenya in various fields such as real estate and fashion. I struggled to convince the committee that my business was viable. I did not qualify for the money. This though was a blessing in disguise as I left the meeting with enough knowledge on what my business needed. I learnt that a business needs the right strategy, not just money and that the best person to finance your business is the customer. As the customer grows your business, financiers will take note and facilitate your business to grow further.

But you needed to market yourself first…

Yes, and my initial clients did that for me. One of these was JKUAT that wanted us to craft some programmes to drive income-generating activities. They would advertise in newspapers and people would notice us. Other early clients who made us get noticed was Posta Kenya that wanted to have cybercafes in their premises. They had heard of our applications and invited us for the public procurement. Again, being a public body, it gave us the endorsement we needed back then.

How do you pitch to big clients such as the Kenyan government or African Union?

We are usually called in to bid because of our reputation around open-source software. For example, the African Union looked for us and asked if we were interested in bidding for software to be used by member states. We did and today, ARIS is a reporting application used by all 54 member states. In addition, we developed an e-government tool for automating performance contracting in the public sector in Kenya. To build such meaningful business networks? To do this, however, I need to be a good connector and active in connecting others with what they need. I perform well when referred too. I keep my connections valuable and when counter-productive, I drop them without turning back. Basically, it is your technical competence and track record that wins the race.

OpenBusiness is your affiliate technology company that offers a mobile Point of Sale app to retail merchants. Why was there a need for such an app?

We realised that close to 80 per cent of businesses were using manual systems to trace and discover discrepancies in their inventories. A manual system is open to manipulation. Imagine if one employee just steals Sh100 daily. The amount may look small but multiply that by 365 days and you are losing Sh36,500 annually. In addition, few could tell when it was time to replenish their stock. Such businesspeople wanted an app that was responsive to their needs.

The mobile POS app helps businesses not just to track sales, stock, expenses, cash box, and overall business performance from any location just by using the phone. However, we don’t just provide the app and go away. We build the employees capacity by offering training on stock-taking that can cover up to 2,000 products depending on the package that one requires. Monthly subscription fees range from Sh500 to Sh3,000.

Your OpenBusiness apps have also gone global?

Yes, they have. They are being used in countries such as Norway, Bangladesh and Indonesia. Our intention is to see small and medium businesses all over the world embracing such technology.

What does your other startup, the AfChix do?

I founded AfChix to build technical capacity for women around the region. We organise annual career conferences with a special emphasis on the uptake of computer engineering careers amongst young women. The programme began in high schools where girls could meet successful women web developers and engineers to mentor them for careers in the tech world.

With such a full plate, do you still have your fingers in all the businesses?

Yes, I am still highly involved, though I get most of the work done with help from the team.

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