Tanzanian cloud-based company flying high after seed funding from Dubai
Even in this cyber age, many businesses in East Africa and the Middle East still do not have an online presence.
And that got Natalino Mwenda thinking. After eight years in the advertising sector, and paying out of pocket to host an online account for six months, Mr Mwenda co-founded a cloud-based company in his hometown of Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania.
Along with his friend Puspa Raj Bhattarai, he attracted US$20,000 (Dh73,460) in seed funding from Dubai-based SeedStartup in September 2011. And Rasello.com was born in February 2012.
"I did not have a background in technology, and we received good mentorship from SeedStartup," Mr Mwenda says.
Tech start-ups such as Rasello are making the most of the available infrastructure in Africa, and the high mobile penetration in East Africa.
"I have been an entrepreneur since 22 years of age," says Mr Mwenda, who studied in Canada and Geneva, where he earned a business administration degree. "I got inspired by the prospects of changing how businesses interact with the people associated to them."
His father, a Harvard graduate, is a former civil servant and his mother worked for the United Nations.
So what does Rasello do?
In what he terms a typical example, Mr Mwenda says employees at non-governmental organisations (NGOs) usually collect data from the field and copy it on to a piece of paper. Back at office, they create an Excel file and send it to a data analyst for a social impact study.
With Rasello, the NGO workers can put the data directly in to the cloud-based system through devices such as iPads and iPhones and have it analysed in real time.
While a business can manage its first 250 people on Rasello free of charge, for more features and to manage more people it must upgrade its account. For instance, if a company wants to manage up to 100,000 people, it needs to pay $100 a month.
Rasello also makes money by selling service credit to send out text messages directly from its platform, and customisation of its services.
Rasello can be used anywhere in the world, but most of the business comes from East Africa, some from South Africa, and a couple of clients are from the UAE. Most are restaurants, hotels, insurers, hospitals and schools.
Two of the challenges facing Rasello and its peers are marketing and finding clients interested in cloud-based technology.
"For East Africa, there seems to be more government support and awareness than in many other parts [of Africa], so it could provide a better platform for tech start-ups," says Andy Baul-Lewis, the director for information and communication technologies practice for the consultancy Frost & Sullivan in Dubai. "In many areas, telecom access is good, while in many parts broadband access is available, although often expensive and prone to power outages."
This infrastructure, along with undersea internet cable links with Asia and the Middle East, have created fertile ground for Web services and mobile apps, he says.
For Rony El-Nashar, a managing partner of SeedStartup, it was Rasello's "strong, well-balanced team that had displayed evidence of ability to execute" that encouraged the investor. It is SeedStartup's only African venture among seven companies it has helped to start.
In one year, Rasello has clocked up 300 accounts through which businesses and NGOs manage half a million people worldwide. A business can have more than one account.
"While the marketing manager of a company will have an account for communications, a human resources manager can have an account to manage his staff," Mr Mwenda says.
Currently, however, the accounts of a single company cannot be linked. But the 30-year-old entrepreneur says his four-member team is working on it.
Mr Mwenda has set conservative targets for the company's growth.
It has attracted more funding from investors in the United States, Europe, Africa and the UAE that will be used to market the company.
Last year, it grew through recommendations. It also approached big businesses.
Rasello aims to have 200,000 accounts in five years, and secure 1 per cent of the total number of small businesses in Africa to operate on its system by that time. That could bring in revenues of $50 million annually.
And by the end of the year, it hopes to expand to a 10-member team.
"We will let the market dictate our growth," he says. "And so far the market is responding."