Sharon Adongo is the co-founder of Uwazi Technology Consulting, a data and technology consulting firm for non-profits and social enterprises and the leading Salesforce Cloud Consulting Partner in Eastern Africa. Before moving back home to Kenya to start her company, the recent Vassar College alum had secured a job as customer success engineer for a startup in San Francisco. Ayiba’s Edem Torkornoo spoke to Sharon over email about building a business from the ground up in a region teeming with various tech companies.
What led you to start Uwazi?
My business partner, Dennis, and I started Uwazi because we wanted to solve the pain points non-profit organizations and social enterprises have with Monitoring & Evaluation, as well as maintaining adequate and scalable in-house technical capability. Having good systems not only cuts down on administration costs but also makes it easier to identify areas of success, improvement, and opportunity. We believed that if we could provide these services more organizations would deliver on their mission. We both had experience building systems for non-profits so we were well placed to embark on this venture.
What is your central mission?
Our mission is to amplify social change in the Eastern African region. We believe that to be truly successful, non-profit organisations need appropriate technology and actionable data to successfully collaborate with their constituents, scale their programs, and unlock opportunities through insightful data. We provide thoughtful solutions that align to our partners’ mission, thereby amplifying social change.
How did the partnership with Salesforce come about?
We applied for partnership, went through a rigorous vetting process that included verification of technical ability, certification, growth potential, and customer satisfaction.
What does being the leading Salesforce Cloud Consulting Partner in Eastern Africa entail?
The partnership is in recognition of the expertise and commendable customer relationship we have been providing in Eastern Africa. We are trusted by the Salesforce Foundation to provide cloud services to organizations in the region. This comes with a few perks for our partners, for example, we have the ability to negotiate for donated licences and implementation discounts. Even though a lot of organizations realize the value of investing in technical capability, most of them have budget limits. These discounts allow us to reach more organizations. The partnership also allows us to constantly improve the services we provide because we have access to a community of partners worldwide and a training portal that keeps us up to speed on upgrades and creative solutions.
What would you say you have learnt from the companies you consult with? Any big surprises?
I spend a good part of my week helping people figure out the business processes that drive the organization’s mission. And more often than not, what we realize is that although no one has a complete picture of what the next person does, there is always a general sense of unity in achieving the goal in such a way that if one person is unable to do their job, the wheels will keep turning. I believe this comes from having a team that completely buys into the Founder’s dream in such a way that the organization’s success is a reflection of each member’s personal success. I find that kind of drive generally lacking in most companies, and has, therefore, been my biggest learning when it comes to building a winning team.
What has been the highlight of your experience with building a company from the ground up?
It has been a wonderful experience, a steep learning curve and, therefore, quite the adventure not knowing what each day has to offer. The highlight of building Uwazi came a few weeks ago when we went for an introductory meeting with a potential client and she was so impressed with our work that she matched us with a young man who is still a student at a local university. She told us that she would love to see someone who inspires her learn from and work with people like us and she offered to pay his salary. That’s how we got our first intern.
This is a loaded question. What have been the challenges with starting a tech company in a place with lots of tech companies? Would you say they are universal or unique to starting a business in Kenya and perhaps Africa at large? How do you ensure that you’re not just another startup?
Although there are lots of tech companies in Nairobi, there are very few providing the kind of services we offer so being in a space with lots of tech companies has not been a challenge per se. The biggest challenge has been in convincing potential clients that we have the ability to deliver on what we are selling because we are young. But we have engaged very good clients primarily through referrals, which greatly helps our case. We are ensuring that we are not just another startup by continuously providing value to our partners, which is translating to growth. We are also actively growing Salesforce talent by providing training for administrators and developers. This is not just for our team but also for our clients who would be interested in hiring in-house support.
How would you describe the entrepreneurial climate in Kenya?
I have always thought that Kenyans are very entrepreneurial because everyone seems to have a side-hustle from the time they graduate from high school. But I was also surprised when I returned and was trying to register my business and no matter what time I showed up, the offices were packed. The guy who was assisting me explained that in the past year there has been an exponential growth of registered businesses. It is encouraging because a flourishing business scene translates into more competition, which means that there are transformations in product and service delivery, innovations and skills development.
I read your blog on the lessons you’ve learned since you left a job with a startup in San Francisco to move to Kenya. Would you make the move again if you had a second chance? Would you do anything differently?
I would definitely move again if I could do it all over again. Only this time I would not waste time and money securing a job either in the US or Kenya, because I already know that this is what I want to do and one way or another it is going to work out. It always does.
Any advice for someone who wants to start their own business?
Go ahead and start, then don’t stop. If there is a problem that bugs you enough, then by all means, provide a solution to that problem through your business. There is no amount of reading or research that will get you to a place where you feel completely confident that you should start the business, but research anyway and be willing to learn and tweak your ideas as you go along.
Who are your African women crushes?
- Dr Wanjiru Kamau-Rutenberg of Akili Dada: She was the first person to take a chance on me, saw me through high school and mentored me throughout. She also built an amazing incubator for Africa’s future women leaders when she was just twenty-six.
- Leymah Gbowee: It is difficult not to have a crush on a lady who led women in peaceful demonstrations that brought peace to a whole country.
- Juliana Rotich of Ushahidi: I admire Juliana’s dedication to non-profit tech, to lowering barriers to technology access, encouraging innovation among the youth, and providing a platform to enable people to share their stories through initiatives like Ushahidi, iHub, BRCK, etc. And she does all these things while managing to look amazing.
Let’s play a game of favourites:
- African city: Zanzibar City
- Food: Beef Pilau with Kachumbari (Salsa)
- Book: I read quite a bit so it is difficult for me to pick a favorite, but I’ll tell you the last two books I enjoyed:
- i) A Good African Story – Andrew Rugasira. This memoir was instrumental in the way I was thinking about social entrepreneurship in the region, and why it is still a good idea to keep going when things are not working out.
- ii) Teaching My Mother How To Give Birth – Warsan Shire. Her poetry is simple and brilliant. Everyone should read this book.
- Movie: Wizard of Oz
- Quote by an African: “The size of your dreams must always exceed your current capacity to achieve them.” – President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf