Ayiba contributing writer, Akinyi Ochieng, interviewed Brian Waswani Odhiambo, a recent Yale graduate hoping to make his mark in Africa’s entrepreneurial market. Brian has worked across Africa, from Tanzania to Nigeria to Zambia, where he is working on his most recent venture – Zamsolar. Zamsolar markets sustainable solar solutions to Zambians who live off the grid.
Akinyi: Could you give us a little background on your life in Kenya, pre-Yale?
Brian: I was born and raised in Nairobi, Kenya. I went to public school. Primary school, grades one to eight, were okay. I did well. You probably know this, but in Kenya you have to do the national exam, KCPE, to determine which high school you go to. I did well and got accepted to Alliance High School, which is a good high school.
Akinyi: You’re being modest! Most would say it’s the best.
Brian: Okay, it is the best public high school in Kenya. Seriously, though. Alliance is a big school. A ton of prominent alumni – a lot of politicians, people in government, a lot of successful people – come from there. The alumni presence is very strong; a lot of them come back and talk to kids to help you map out where to go after school by giving you a ton of options. Among those options are people who have gone abroad and have come back either before or after they graduate to talk to students about how to apply abroad. I wasn’t particularly interested in going abroad. I thought it would be a hassle. I didn’t want to do SATs – there were too many words to learn. I wanted to be a doctor, so I just wanted to go to a good med school.
Before you graduate high school, you select which universities you want to go to and which courses you want to take. Obviously, I selected medicine from the top medical schools. Then, I graduated from high school and did my KCSC (Kenyan Certificate of Secondary Education) examination to determine which university I was going to go to. It’s a terrible system, but I did well. I think I was among the top fifty kids in the country, so I was selected to attend the University of Nairobi, mostly funded by the government, and study medicine.
I moved to Tanzania to be with my family after that because I was done with secondary school in Kenya. At the time, my dad got involved with the American Embassy in Dar and started talking about the idea that I should consider going abroad. After attending interviews and academic fairs, I was given opportunities to study in Japan and Malaysia, but none of them were what I wanted. While waiting to begin med school in Nairobi (there is a mandatory wait period of a year and a half while they process the documents), I found a job in Dar at a non-profit that held a program called a “knowledge society” where kids from college and high school could attend and have intellectual discussions about topics that interested them. I got a job as a student career consultant in the resource center where I would give advice, write recommendations, and hold the knowledge society activities. I started helping people who were applying abroad with their application essays.
At some point, it dawned on me that maybe I should write my own essay and just apply. I googled the top ten universities in the world and decided to apply to the top ones in the US. I wasn’t too sure about my application, so I sent an application to Yale as a test. I applied to a bunch of other schools, but ultimately accepted the offer from Yale. The story of how I got into Yale was pure luck. Or rather, it wasn’t planned.
Akinyi: After you came to the States, were you ever tempted to stay in the US to work?
Brian: From the beginning, it justs hits you that America is the place to be. It’s like “wow, this is so different from where I’m from.” Everything’s so easy, there are tons of opportunities and lots of money. Before graduating from Yale, I interviewed with a ton of people. I did consulting and banking interviews. In junior fall, especially, I dressed up and went to info sessions only because there’s a lot of pressure. It’s the time when your true will is tested and your commitment to whatever you actually want to do. There are a lot of people at these recruiting sessions trying to give people jobs. You can either sit down and accept it or say “I’m not doing this. I’m going to stick to what I want to do and go back and do that even if it’s not the most profitable thing to do at the time, but it’s what I want to do.” I did those interviews, but then as I got into the second round of most of them, I started taking a step back. At the end of the day, I knew it wasn’t what I wanted to do, which was to go back to Africa and start companies there.
Initially, at the time, my idea of coming back to Africa was to come back and do development stuff. My African Studies senior thesis was on microfinance. I had done a ton of research on it and a ton of papers. I was eating and sleeping microfinance. But I stopped to think about it more to determine if microfinance was really the answer to development and if it was what I wanted to spend my time doing. I finally said no and decided that business was the way to actually develop the continent – to create jobs, to empower the people, get them money, create value, and let markets grow. I decided I was going to work on businesses instead.
Akinyi: Of your African peers that moved abroad to attend university, do you think that the majority will return to Africa or do you think that a lot of them will give into the temptation to stay abroad?
Brian: I think a lot of them will stay. A lot of people are chasing the American Dream. By my peers, I mean the people really close to me. I see a lot of people talking about the long-term, in terms of “I’ll be here for five years, but long-term I’m going back to Africa.” But people are only young for so long, and once you’re thirty and you start settling into America and living a life that you don’t really want to leave, it’s going to be much more difficult to relocate. Relocating here is semi-starting afresh, unless you have a job that’s equally well-paying and gives you the same sort of opportunities and benefits. Frankly, you’ll never match that. If people want to move, they should move now. If people want to work in Africa, the best thing to do is to develop a business or invest in something because people are not really employing that many ex-pats. Africans who want to move back either want to get a job that matches what they do now, which is rare, or have a business idea that’s already funded or executed land on their plate. That’s not fun; it’s very boring. People like me will come employ you after we do the fun stuff and hard work of recruiting investors, talent, etc.
Akinyi: What benefits and challenges are unique to African markets?
Brian: A lot of people now want to innovate and come up with something creative, but there’s a lot of stuff that has been done in the West that hasn’t been done here. You don’t really need to innovate. Innovation is only 50% of the business – maybe even 30%. Execution is where the real business is made and a lot of people don’t see that, so Africa for me presents a chance to execute a lot of business ideas that already exist. You shift them slightly to fit the market, but people want the same things. People have cell phones now, people access the Internet, people can order food online, people hate driving in the rain, people want things delivered to them, people are busy and people have stuff to do. The same solutions that people in the West want are the same solutions Africans want. There’s opportunity to provide all these solutions. There’s a lot of interest now in Africa as well from foreign investors so there’s a lot of foreign capital coming into Africa right now. More and more companies are looking to invest, but there are no companies to invest in. The money is there, but just waiting for somebody to ask for it.
The political climate in Africa is changing right now, so there’s a lot more peace, stability, and predictability of economies which is good. The government and consumer capacity are growing, so people have more money in the pockets and are becoming aspirational. People like to do stuff for fun and spend money on leisure. The middle class is growing, so there’s a lot of opportunity to sell stuff. Even for Zamsolar, whose market is not really the middle class or the top 1%, the people we work with at the bottom of the pyramid like to consume just like people in the US want to do. They want to buy our solar lights, so that they’re different from everyone else in the village and that’s an opportunity for us to capitalize on. There are a ton of untapped markets and a ton of money to push companies that are willing to do these things in Africa. But people are still stuck on innovating when there are a ton of obvious things to do in Africa that people simply aren’t doing. The challenge comes in the long-term because the predictability of African markets right now is mostly short-term. You don’t know what will happen in the long-term which scares a lot of people away.There are still a lot of infrastructural problems. The Internet can be terrible in some places. In Zambia, we’re still getting terrible Internet. If you want any decent Internet connection, it’s very expensive. Infrastructure continues to be a huge challenge, especially for any company hoping to do delivery or e-commerce.
It’s classic political science, but in some places governments are still focused on whatever is the main source of income for the country. Cooper, for example, in Zambia is the cash cow and the rest of the economy is suffering at the expense of that. Essentially, nothing else is happening except for people working in the mines and getting money from that. That’s terrible because the other industries suffer, including agriculture. Agriculture is another opportunity as well. Someone needs to figure out how to make money from agriculture. That’s my next project. If you can figure out how to make money from agriculture, you’re going to be rich. There’s a ton of money and opportunity there, but no one has mastered agriculture.
Akinyi: What advice would you give people in the African diaspora hoping to return to their home countries for work? How should they go about researching positions?
Brian: There’s so much literature and media about Africa right now. Keep an eye on the news and what’s going on. Africa is not a country, so people should understand different parts of Africa and different markets. Understand the market you want to go into and what you want to do there because it’s a huge risk if you don’t know what you’re getting yourself into. It’s going to be hard. People shouldn’t expect it to be easy. It’s going to be tough. There’s a lot of help that can come from networking and making connections abroad. Those contacts in the diaspora are important because people are wanting to give back and invest in the motherland, but most want to do that while enjoying the comfort of their two-story house in the suburbs. If you’re willing to take that risk and make that move, then those connections are useful.
In terms of companies and startups, there are a lot of innovations and startup hubs that are incubators that nurture companies that are starting out, helping them grow and find financing. All these hubs are out there in the web space as well, so follow the spaces. If you want to start somewhere, start at the hubs because that’s where all the entrepreneurs are sitting behind their laptops. These hubs are where you can make these contacts. Even people who are looking to fund companies go to hubs first.
Find a relative in a country you know and just go with any idea and run with it. That’s essentially what we did here in Zambia. Thomas [one of the co-founders] had worked for a non-profit here and knew someone. We developed and figured it out.
Akinyi: Where do you yourself in the next few years? In Zambia, somewhere else in Africa, abroad in the West…
Brian: I’m still playing around with the idea of going to business school. I thought I wanted to go, but I don’t think I need business school anymore. I think I’m going to be with Zamsolar as my primary project for about two more years, only because our expansion strategy is beyond Zambia. In six to nine months, we think we’ll be moving to a new market, so that means my partners and I will be moving to Kenya or maybe Uganda to work on another subsidiary of Afrisolar. It’s going to be a new market again, a new company to grow and a whole new experience, which is exciting for me because that’s what I live for. I love to start new companies. Apart from that, I’m working on other projects. I’m starting something else in Tanzania, a non-profit, or maybe working on an entertainment company in Kenya. I think I’ll be in Africa for at least two to three years playing around with businesses and trying to start different things. I don’t think I’m moving back to the States, just because it’s not compelling enough. I don’t think I’ll feel fulfilled. I’ll feel like I gave up on something I really wanted to do and was really passionate about to have a stable, predictable American Dream with kids and a wife and a house. Frankly, right now, we don’t lead a terrible life here. The living standard we have here is pretty good and I wouldn’t mind doing this for a long time. So I don’t know, maybe business school. Maybe not. Maybe? But definitely more companies and more ideas. I might stop the whole entrepreneurship thing and move into venture capital and maybe private equity, but mostly venture capital because I’m interested in working with smaller companies. Maybe politics in the long-term. I might run for president. [Laughs].