RafikiSoft helping NGOs, social enterprises address unique challenges

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“There are very few affordable, business-quality software platforms designed for NGOs and small social enterprises,” says RafikiSoft co-founder Lee Razo.

“This is resulting in organisations having to make trade-offs which are counter-productive to their primary missions. It is also limiting the scale of the social impact they are able to make.”

With 20 years experience working in Silicon Valley-based businesses and having worked independently on a number of projects in Kenya, Tanzania, and other developing countries, Razo felt he was ideally placed to solve this problem, starting RafikiSoft in 2013 with co-founder Pushpendra Mohta, who is based in California.

The problem Razo and Mohta identified was most clearly demonstrated by an experience he had working for a solar light distributor in Tanzania.

“We needed to recruit and quickly scale up a network of rural entrepreneurs with which they could partner to sell solar lights and other products. With the help of a large NGO, we managed bring on nearly 100 recruits all across Tanzania in just a matter of weeks,” he said.

“This was a huge success but we quickly discovered that pen and paper backed by Dropbox and Google Docs were no longer going to be sufficient to manage an operation of this size. We surveyed the market and consulted other similar organisations but soon discovered there really wasn’t a suitable alternative. So we decided to build one.”

RafikiSoft develops enterprise quality and mobile-friendly IT and data management solutions for companies operating at the Base of the Pyramid (BoP) in developing markets.

“We work closely with NGOs and social enterprises to build tools and products that help them address the unique conditions they operate in,” Razo said.

The startup’s flagship product is RafikiNet, a simple Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) software platform purpose-built for managing rural distribution networks. Razo gained his first customers from the sector he had recently left.

“Our early customers are distributors of solar lanterns which operate micro-franchising networks in northern Tanzania,” he said.

“They recruit and train members of rural communities to become entrepreneurs who sell their products locally. In this way they are increasing rural access to renewable energy and other life improving products while providing a significant source of income for the villagers themselves and reducing their own operational costs.”

He said RafikiNet enabled organisations such as these to manage their networks by tracking sales, mobile payments, inventory and location data, while also measuring and providing evidence of the social impact they make within communities.

Though Razo acknowledges there are many companies offering excellent point solutions that address specific needs, such as mobile payment management, field survey apps, and other sector-specific tools, he said they often work in isolation with very little integration or data sharing with other apps.

“This effectively forces a social entrepreneur or NGO manager into the role of a “technology portfolio administrator” rather than focusing their time and energy on their primary mission,” he said.

Meanwhile, high-end solutions from the likes Salesforce, SAP, or Oracle which are integrated and comprehensive, are too costly for many of the organisations targeted by RafikiSoft and not necessarily designed for circumstances in BoP markets.

“Sometimes subscription fees are discounted or subsidised for non-profit organisations but even then the costs of customisation, maintenance, and day-to-day administration quickly dwarfs those expenses,” Razo said.

“Many of the companies providing these solutions are also very large corporations from the developed world which place a much lower business priority on the needs BoP markets.”

The benefit of the subscription-based RafikiNet, he says, is that it offers a “middle option and the best of both worlds”.

“It takes the same high-end integrated platform approach while integrating all of – and only – the necessary functions into “one pane of glass” for the user. NGOs and social enterprises can go back to focusing on their core activities and their primary mission.”

The company has been self-funded until now, with Razo saying it now has a proven product with the potential to generate lots of valuable data. This is a factor that can help the startup scale its operations beyond what it has been doing thus far.

“We are currently active in the renewable energy sector in Tanzania. We are looking to expand further into East Africa and beyond. We are also into adjacent markets, such as agriculture, education, health care and dairy production and finding that they have many very similar needs as the markets in which we’re currently active,” he said.

“In addition to RafikiNet, we offer consulting and custom product development services where we work closely with clients to integrate third party products, customise existing products or develop entirely new ones.”

Razo says he “could probably write an entire book” on the challenges himself and Mohta have faced in setting up RafikiSoft, with the major one being the fact both co-founders hail from what he calls a “developed world private sector background”.

“Prior to coming to Tanzania, neither of us had much experience working with NGOs or social enterprises,” he said.

“We spent quite a bit of effort, especially at the beginning, to better understand the priorities and nuances of large NGOs and international organisations. To be honest, we are still learning a lot in this area and still have much to learn.”

He said the company also works with a lot of small and medium social enterprises, with these for-profit businesses “much more familiar territory” to the pair.

“However, they are also often small, young organisations which are themselves strapped for cash. In some cases they have little or no experience using enterprise IT, so there is a steep learning curve involved on both sides.”

Razo says RafikiSoft’s primary marketing channel has thus far been word of mouth, but this is likely to change over the next year.

“We started with our first customer in Tanzania and based on that success we came into contact with other organisations in their network,” he said. “We are now, however, looking to expand on this and develop a more ambitious strategy over the next six to 12 months.”

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Passionate about the vibrant tech startups scene in Africa, Tom can usually be found sniffing out the continent's most exciting new companies and entrepreneurs, funding rounds and any other developments within the growing ecosystem.

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