Kenya’s Ongair taking world-first IM platform global

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Kenyan startup Ongair, which has developed a world-first instant messaging aggregator, is increasing its presence in Europe, Africa, South America and Asia as it approaches 700 clients.

Ongair was launched in 2014 by current chief executive officer (CEO) Trevor Kimenye and chief operating officer (COO) Charles Gichuki after the pair, who owned a digital consulting agency, were approached by a Kenyan bank and asked to come up with a unique campaign for Valentine’s Day.

“We thought, what if , when somebody sends a donation, we save their phone number, find out if they are on WhatsApp, and actually send them an image of a rose saying “thank you”,” Kimenye told Disrupt Africa.

The bank loved the idea, and Kimenye and Gichuki went on to launch Ongair – the name of which is derived from the Swahili word for “talk”. The startup’s service allows businesses to engage their customers via instant messaging platforms such as WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, WeChat, Telegram and Line, providing a web-based dashboard where businesses can add their instant messaging accounts and link them to CRM tools such as Zendesk and Freshdesk.

It has taken off. Ongair has almost 700 clients, and late last year raised an undisclosed funding round from VC firm Nest. It is also working with the BBC World Service after being chosen to pilot its Drop innovation after the BBC Connected Studio held a development studio in Nairobi in order to generate ideas and explore technologies for new ways of BBC audio content reaching African audiences.

“A few years ago, instant messaging took the world by storm, yet despite the rapid growth of  IM apps, most of the correspondence via the various platforms was only limited to friends and family,” Kimenye said.

“Many businesses wanted to interact with their clients on a more personal level, but they did not know how to. So we developed an easy to use web-based dashboard that enables them to perform real-time customer care on instant messaging.”

Though there are a number of companies offering customer service solutions via WhatsApp, Ongair stands out as the only IM aggregator in the world. And this unique selling point is enabling the startup to expand to other parts of the world. It recently opened a sales office in Hong Kong and is in the process of raising its Series A.

“We currently have nearly 700 clients, with a growing presence in Europe, Africa, South America and Asia,” Kimenye said.

“Our main expansion plans are geared towards Southeast Asia, where channels like WeChat have over 700 million monthly users and are used by 10 million businesses.”

The office in Hong Kong is a jumping off point for Ongair, which plans to expand its reach in the region and by extension the lucrative Chinese market. The service is primarily prepaid, with clients paying in advance of using the dashboard. Ongair does, however, offer a 14-day free trial, after which the user is required to choose between pricing packages specifically designed to meet the needs of small, medium and large businesses.

Kimenye said revenues were growing exponentially.

“In 2015 our revenue was just under $100,000 and we are projected to clear US$1 million for the 2016 calendar year. We’re still not profitable though, especially as we are getting into our growth phase.”

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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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