In the past 2 years, stories of success and challenges e-commerce startups have often involved the impact of the pandemic on operations, and this story of 2 Rwandan co-founders does not break the formula.
During the 2020 lockdown, Anselme Mucunguzi, 30, noticed a gap in the technology needed to service last mile delivery in Kigali, the Rwandan capital. To his mind, payment processing was robust—people could use Paystack or Flutterwave when ordering stuff online; and for SMS marketing, they could use products like Africa’s Talking. But there was no solution that delivered goods from sellers to the doorsteps of buyers. Sellers relied on random motorcyclists riding past to deliver packages to their customers. It was a risky measure. Not only could they not vouch for the professional and ethical conduct of such random riders, they also had no failsafe way to track the transportation of these packages. Even worse, these random riders were delivering the packages to locations that were described verbally, with landmarks as identifiers. It was an unreliable solution.
So, in January 2021, he founded Nisawa, a last-mile delivery service. The company was a subsidiary of Panavis, a legal research platform he’d started working on in 2017 as part of his master’s thesis at the University of Notre Dame, and incorporated in 2019. His co-founders were lawyer Mayday Karugarama, and software engineer François Birori.
Nisawa would close operations a few months later, on October 14, due to disagreement over business direction with his then co-founder, François Birori. Birori had wanted Nisawa to transition to an online marketplace while Mucunguzi insisted on remaining in the last-mile delivery line.
On October 15, the day after Nisawa closed, Vanoma began operations, maintaining all former staff and customers of Nisawa. Building off of the solution he activated at the predecessor startup, Vanoma is an integrated e-commerce solution centred around a last-mile delivery service to enable local businesses and independent sellers to sell online.
Vanoma’s solution is designed to take the burden off the seller. All a seller needs to do to initiate a delivery is supply the receiver’s phone number on the Vanoma website. Vanoma then sends the receiver an SMS with a custom link they refer to as a “delivery link”. On clicking the link, the receiver is led to Vanoma’s website where they can easily geolocate themselves thanks to their smartphone’s built-in GPS capabilities. Once their exact location is established, a rider is sent out to pick up the package from the seller and deliver to the buyer. The seller never has to bother about the logistics beyond that initial action of supplying the receiver’s phone number on the Vanoma website.
In July 2021, Mucunguzi invited his longtime friend Theophile Nsengimana, 30, to join him as co-founder; and in October, Nsengimana agreed.
Friendship and partnership
Mucunguzi and Nsengimana’s friendship is older than Vanoma. They met in 2011, as 2 of 32 high schoolers selected for the annual Rwandan Presidential Scholars programme. Mucunguzi would go on to study chemistry with a minor in mathematics at the Belhaven University, Jackson, Mississippi, while Nsengimana would move to Little Rock, Arkansas to study computer science and mathematics at the Philander Smith College.
Four years later, the pair teamed up to work on a music streaming platform for Rwandan music in 2015. Mucunguzi lived in Indiana at the time and was about to begin his master’s in physical chemistry. Nsengimana had just graduated from Philander Smith and worked in San Francisco.
Yeyote failed to gain traction because, Mucunguzi says, “it is difficult to monetise media” in Rwanda.
They rested the idea in 2017 and moved on to other projects. Mucunguzi was rounding off his master’s degree at Notre Dame and Nsengimana was preparing to begin his, in computer science, at Tennessee State University.
The “dead end”
I find Mucunguzi’s decision to start Panavis curious, as he is no lawyer by training. (Law is a very technical discipline requiring dedicated training, I maintain.) He laughs at my question, and warns me that we’re about to “get into rabbit holes”. He then tells me the reason he got into the legal business: Yeyote, the music streaming app he’d worked on with Nsengimana.
While building the app, he discovered that he had to constantly study laws around licensing, copyright, and incorporating a company, across several countries.
The legal research platform did not succeed as a business because its biggest could-be client, the Rwandan government’s ministry of justice, had a stringent budget that planned expenses for 2–3 years at a time. What this means is, the ministry couldn’t decide in April (or even January) of a given year that they’d need Mucunguzi’s service in July. Panavis would have to wait until the next budgetary allocation round to fit into the government’s budget.
On top of that, the law firm market in Rwanda is small, he says. “We don’t have more than 15 legitimate law firms. Even if each one is paying a subscription fee of $100, or even more, that’s not enough to pay 3, 4 people Unless you are about to get government clients. Even the law schools were not willing to pay substantial money. So, it was really a monetisation problem.”
The business was a “dead end,” he concluded. He shuttered up Panavis in 2020 at the onset of the lockdown—a year before founding Vanoma.
A second try
In July 2021, when Nsengimana got the invitation from Mucunguzi to join him at Vanoma, he was working out of Seattle as a software engineer for Amazon. It was a great job, but he wanted more. He wanted to leave paid employment and return to entrepreneurship. He and Mucunguzi had stayed in touch after Yeyote folded up. In fact, 3 years before, Mucunguzi had asked him to co-found with him at Nisawa, but Nsengimana refused; he was busy balancing school and his work.
Still, the years he’d spent with Mucunguzi building the music streaming app were some of the most fulfilling of his life, he tells me. So, when Mucunguzi approached him to be his co-founder at Vanoma, given their history of working together and his yearning to do work that was “much more rewarding”, he agreed and relocated to Kigali to co-run the business.
Vanoma startup employs 12 full-time drivers who make deliveries all over Kigali, the city that is the extent of their coverage, as of today.
I want to know what their expansion plans are. Mucunguzi tells me their approach is to avoid markets such as Nairobi, Kenya, that are “extremely competitive”. Nairobi, he explains, already has plenty of delivery products—Uber and Bolt, for example—so Vanoma will not be expanding there just yet. But they could expand into Uganda, Côte d’Ivoire, or Cameroon any day now, once they feel ready, as their findings show these markets are ripe for an ecommerce boom.
My Life in Tech (MLIT) is a biweekly column that profiles innovators, leaders, and shapers in the African tech ecosystem, with the intention of putting a human face to the startups and innovations they build. A new episode drops every other Wednesday at 3 PM (WAT). If you think your story will interest MLIT readers, please fill out this form.