Noel K. Tshiani is the founder of Congo Business Network. In this interview for TechCabal, he speaks with Malick Diouf, CEO of LAfricaMobile, and Marie-Laure Lepas, Country Director based in Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of Congo, about their experiences in the startup space in Africa.
Can you tell us about your background and what led you to start LAfricaMobile, the first multi-channel, multi-operator, and multi-country digital cloud communication platform in West and Central Africa?
Malick Diouf: My name is Malick Diouf, CEO and co-founder of LAfricaMobile, a multi-channel communication platform helping African businesses to easily interact with their customers on mobile phone. I have several years of experience in the telecommunications industry between Africa and Europe with a solid background in mobile service innovation in particular.
As a telecommunications engineer with a master’s degree in information systems management, I try to capitalise on the success of my experiences to promote innovation and mobile technologies as drivers of growth for businesses and organisations in Africa.
How does LAfricaMobile’s platform help clients engage with their target audiences using various communication channels such as SMS, USSD, WhatsApp Business, voice, and airtime?
MD Our all-in-one platform offers a unique entry point for African companies to facilitate their interactions (marketing, notifications, customer service, and other functionalities) with their customers on their mobile phones. Regardless of the type of phone their customers have, smartphone or not, connected to the internet or not, we offer these companies the possibility to reach their target customers efficiently. The icing on the cake: we also allow them to address their communications and services to non-literate customers in local African languages.
What challenges did you face while building and launching LAfricaMobile, and how did you overcome them?
MD The first major challenge we faced was a lack of information. I think that our Country Director, Marie-Laure Lepas, has largely spoken on this point. The physical presence and proximity to the market contributed a lot to enabling us to overcome this first strong barrier.
This was not necessarily a novelty for us, as we have been operating in several other African countries for some time. But the agility which is one of our strong values – not to say our DNA – was once again put to use to meet this challenge.
In your opinion, how important is effective communication for businesses in West and Central Africa, and how can LAfricaMobile’s platform contribute to their success?
MD: The market for digital communication in Africa is very fragmented with strong differences. Reaching customers via their mobile phones remains a challenge for African companies and institutions due to three major constraints:
- The technology mix is dispersed with 62% of users on 2G technology, 34% on 3G and only 4% on 4 or 5G.
- Many mobile operators offer the same communication products and operate independently without integrated platforms or services.
- A significant portion of mobile users have low literacy levels and a preference for voice services in local African languages.
LAfricaMobile addresses each of the communication bottlenecks identified above by offering an all-in-one multi-channel solution including a disruptive local language solution.
Looking to the future, what are your plans for the growth and expansion of LAfricaMobile, and how do you see the company evolving to meet the changing needs of clients in the region?
MD: Our mission is to help all African companies to create a strong connection with their own customers so that they can develop their businesses. Today, we are mainly in West and Central Africa. But I am not afraid to tell you that our ambition is continental. We are aware of the specific challenges in our continent but we rely on agility and proximity with our customers to meet these challenges.
Can you tell us about your background and how you became involved in the startup scene in Kinshasa?
Marie-Laure Lepas: Coming from the field of marketing with my first degree, I then obtained a master’s degree from ICHEC Brussels Management School from which I reoriented myself towards the field of finance. I worked as a Finance and Audit Manager and then as a Fraud and Corruption Risk Manager in a European administration department with a focus on project monitoring.
But aware of the importance of new technologies and the digital divide affecting Africa and women, and impacting their place in the economy, and I made it my dissertation topic. In 2018, I launched an initiative to bring basic digital education to disadvantaged women.
After that, I had the opportunity to work as a Financial Input Manager in the negotiation and implementation of international projects in the field of telecommunications and digital technology. Through its vision and values, LAfricaMobile has met my mission to participate in the development of Africa, here through tech.
What has been your major achievement since LAfricaMobile started operations in Kinshasa, and how does it reflect the company’s mission and vision?
ML: LAfricaMobile’s vision is to make the mobile phone growth driver in Africa. Currently, our main achievements in Kinshasa revolve around our collaborations with several players in the banking sector and fintechs whose products directly address the needs of Kinshasa and the Congolese population in general. This brings solutions that respond to their difficulties and thus contribute to improving their well-being.
Suitable banking and fintech solutions, such as allowing merchants to sell their products by accepting electronic payments, allow them to sell more, and farmers to receive their payments no matter where they are located in remote areas. By providing excellent service to these entities, we are fulfilling our mission to help all businesses on the continent to create a strong connection with their own customers and to grow their businesses.
How have clients responded to LAfricaMobile’s solution in the market, and what impact has it had on their businesses?
ML: LAfricaMobile is a new player in the market in the Democratic Republic of Congo but has nearly a decade of experience in several other African and European countries. The presence of LAfricaMobile, an experienced and certified company with a wide range of satisfied customers, has delighted customers in the Congolese market and has been very well received.
Moreover, healthy competition between markets and technologies is as effective as that between companies. Indeed, the benefit of the latter is directly felt by the customer as it exerts downward pressure on prices but also an improvement in the quality of products and services offered.
In your opinion, what are the unique challenges and opportunities of managing a startup in Kinshasa, and how have you addressed them?
ML: The first challenge is the lack of information followed by administrative procedures. The first one was overcome by our direct and daily presence in the market as well as proximity to the key players in the sector (regulators, suppliers, customers, and similar companies).
The agility and experience gained in various countries allow LAfricaMobile to adapt quickly, with a view to satisfying its customers as best as possible. The size of the DRC market, and the numerous needs still to be met in the field of value-added services in most sectors of activity: banks, insurance companies, web agencies, logistics, IT services companies are all opportunities to be seized.
Looking to the future, what are your plans for the growth and expansion of LAfricaMobile’s operations in Kinshasa? And how do you see the company continuing to innovate as you continue to provide value to your clients?
ML: For this first year of operation, our main objective is to stabilise our positioning. Through the uniqueness of its main value proposition: an all-in-one, multi-channel, multi-operator, multi-country platform with user-friendly ergonomics and detailed statistics in real -time, LAfricaMobile has already confirmed its place among innovative African companies.
However, in a process of continuous improvement, we continually review our solution proposals to adapt them to market needs. Also, we have a department entirely dedicated to research and development which allows us to set up products at the cutting edge of innovation while respecting international norms and standards. Moreover, LAfricaMobile has obtained a certification from Bureau Veritas: the ISO/IEC 27001, which is the standard for information security management systems (ISMS).