Decoding Cellulant’s Ken Njoroge.
Ken Njoroge is an ambitious man. When Ken tells you that he intends (not wants, intends) to grow Cellulant into a company that has 100 million customers in Africa paying them US$ 1.00 per month by 2015 you don’t get the impression he is kidding – you know he means it. If you do the math, that would mean Ken wants to grow Cellulant into a company that makes over US$ 1 Billion in revenue per year in just 3 years time. Farfetched? Not in a world where Africa is the fastest growing market for mobile subscriptions and a whole range of related services including mobile money.
For those of you who may not be familiar with Cellulant, this is a company that has been around for just over a decade and has won numerous accolades in that time. Cellulant is a mobile value-added services (VAS) company focussing on mobile content and mobile financial services that started in Kenya and has quickly grown its presence to encompass a good number of countries throughout the African continent. The funny thing though is that Cellulant has managed to more or less remain “below the radar” as they tend to work in the “back-end” of the large companies who use their mobile services such as Kenya Airways, Kenya Commercial Bank Group, Barclays Bank Africa, Standard Chartered Bank and many many others. They are not what would call a consumer facing business (although this is changing) but tend to power consumer services for these business behemoths in Africa.
I was in Lagos (Nigeria) last month and as it happened Ken and I were on the same flight from Nairobi. We agreed to meet and have a long overdue coffee as well as do some shopping at one of the new(er) malls popping up all over Lagos. By the way, if you are a business in Africa and want to be BIG, you have to be in Nigeria as soon as possible since their economy is growing like a weed and is expected to eclipse that of South Africa (currently the largest in Africa) in just a few years time. When you realize that Nigeria is a market of over 150 million people, the numbers do add up and clearly everyone is setting up shop there. Ken was in Nigeria to have a meeting with the Ministry of Agriculture where Cellulant had been engaged to develop and deploy an innovative and multimillion dollar mobile service to distribute funds for fertilizer subsidies to farmers. Its a massive project that shows just how far Cellulant has come to-date.
I have known Ken since 1999 when he was one of the co-founders of web services company 3mice. I joined 3mice in 2000 and worked with Ken for around 2 years before opting to start Dotsavvy. However, I will never forget my first day at work at 3mice. I basically traveled from Mombasa the day before and reported to work the next day. On my first day at work, Ken asked me to help him work on a large pitch for a financial services prospect. I left the office with him the next day at around 2.00 am. Yes, that was day one working with Ken at 3mice. Ken is a focused guy and is not given to trivial pursuits to the point that he has been known to grate people by his work ethic and sheer drive. Frankly, I think its the reason why Cellulant has come so far. Its this very unrelenting determination that makes Cellulant tick, and tock.
Although Cellulant has been a large success and recently received substantial equity funding, who is Ken Njoroge? For many out there, Ken has been something of an enigma as he is deliberately a private man. He is happily married with 3 children. He opts to stay out of the public eye and focus on running and expanding Cellulant across Africa. He has managed to hire a crack team and is gradually giving up some of the many functions he has run as CEO to-date at Cellulant to new hires coming from some of the world’s leading businesses in Africa and beyond. Cellulant was started with a little more than an idea of what you would call today an infographic showing a mobile ecosystem where a myriad of businesses and service providers would be able to connect to consumers and Cellulant as the glue that would bind them all, and take transaction commissions for facilitating services in the process. It was this “infographic”, a laptop and a table that he used to get started, with lots hard work and some help along the way.
Today, Cellulant is estimated to be worth over US$ 30 Million. One thing Ken points out about this valuation is that its inherently “locked” in the business and cannot be extracted until such time the shareholders consider shedding large portions of their equity. Ken also suggests that he has been “lucky” with Cellulant since the last 10 years have been like many leaps of faith with things coming together, “at just the right time”. Having been an entrepreneur myself like Ken, I can totally relate about the times when everything just goes right that it seems as if the Hand of God was in the mix. True story! An interesting observation I picked from Ken is that he thinks unless a business is growing by at least 40% per year, its in trouble! Serious trouble. He has this opinion based on prior experience.
Ken laments at the fact that when he started Cellulant there was no kind of real venture funding in Kenya or the African Continent. It was really friends and family who helped give their business a starting chance. Ken hints that he is considering starting an Angel fund for start-ups in Africa so as to give them the “kick-off” that he never had to ease the passage to viability as businesses. However, Ken also notes that the failure rate for most start-ups is stupendous and as such mentorship of these start-ups would also be a key aspect behind such a fund, should it happen. One thing Ken pointed out during our chat is that Cellulant needed to “pivot” its business model at an early stage to remain viable. This was the point when they moved from focussing just on mobile content and bulk SMS services to handling mobile services for financial services providers. This move is more or less the main reason they are still in business and have expanded exponentially across Africa.
Further down the road, Ken thinks that he may be interested in trying his hand at politics in Kenya should such an opportunity present itself. I am not sure if he is serious when he makes this point in our chat but Kenya could use some new and radically different blood on the political scene from proven captains of industry such as Ken. Who knows how this may go if it actually happens. However, probably the most compelling aspect of our discussion is when Ken expounds on his vision for Cellulant creating a mobile services ecosystem that connects, in his words, “everyone and everything”. This process has actually begun and its only a matter of time before it becomes an Africa-wide mobile ecosystem that could rival mobile networks themselves. Indeed, it was back in 2001 when Ken first shared with me his “vision” for a mobile services business. At the time, I was quite transfixed on “desktop” Internet services and could not “get it”. 10 years later, clearly, its apparent that mobile is indeed the future of technology and business in Africa and beyond. I have only begun to “decode” Ken Njoroge in this respect and everyday I can’t help but wonder just how far he and Cellulant could go.