Senga’s approach to reimagining transportation in Africa.
In this age of Uber for Everything, it’s rather easy to be impressed by an app that promises to take over an annoying, everyday task.
Many an app that have attempted to formalize tasks traditionally done with high human involvement, such as cleaning, washing laundry, or plumbing, have failed. Software platforms have also often simply converted manual processes into digitized ones, shifting bad processes from one mode to another.
Technology is often simply slapped on top of or wrapped around existing workflows. This is usually done with the blinding view that technology itself is a solution, instead of figuring out exactly what is broken about the processes that are in place, what options exist (both technology and non-technology based) and which would be the best fixes for the problems. Silicon Valley is littered with technology solutions to problems exactly nobody has (Juicero), but the global south is full of low tech solutions to problems that virtually everyone has. M-Pesa is based on very old technology (SMS, USSD) but is one of the highest volume mobile payments platforms while many modern technology solutions with NFC lie unused. M-Pesa is a low tech solution to what was a high friction problem and the process, albeit a little dated and cumbersome, works.
Manual solutions are not ideal but simply digitizing their underlying processes isn’t ideal either.
Senga operates in the logistics space. At the heart of all trade is logistics. What one produces another needs; that product has to move from the producer to the consumer, one way or another. Raw materials have to be moved from extraction to the manufacturer; waste products have to be moved and recycled; finished products have to be moved to resellers and end users. Still, the average logistics experience is high friction and has many moving parts (people, vehicles, goods, infrastructure, weather, internal processes). In addition to this, there are market information, accessibility, reliability (a vehicle can break down, a person can be late or not show up at all, or stop answering your calls), pricing transparency, demand-supply coordination, and utilization problems. We are solving for all these problems. Is simply providing an app or software platform for matching transporters to shippers the solution? At Senga, we are convinced that it is not. If our pledge is to take away your logistics pains then this simply will not cut it; it will simply take away the customer’s first order problem (finding a truck) which is the easiest problem to solve for. We cannot neglect the human processes that are also core to logistics (well, at least not until humans are replaced by robots). (It’s also worth mentioning that Google Maps, in Kenya and across Africa, will sometimes lead you to non-existent roads.)
The best solutions merge how customer’s work, the nuances about their environments and the best processes, reimagining some of these parts entirely. Uber used GPS to reimagine the process of hailing a taxi. Amazon did not simply move item listings from catalogs to the web; they reimagined shopping entirely.
The most successful jet in modern history — the Boeing 747 — was designed purely on paper, sketched by hand; it’s 50 years old since it was first produced and it still works very well; good engineering is good engineering, regardless of how it’s handled. Does the 747 need to be redesigned with the latest in aviation technology?
Technology, ultimately should be a catalyst to improve upon existing processes, though it’s often used as a crutch or hype-tool to avoid the effort required in rewriting what we can do. A deep understanding of the problem domain is more important than the technology itself. The value of technology lies in its application. Just as there was no substitute to a deep understanding of engineering to build the 747, there is no substitute to a deep understanding of transport and logistics to build robust platforms and processes for our customers.
This is why we think that the path that we have followed with Senga is the best path. We decided to not jump into the sector and try to immediately digitize it; we’ve dug into why things work as they do and how and where technology can play a role in reducing the different problems and friction points we have identified. We’ve spent the last two years understanding transportation and logistics in rural and urban areas and places in-between, for sectors ranging from agriculture to manufacturing, and for enterprises small and large. We’ve talked to and worked with traders, farmers, produce aggregators, manufacturers, processors, recyclers and e-commerce companies. We’ve moved goods from, to and within different parts of the country. We’ve found pockets of highly efficient transportation networks (not to mention being fascinated by the logistics of miraa/khat). This ensures that we build solutions that work for everyone in our broader ecosystem:
* our drivers
* our customers
* our customers’ customers
* our team members
Our vision for the continent is a logistics system that works seamlessly and that can get goods from any part of the continent to the other, efficiently and with a pleasant experience; whether it’s from the swamps of the Congo to the Nile Delta in Alexandria, or from the shores of Lake Turkana to modern Timbuktu in Mali. We will build systems and processes that will ensure that the goods are moved well and the services work. This will make trade in Africa easier and ultimately boost the competitiveness of the continent. This is our brick in the development of the continent.
This is not to say that we are luddites. We simply do not believe that technology is a catch all. We believe in the power of technology, and we believe that the software tools and platforms we build will have the highest leverage if the processes they are interacting with — for everything from customer on-boarding to insurance and tracking — are well understood, so that the pain of moving goods, understanding the regulatory environment (compliance, tax and customs) is wholly our headache and our customers can focus on what makes them competitive; not the ability to move goods from one place to another, but the ability to produce what they produce better than anyone else. This is what we believe we are offering that nobody else is. This is why we’ve taken this approach.
We are now applying technology to an iterated and clear operations framework that we will use to scale across the continent. We are grateful to our existing customers and community of transporters and we hope that you, too, can join us in this journey
Senga can be reached at email@example.com.