Femi Akinde, the CEO and founder of Seattle-based technology company SlimTrader, is one of the speakers Wednesday afternoon during a free forum at the University of Washington, organized by the African Network, about economic growth in Africa and the opportunities to do business on the continent.
Akinde, a 38-year-old graduate of the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business, worked at companies including AT&T Wireless, T-Mobile and Microsoft before starting SlimTrader in 2009. In advance of the forum, he spoke with GeekWire about SlimTrader’s technology and his advice for others thinking about doing business in Africa.
How he came up with the idea for the business: “I value my time, and I always think of it in terms of opportunity cost and transaction cost. I try to minimize both for myself. I always weigh options. The problem I came across while traveling in Africa was wasting an entire day just to buy an item. I needed a plane ticket, and I spent the whole day just going from one point to another just to get it. That to me seemed a huge waste of time. It’s a tremendously high opportunity cost, a tremendously high transaction cost. It made me think, if I can feel this, what about the folks who are less fortunate than I am. Why aren’t the companies that are providing this service doing something to make it easier for consumers to gain access to their goods and services?
How Slim Trader approached the problem: “The solution had to be on the phone, because the Internet penetration in Africa is in the low teens, as it is. I knew this was not a web or an online solution. It had to cut across rich and poor — it had to be something that anyone with access to a phone would be able to use. Which then made us ask, OK, what are the facilities on the phone that you can use to access goods and services to make purchases. You can make a voice call, or you can surf the web, or you can use SMS text messages.”
How its SMS text solution works: “The consumer is trying to get to the business to access their interactive database, and they go through our cloud to do that. You need to know what the short code is. A short code is like a phone number, but it’s fewer digits. Once you text to that short code, you basically start communicating with our cloud. For example, say you want to buy a bus ticket, you would text the short code and the word bus, and it comes up with a menu list if you’re a first-time user, or you can actually do a natural language search where you’re able to query the system for what you want in particular.” (Slim Trader charges a fee to the companies for completed transactions.)
Status: Operational in Africa. Corporate customers include two airlines, one ferry service, one bus service and fertilizer company. Not profitable yet, currently seeking to close new funding round, with lead investor Invested Development.
Advice for other companies thinking about doing business in Africa: “It’s still a pretty niche market. There’s not a lot of attention being paid to companies that operate in Africa, so it’s certainly a long slog to get things operational. It will take a lot of patience, a lot of fortitude, a lot of reaching out, and a lot of hard work. But I think it can be extremely worthwhile. I think it’s extremely satisfying if folks are willing to put in the time and effort. Also, what you end up with is, at a minimum, a double bottom-line company, where you can easily articulate your financial return on investment, as well as your social return on investment.”
Why the company has remained headquartered in Seattle: “The reason to relocate would be because we would think we’d be more effective. With the partnerships, we’ve formed, our partners are way more effective than we would be down there. Also, we build the technology up here. So being in Seattle gives us a wealth of individuals. It’s lessened our costs up to this point. Individuals are able to come in on an equity basis. Those are the kinds of things that we would not get if we relocated.”
The free event on “The African Miracle” runs from 3:30 p.m. to 6 p.m. Wednesday, April 20, at the Douglas Forum at the Bank of America Executive Education Center at the University of Washington.
Moderated by Steve Scher of KUOW, the event includes speakers Uwa Agbonile of Seattle-based Infoware; Mary Flowers, owner of Los Angeles-based Sturdi-Quik Prefabricated Structures; and Anne Bugge, VP of Global Public Health, Seattle-based SonoSite; in addition to Akinde of SlimTrader.