When Gigs Fill Gaps: How Rwazi is Increasing Access to Data in Emerging Markets
Founded in 2018, award-winning data services company Rwazi is addressing an age-old problem. By tapping into the gig economy, the company is providing access to on-ground data from Africa and beyond to facilitate informed and effective decision-making. The company’s co-founder, Joseph Rutakangwa, shares its origin story.
Congratulations on the impressive achievements of Rwazi! What are some of the highlights and successes that you’re most proud of?
Thank you. It’s been a wild ride so far and the most fulfilling work I’ve ever done. It’s difficult ranking the feats that I’m most proud of, but in order of occurrence, these are some of them:
- Closing our first customer
- Winning multiple awards at the Southern Africa Startup Awards
- Opening our U.S subsidiary
- Reaching 10,000+ mappers in 40 countries across Africa.
- Onboarding our first mappers in Asia.
Why did you feel compelled to start Rwazi?
It requires a disproportionate amount of willpower and delusion for a young African to lift themselves out of difficult circumstances and overcome all the systemic barriers in their country.
I was privileged to have received multiple full scholarships throughout the years. Every time I looked back after crossing a particular stage in my life, I saw that I had left many of my peers behind. This wasn’t necessarily because they weren’t intelligent enough or that they didn’t have dreams. But they fell through the cracks, because it requires a disproportionate amount of willpower and delusion for a young African to lift themselves out of difficult circumstances and overcome all the systemic barriers in their country. So I thought to myself, because I have managed to access multiple opportunities, I would be doing every one of my batchmates who didn’t make it as far as I did a disservice if I ran off to work for a multinational and lived a comfortable life — taking care of just myself and my immediate family.
That’s why our operating model at Rwazi is built around utilising a network of qualified young people in developing countries as mappers. With this model, organisations benefit from fresh, on-ground data from locals, and at the same time, the locals earn an income that they would not have otherwise seen. Mappers can then use this income to improve their lives and pursue their dreams.
Fred Swaniker’s story confirmed my thinking in this area. He had made it — went to good schools and ended up with a first-class job. He could have easily lived in comfort from then on. But because he had access to opportunities most Africans don’t, he decided to take on a bigger challenge that would eventually create breakthroughs for many young Africans. I am one of those young Africans who made a breakthrough because of Fred’s decision to take on a bigger challenge, and in turn, I am now creating new opportunities for many others.
How did your interest in data arise?
Back in high school, I used to get annoyed every time I couldn’t find specific data from developing countries on Google. I did a lot of research work on countries in South America, Africa and some parts of Asia, and not being able to find the data I needed was a common frustration. Then from 2013, I was privileged to work on expansion projects for companies looking to enter developing countries. Again, the most common setback in my work was not having the necessary data to base decisions on. That’s when it finally hit me that this was a much larger problem and no one was doing enough to solve it.
Was there a key moment when you realised the power of data in Africa?
One January afternoon in 2016, McKinsey’s Acha Leke presented the Lions on the Move findings to the first batch of African Leadership University (ALU) students, and I was in one of the front seats. Acha had used data to pitch Africa’s strengths, projections, and why it makes sense to start a business on the continent. Prior to that moment, I hadn’t seen a strong business case for starting my business in Africa, so I’d wanted to set it up somewhere else first and expand to Africa later on. That presentation changed everything, and that’s when I finally made up my mind to build my data business, starting in Africa.
What is the mission of Rwazi?
Our mission is to make data accessible to facilitate effective decision making. We work to achieve this mission by creating data collection gigs for qualified young people. We hope that with on-ground data, investments on the continent will increase, business success rates will go up, and for people who work in various industries — Medicine, Academia, Trade etc. — quick results will be just a click away.
What are some of the biggest challenges you’ve had to overcome as a founder?
My biggest challenge has been learning to make accurate and fast decisions that consistently create desired outcomes. In the startup world, there are so many moving pieces, and events change all the time. As a founder, my primary job is to respond quickly to the changes, and as anyone can imagine, this is no easy feat. It requires a lot of practice, in the process of which the company could sink.
In these few years, I’ve learnt to:
- Absorb pressure
- Embrace uncertainty
- Know when to pursue and when to withdraw
- Understand people’s underlying drives and intentions
- Above all, know when to move against the current vs. riding the wave
With growing decision-making abilities, we’ve been able to develop to profitability after using otherwise negative events such as the COVID pandemic to derive desired outcomes for Rwazi.
How important has relationship-building been to the success of Rwazi?
In business, relationship-building is everything. I’ve come to learn that almost nothing can get done if you don’t know someone who knows someone who knows someone. Every aspect of our journey — from incorporation to customer acquisition — was primarily driven by the relationships my co-founder and I had with people who turned out to be door-openers for us.
You met your co-founder, Eric Sewankambo, along with your initial team whilst you were studying at the African Leadership University. How did your time at ALU help to shape your vision for Rwazi and get it off the ground?
I went to ALU for the sole purpose of starting a business. The advantage the university provided me was that it was filled with some of the smartest people one can find. Eric and I spent most of our time there testing business ideas and pitching to prospective customers and investors. Prior to ALU, I had started multiple ventures and failed, so I needed a space where I could escape real-world pressures for a moment and focus on planning and executing my next phase. ALU provided that. We had Rwazi up and running before graduation.
Africa is home to the youngest and fastest-growing workforce in the world, yet most lack access to opportunity. How is Rwazi filling this gap and creating opportunities for young people on the continent?
Today, we provide data collection gigs to over 10,000 young Africans and expect to reach 10 million in the next five years and 100 million by the end of the decade. The labour force is large and growing faster than the growth rate of formal sector jobs.
We believe that gigs are the most accessible income-generating opportunities for young Africans and the most feasible approach to solve unemployment on the continent.
The COVID-19 pandemic brought an end to many startups across the globe. How did it affect Rwazi?
Since the breakout of the pandemic, it has been difficult for organisations to reach customers, beneficiaries, suppliers and other parties in target areas due to lockdowns and travel restrictions. As such, we saw an increasing demand for our services. With our network of mappers, we have been able to serve customers in various industries by providing them with on-ground data from localities that they cannot reach. Data on the availability of products and services, pricing, retail locations, local suppliers, and so on, have been the most sought after by companies through Rwazi.
Looking ahead, what are some of the Hard Things you’re hoping to achieve in 2022?
We have some exciting things that we are looking to achieve over the year:
- Launch mapping activities in India.
- Launch multiple forms of mapping (more details to be shared soon).
- Grow our network to 100,000 mappers.
We can’t wait to set the ball rolling!