Innovation And Resilience Mint Billions For Technology Duo

Philip Nyamwaya, the co-founder of Kenya's Intrepid Data Systems (IDS)

VENTURES AFRICA – A modest computer, few savings from the part time job in campus and a burning desire to provide people driven technological solutions all worked to birth Interpid Data Systems, a fast growing software and mobile payment solutions company that provide jobs to some 15 Kenyans and has a combined clientele of over 120 businesses who use its diverse applications. The parent company Interpid Data System sells reconciliatory software to banks and has annual turnover of close to quarter a million dollars while Ipay, the subsidiary company that was hived off from Interpid in 2010 to give the company a more structured approach, is involved in payment processing solution which aggregates different payment solutions including mobile money and debit card payment, cashing in on the meteoric rise of mobile and technology infusion in the country.

Yet the road to this leading technological enterprise has been a rough one since Philip Nyawaya and Steve Nyumba first birthed the idea in 2003. Steve and Phillip grew up together and shared life’s experiences since childhood which might explain why the childhood bond has permeated into the success of the company even as it faced many business knocks. Philip, while in his third year at the Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology (JKUAT), chanced on a friend who introduced him to a research organization dealing with wildlife research that had accumulated lots of data which they wanted digitized. “Doing this job as a programmer for the company was such a watershed moment for me. I realized I could earn money doing this, because when I joined campus just like every young Kenyan I wanted to get out of school fast, look for employment and become a management trainee in prestigious corporates, what people refer to as the Kenyan dream,” recalls Nyamwaya. But his knack for research and quest to know more and challenge conventional knowledge ignited in him a desire to scale up this quest.

By that time Steve his childhood friend were studying at the prestigious University of Nairobi. “Little did I know that Steve was also thinking of the same idea, we started talking about business and knew we could work something out,” he says. The wind of change that had swept across the country with the coming into power of the democratically perceived NARC government would also act as a motivator for the duo to delve into business. Steve’s background as a web developer and Philip’s as a programmer would be all they needed to take their dreams higher.

A modest Pentium 3 computer, with sluggish memory and processing power that Philip’s parents had sacrificed to buy him when he joined campus was the first piece of technology that the duo used in starting up the business. Steve also brought his computer with him. Philip then picked the studying table that he used at his parent’s house to use in their first office, a tiny room which could only accommodate two desks. But the small room was the least of their problems as they were still grappling with where to raise enough money to cover office rent. “The landlady was my mum’s age. She must have just looked at us and took pity on us. But overall I think it was motherly mercy. We never had the pleasure of getting credit facilities from financial institutions like today’s startup businesses do. It was just us with nothing. The lady just allowed us to start with the little we had and would later pay her,” recalls Philip. Steve had by now quit his job; Philip had also had a short stint with employment as a system administrator in a small consultancy firm. Says Philip “I had tasted money when I was working in campus and I realized I was earning way much from the side jobs than working for some one full time. I needed to manage my own life, which was another reason of wanting to set up my business.”

But it would take them time before they could even start earning. And when the business gradually picked up they could only afford to earn basic allowance. Since Steve had rented a house to live in and Philip was still living with his parents, Steve would get more allowance than Philip to meet all his needs. “The childhood bond played a part here because I had to understand that Steve had bills to pay so he needed to get more of the allowance,” Philip reminisces.

What they thought were their light bulb moment came when a company won a big tender and Intrepid was sub contracted to assist them. The duo invested resources in completing the assignment since they knew this would open more opportunities for them. When the client paid the company that had sub contracted Intrepid, the company would not pay Intrepid and after countless fruitless follow ups a lawyer friend advised them to drop the wild goose chase since they would incur more in the follow ups and lawsuits which would bruise their infant business more. But the relentless chasing of clients who would not pay, canceled contracts and slamming of doors by financial institutions would eventually pave way to a technology market leader that is now sought after by numerous corporates and government with its clientele now spawning from banks, government, private sector and international organizations. In 2010 Intrepid scooped three awards at the Kenya Institute of Management’s (KIM) Kenya Annual Business Awards (KABA). It won the 2nd runners-up prize for SME of the Year, won the customer orientation and marketing Focus award and its directors Stephen Nyumba and Philip Nyamwaya jointly won the best youth entrepreneur of the year award for the second year running.

The awards are set-up by KIM, one of the leading business schools in Kenya as an initiative to recognize well-run and successful SMEs throughout Kenya.

Philip admits that it was quite a crowning moment for him and the company and a statement that sought to rubber stamp his staunch belief in life that it is never enough to try once. “We failed, actually many parts in the course of our business. We tried this, it did not work, we tried another it worked, another one failed. Failure is part of life; you cannot claim to have succeeded without failing. Failing does not make you a failure, but failing to keep trying is what failure is,” says Philip who draws his inspiration from Colonel Harland Sanders who started Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC), a global chain of fast food restaurants. He tried selling his recipes to different eateries and restaurants starting right from his backyard but no one was interested. When he was on the verge of giving up, one restaurant expressed interest and that set things in motion which would later make him one of the most influential people globally and redefine fast food eating patterns as we know them.

The company that is still on the trajectory of growth now hopes to start vending other software and creating even more solutions while becoming a regional force to reckon with in solutions for payment that mirrors the global online payment service Paypal. But this tangible dream which Philip knows too well he will achieve, if his past experience is anything to go by, requires not just money in order to turn it to reality but personal conviction and service to the people, an advise he has for all the techies who dream of one day owing successful business ventures like his. “Whatever it is you want to do whether in technology or elsewhere, do it because it is burning inside of you, not because it is trendy or is the in thing. Build a business that will outlast you. Business is not looking for money or sitting in posh offices that could be outdone by technology. Business is being relevant to your society,” he concludes.