Mobile Airtime Startup Chura Co-founders Speak On Big Plans To Go Regional

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Some of us deal with this scenario more often than we would like to admit. Imagine sending someone money on MPESA, but because your more frequent interaction with MPESA is buying airtime, you subconsciously do that instead. So now they have airtime instead of the cash they needed. Or you have one Safaricom credit, but you really need Orange’s airtime to get bundles, but your local kiosk doesn’t have Orange airtime. If only you could switch that up, or even use one Telco’s money services to buy another’s airtime. 5 students from University of Nairobi founded Chura to do just that and a couple more services.

Founded a couple of years back, Chura is a fast growing company. In fact, it has surpassed the initial use case the founders intended for it, that is to be used in the Universities by young guys, and is now a company on the verge of expanding across Africa by entering the South African market early next year, with serious interest from Zimbabwe, Zambia and Nigeria.

Having recently received a cash prize of around Kshs 1.6 million for being finalists at the Africa Prize for Engineering Innovation in South Africa earlier this year, they received a lot of attention and significant partnerships, especially from PayPal, hence increasing their offerings.

We got the chance to speak to two people in the team to get a feel of what Chura is and what it hopes to be in the future. Meet Njogu Kinyanjui, who is a trained architect, but now deals with design at Chura and Stephanie Gaku, a Computer Science graduate who heads up communications at the company.

So what is Chura? Well this is what Stephanie had to say; “We try to bring services offered by different Telcos into one platform. We did this because we felt like there was a need for it in the market.” She goes on to explain how they came to this gap in the market. “According to the GSMA statistics, Kenyans average 2 SIM cards per user and we do this to try to cut down on costs. We find that one provider has cheaper data options, while the other has cheaper call rates, so in the end you have 2 or more SIM cards.”

I personally have around 5 SIM cards, each for a particular use (don’t judge), therefore finding a solution that creates seamless interaction between each of them is definitely very beneficial. Chura provides four services. Firstly, you can buy airtime across different networks. For example, you can use MPESA to buy any other operator’s airtime. This should come in handy, especially if no retailer around you has the airtime you are looking for. Secondly, Chura also allows you to switch airtime from one operator to another. If you have Orange airtime, you can switch that to Safaricom airtime using Chura. Thirdly, they can also allow you to exchange airtime for cash. This is for those moments you bought airtime by mistake, or you are sent more airtime than you need. You can easily get cash for it. Lastly, it also offers corporates a way to distribute airtime to employees at a click of button.

Three months ago, they partnered with the global payment platform PayPal, to offer PayPal to MPESA conversion, whose target market is those people who do freelance online jobs. This will allow them to receive payment much easier. Chura has grown both as a company and a set of individuals from an idea thought up in University to an International company. How did they manage to do this?

Started in Campus

“You realize that you have a lot of Safaricom airtime that isn’t very useful at that moment in time. We would ask ourselves how we would exchange that.”

“We are a group of friends. In campus, we used a lot of Orange data, however the vendor around school rarely had Orange airtime. You had to either buy it in bulk beforehand or find time to go to town to get some. You realize that you have a lot of Safaricom airtime that isn’t very useful at that moment in time. We would ask ourselves how we would exchange that,” says Stephanie.  They then thought of Chura, which translates to frog, representing the leap from one service to another. Target market at this point was University students who find themselves in the same position.

“At the beginning, we put in Kshs 200,000, mostly received from our family and friends. The University also played a big role in our development. We were incubated at C4D Lab in University of Nairobi for 2 years. Being at UON opened doors for us. The connections and networks we got from there really helped us in growing our company,” says Njogu.

Incubation is something many startups opt for, for a variety of reasons. It is easier to get an audience with investors and veteran entrepreneurs who will not only fund but also help you figure out your idea. Stephanie brought up an interesting aspect of being incubated in a University. “Most of the guys incubated there are students, whose day to day learning revolves around the most recent technologies to use in product development. Keeping up with this really helped us in developing our programs and software. We might have graduated 2 years ago but the things they learn right now is really relevant. It is an ideal environment for startups, especially when you constantly need to know what is in and out.”

20% Growth month on month

Part of Chura’s Team, Stephanie Gaku and Njogu Kinyanjui

 

Since they started Chura, they have been growing at a steady rate of 20 % every month. Their revenue model is pretty simple as explained by Stephanie, “The buy airtime service is free, we actually give you a 5% bonus for 100 bob airtime bought. We take 7% from the switch airtime service, meaning that if you switch Kshs 100 worth of Safaricom airtime, you get Kshs 93 worth of Airtel airtime. For airtime to cash conversion, we take 20% that is 100 shillings airtime will get you 80 shillings cash.”

They are not yet profitable, but have so far been able to post a million Shillings in revenues, mostly from airtime sales. “People are giving us airtime they do not need so we end up being re-sellers,” says Stephanie.

In terms of increasing their service offerings they added PayPal into their systems under Chura Money. “We have a new service now offering PayPal to mobile money conversion which has been doing quite well. It started as an experiment, just to see how people will react to that and it is going good. This is the 3rd month in market with this product and we have experienced 100% growth in the first 2 months. We project 50% month on month growth rate from this month.”

“There interest lies on the airtime to cash business. We noticed that in some parts of Africa, mobile money is not widely adopted…there exists low income communities who use airtime as a mode of payment”

In addition to local growth, they are planning to expand into several countries in Africa as I had earlier stated. This isn’t something that they had not anticipated. “Their interest lies on the airtime to cash business. We noticed that in some parts of Africa, mobile money is not widely adopted, either because the Telecommunication companies there are not pushing for it or they have restrictive government policies favoring banks, therefore, there exists low income communities who use airtime as a mode of payment. Our airtime to cash model is therefore something that has caught their attention.” says Njogu.

As expected, getting to this level hasn’t been without challenges. “We have faced a few challenges that has required us to restart and reboot at times. Most of our time has been spent sorting out challenges, especially from network providers. We decided to go into the market individually, because it is very hard for a corporate to just buy into an idea, you need a product. Additionally, the added limits on airtime transfers and MPESA limits have forced us to come up with workarounds.

Want to be Emulated

“Our biggest competition is that guy in the kiosk!”

There really isn’t a service out there offering a similar package as Chura is, therefore they do not have a predecessor, someone they can emulate. This can discourage a lot of other entrepreneurs as the waters aren’t really tested before hand, however this isn’t the case for Chura. “It is more exciting for us as we want to be emulated. The business as a whole does not have a lot of precedence but the bits of business like how to handle customers, how to come up with pricing and how to deal with competition has been done before. As a team, we can then synthesize all that information and apply it into our business,” says Njogu.

However, the lack of predecessors doesn’t mean that they are all alone in this business, they have mentors helping them out. “From the competitions we have attended, we get various training opportunities that we take full advantage of. Additionally, we get to meet with several guys and get to know ways of running the business. When you get one person willing to help you out, there is a high likelihood they can connect you to another guy help you, especially when they can connect you to a local guy in another country through their own networks.” He adds.

They are also not without competitors. “Our biggest competition is that guy in the kiosk!” Says Njogu with a laugh, in the case of buying airtime. Other competitors include online vendors like PesaPal or generally the network providers themselves.

So what is in store for Chura in the coming years? “In order to scale, we need to do a couple of things. Accessibility of the service for the user is a big deal, especially at the grass root level, hence why we are working on our SMS platform to make it easier and faster for someone to access our service. Also for our Paypal to MPESA service, we plan on positioning our service as instant, with delay, should there be one, only coming from MPESA. We are also planning on a way of marketing our product from the source (overseas) for people in diaspora instead of here.”

Mid-term and long term goals include creating a more robust payment platform, with their first step having been PayPal integration. They also plan on diversifying their service offering.

As a company run by a mix of three computer science graduates, an architect and industrial chemist, they have really done a lot into making what they thought would be a small university tool into an international product, finding use in ways they could not have thought of, something they are really proud of.

You can check out their site and try them out for yourselves.

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