There is a joke that if you have an innovative product in Africa and bootstrapping is not your thing or is not economically viable, then just get a foreigner or white person as a co-founder and watch funds stream in from investors.
This unwritten rule is nothing new in the Nairobi startup landscape. We have seen many small companies grow astronomically because they played the game, but in some cases, the growth has ended in tears, especially for local co-founders.
There are many substantiated examples that have since been publicized, with cases such as Angani’s that saw the company’s founders ejected from a company they started for reasons that you and I can guess. If you want to refresh your memory cells, you can refer to this story, which highlights the development of that case from three or so years ago.
Enter Safi Analytics
This is a smart-metering (of power) company you probably have never heard of, or you do owing to the work it is doing for factories in Kenya and other external markets. It has offices in Kenya and Mexico, and was started in 2017, so its presence in the tech ecosystem is quite new.
‘We are a software company of engineers ad operators with global experience, committed to driving clean, smart growth for factories worldwide,’ reads a statement on Safi’s About page.
Safi Analytics has been under the keen and unforgiving analysis and backlash from the public after it emerged that its top leaders, who are mainly foreigners, kicked out one of its co-founders without following due process.
Kenyan Tech Start-up Ecosystem: Tilted Towards Foreigners?In 2017 Kennedy Nganga, launched Safi Analytics, a smart metering start-up, alongside two foreign nationals.2018,the firm raised 200 million in capital and that's when @laurenedunford tried to push Ken out of the company. pic.twitter.com/EzCtX9qvNL
— Boniface Mwangi (@bonifacemwangi) January 20, 2020
The case was brought to light by activist and photographer Boniface Mwangi after he tweeted a video featuring one Kennedy Ng’ang’a.
A Geospatial Engineering graduate and speaking to Sema Ukweli, a platform that was launched by Boniface in 2019 for Kenyans in search of justice, Kennedy reveals that he was sidelined by Safi Analytic’s expatriate co-founders in what he says was a company whose solutions he helped create.
After working as a GIS analyst in several global organizations, Kennedy left and ventured into the technology space and developed some ideas for the agricultural sector.
In mid-2017, he met Lauren Dunford, who serves as Safi’s current CEO. Lauren told Kennedy that he had some people who were interested in a person specializing in technology entrepreneurship. Lauren, at that time, was interested in solar energy, but that market had since been filled with many local and international companies.
After a couple of factory visits and brainstorming, Kennedy says that he advised Lauren to change tact and focus on the energy monitoring space. In August 20717, they partnered and formed a company named Safi Gen (the goal of the company was to push for the generation of clean electricity), which would then change to Safi Analytics because it had grown to leverage analytics for power management.
From mid-2017 to mid-2018, Kennedy was in charge of the company as his co-founder was at Stanford for higher studies. He says he was tasked with many roles such as leading the organization and tweaking its technology. In that time, pilot tests were conducted based on prototypes that were developed and installed in different factories.
Reportedly, the pilots were successful and customers were happy. Lauren would then suggest the company to hire an expert in startup funding. That is when a third partner joined the company.
In 2018, Safi Analytics netted more than KES 200 million in venture capital. At the same time, Lauren, among other partners were completing their MBAs in the U.S.
The plan, according to Kennedy, was to grow the company and broader adoption of its technology in factories using the money at their disposal.
Kennedy says that there was a hushed plan to push him out. This, he deduced, was linked from pressure from Lauren who continuously persuaded him to resign and give up his shares for a separation offer.
When he refused, Lauren Dunford reportedly trumped-up charges against him, and he was eventually fired. Of course, he had been given an offer, which, according to assessment, was not a reflection of the work he had done for the company.
His refusal to take the offer implied that we would not receive a severance package.
The dismissal, Ken says, was illegal.
“These guys are you know, eating the fruits of my labour of the work I had done while they were in school. And I am out here struggling to make ends meet, while other people are enjoying the fruits of my innovation,” says Kennedy.
At the time Sema Ukweli was pushing its piece, Lauren had declined to respond.
She has, however, released an official statement detailing her stand over Kennedy’s ‘allegations.’
Good morning. Safi Analytics and I are committed to working with integrity while caring for our team. Here's our official statement on recent allegations made by a former employee. I understand, take to heart and will address the concerns that have been raised – Lauren pic.twitter.com/iAYTzd6C0f
— Lauren Dunford (@laurenedunford) January 22, 2020
In the statement, Lauren says the report by Sema Ukweli is false.
According to the CEO, the company was registered by Lauren and Jason Dunford in the USA in March 2017. Kennedy was later employed in September 2017.
Take note of the statement: she calls Kennedy a mere employee, whereas he argues that he co-founded and developed Safi’s innovative product.
Nevertheless, Kennedy was named a co-founder, but Lauren says he was given the title because of his ‘passion for data analytics’, and not that he created the idea of Safi. The title, she says, was to ‘appreciate’ him.
Furthermore, Lauren says Kennedy had an employment contract like other workers in the company.
Lauren is also calling evidence of Kennedy’s role in the development of Safi’s technology.
The matter is in the courts.
Probably the main discrepancy between the two is that Kennedy says he created the analytics solution, whereas Lauren says he did not.
Of course, details of the brawl will be brought to light as the case progresses.
In the meantime, you can follow the tweets linked above to follow the conversations about how locals are ripped off of their creations by non-Kenyans, and what can be done to change the already damaged technology startup space.