Kennedy Kitheka had a vision to create greater accessibility around education and academic content. Along with two friends, he came up with the idea of creating a technology platform that would provide free academic content for subscribers. The prototype took the shape of a Bluetooth hotspot at Wits University. Once in the hotspot area, students could download specific academic content free of charge. But as soon as they got the project off the ground, they seemed to hit a wall. “It wasn’t a business yet,” says Kennedy, aged 27. “At the time it was just an idea, and it wasn’t perfect, but we knew it had potential.”
It was in a 2011 Business Strategy course at the University of Cape Town that Kennedy saw the chance to harness that business potential. For a class competition, Kennedy worked in a group to develop a business proposal and strategy. It grew into a real-life business pitch and they won the competition, and with it, a prize of R30 000 in seed funding. Kennedy was now able to lay the foundations for Funda, a mobile app that curates curriculum support content tailored around students’ academic needs. He saw the gap for growth and, after signing the idea over from his group members and re-enlisting the support of the friends that he had launched the Bluetooth idea with, Kennedy embarked on his journey as an entrepreneur. Fresh out of university, there were a lot of things he was not prepared for. “We spent our money on developing the tech and
aggregating the content we needed for the app, but we hadn’t done enough to create a link between our product and the parents, learners and teachers we were hoping would use it.
Our price points were too high, and we were facing resistance on every front,” he recalls. Instead of allowing this initial setback to deter him, Kennedy knew he had to go back to the drawing board and find new avenues for his project.
“Challenges and failures in those initial months kept us on our toes and we switched focus from schoolgoing children to higher education and distance-learning institutions.” When this model took off, they tried their hand at expanding the business offering to include the training material of large corporates, which soon became too much for them to handle and too far out of their initial scope and vision. They quickly learnt another valuable business lesson. “We had played around with a lot of different things, but soon learnt that focus is critical,” he says of one of the cornerstones of entrepreneurship. “You need to work out what your core offering is and stay true to those elements. Any aspiring entrepreneur needs to decide whether they are starting a small business that is going to grow organically – with a steadier growth of clients and, therefore, growth in revenue – or whether they are going to set up a start-up, where they know from the outset they may not be making any money for a few months or even a couple of years.” At a time when the term itself was relatively unfamiliar, Kennedy and his team chose to throw their weight behind building a start-up. They liked the idea of an unconventional business that challenges the status quo with a new way of approaching problems and solving them. For the Funda team, it was the South African education system that presented a host of problems they wanted to solve. “We really believed in this in the beginning and we had to back that,” Kennedy says. He adds that the starting point for any entrepreneur is confidence in what you are offering and in your ability to bring about change in society. “Entrepreneurs will be the ones driving economies,” Kennedy says. “We just have to change the standard way of thinking that entrepreneurship is a fall-back option. We have all the talent here; we just need to harness it correctly.” As he had done with Funda, Kennedy believes technology is one of the many avenues that present a chance for South African entrepreneurial development. “Technology as a standalone solution cannot change the status quo, but it can facilitate the change and can be incredibly powerful in finding lasting solutions to various social and economic problems.”
What is next for the young problem solver, who was named one of the Top 200 Young South Africans by the Mail & Guardian in 2013 and has presented his business ideas at The World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland? “You get to a stage where you’ve created a system that can run on its own. I am incredibly proud of Funda and I am ready for a new challenge.” A challenge that speaks to his keen interest in the finance side of the start-up world. “I’m not a banker but I have always had a passion for finance, especially when it comes to young business people trying to break into developing markets. Accessing capital remains a big barrier for young talent. Money is available but it is tightly bound up in closed networks. So I would like to focus on creating a funding solution for young entrepreneurial talent that will help them get off the ground,” says Kennedy. He always comes back to opportunity, whether he is creating it or taking advantage of it. “As soon as you hear news of a problem, as an entrepreneur, it should make you want to tackle it head-on. Every problem is an opportunity and when you learn to see it like that, you really can change the world.”