13 minute read

A conversation with Brian Bosire Founder and CEO of Ujuzi Kilimo and HydroIQ

Brian Bosire, Founder & CEO of Ujuzi Kilimo & HydroIq

Brian Bosire, Founder & CEO of Ujuzi Kilimo & HydroIq

by Ian MAcharia for White Collar Magazine

A conversation with Brian BosireFounder and CEO at Ujuzi Kilimo and HydroIq


“…It’s a world of possibilities,” said Brian, “It’s a WORLD… of possibilities.” He repeated in a lower, hushed tone.

And as I registered the pause, I finally began to grasp the full weight and potential of what was going on at Ujuzi Kilimo and HydroIq. It was about 11:09 am and I was wrapping up the interview. Through the session there were moments when he would briefly space out, or make side notes on his laptop. He seemed to be juggling about 3 or 4 other thoughts at the same time. “I have always been curious. I keep looking at things and wondering, how does this work? Can it be improved? And if we were to, how would we make it better?” This is a continuous process for Brian, which means that ideas pop up at their own discretion irrespective of time and place.

Everything kicked off with the usual pieces of conversation, “hope you found the place okay” and the ‘I usually take this or that route because it’s faster’. Walking into his offices I didn’t know what to expect. I wondered if they really had ‘the stuff’, or if they were something ordinary wrapped in good PR. Would they live up to the hype that comes with winning ‘Best, Internet of Things (IoT)’ at Apps Africa, and the ‘Judge’s Choice’ award at the Google impact Challenge?

Small talk moved to jokes and then to a conversation:

Who is Brian?

It's actually hard to describe myself.

Uhmm… I'm an engineer. I'm eager to try and solve problems. I'm very curious. In any situation I find myself in, I'm constantly examining how everything goes on, trying to find if things could be done better?

Tell us more about your background:

My background is in Electronics Engineering and I studied that at JKUAT (Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology) and halfway through I realized entrepreneurship could be one of the more exciting things I could do. I actually started spending more time developing my businesses rather than going to class.

I left school late in 2016 and at that point I was already running two start-ups (that was Ujuzi Kilimo and another one that closed down called Electrosoft).

Before that though, I went to Kisii High School. I think that’s where my journey into the engineering world started. We did these very technical subjects, power mechanics, electricity, and that was my passion in high school.

What was your childhood like? Did you enjoy it?

My childhood was happy and content.

My family was not rich, it was fairly basic; my dad was acivil servant and my mom was a high school teacher. It wasa classic rural setting.

I think that kind of setting contributed a lot to how I turnedout because, in the rural village a lot of the basic needsare available annd this gives you the ease and comfort youneed in order to think big.

I’m the second-born in a family of six siblings. My sister,who is the first-born, had a lot to dohowever from a cultural perspective, myfather would pull me aside and say ‘beinga man you have a bigger responsibility.’So I grew up feeling that I have aresponsibility to look after and inspire mysiblings.

Who were your role models?

Frankly, when I was a kid I really didn't know anythingabout role models.

The first time I thought that somebody could be a rolemodel was when I was in high school and it all came as aresult of curiosity.

There were a few teachers in school that everyone lookedup to however we were learning the basics behind a lotof technology and I started to see past the products andacknowledge the minds that made these devices. Theintelligent minds behind all these products from the macbook to the radio were my role models whether I knew whothey were or not.

Looking back, were there any personality traits in your early life that signalled a career in Tech & Business?

Yeah. I was the child who opened up all the device athome to try and figure out how they worked. No device was

left untouched, hehe! The interesting thing is the more Istudied these devices, the more I wanted to replicate what Isaw or improve the existing design.

I remember at one point we didn’t have electricity and sowe bought and installed a solar panel. I didn’t like how theconnections were done so I actually cut out all the wiring inour house and made it much more efficient because therewas a lot of wastage in cabling. Another case happenedaround high school. We were lucky enough to be the onlyguys who had a radio CD player and all my friends in myneighbourhood would come to our house to listen to music.

The western education system isn’t good or bad either. It comes down to culture. For them, kids are actually encouraged to follow their passion and the systems are already in place to support them along the way.

So I took some radio parts, fixed it and I found out thatI could actually put out a signal. My friends could thenjust tune in with a scanner radio and still listen to musicat their home. I had made a broadcasting station anddidn’t know it. I think that was when I knew I was goingto become an engineer.

Do you feel that education has adequately equipped you for your career and business? If not, what changes would you advise to help improve the uality of education?

I can’t say that the local education system is bad. It's moreabout how you train people within a particular system.

I think the good thing about the local system is that itoffers a wide range of information, which can be a goodand bad at the same time. For me I feel it probably workedout well because if somebody tried to observe me sincemy childhood with the intention of trying to herd me intofollowing a particular path, I probably wouldn’t be theperson that I am, now.

The western education system isn’tgood or bad either. It comes down toculture. For them, kids are actuallyencouraged to follow their passionand the systems are already in placeto support them along the way.Now if we did the same in Kenya, itwouldn’t work out as well as it doesover there. Imagine if you pusheda kid in Marsabit, for example, topursue music. As wonderful asmusic is, how would he use it toimprove the quality of the lives of thepeople in his community? We needto first look at the surroundings; Isthe infrastructure and the ecosystemcapable of supporting the career ofour choice?

What was your first job, and what did you learn from it?

I worked as an intern twice.

My first job was at Equity Bank,as an agent relationship officer,which is the title for the guy whomoves around tallying books andassessing agents. And frankly, I wasreally bored. That lasted for just onemonth.

Then in my third year I went toMumias Sugar Company and I thinkthat was the most exciting job I had,and it ended up lasting for about fourmonths. At that point, there was a lotof investment in new technology atMumias and I was really curious abouthow industrial processes worked, howwas structured and managed.

After that the third job I had was for aday. I was offered some job at KenyaPower and worked for a day and quit!I don't like places where there is alot of comfort. The first day I went,I worked in the I.T. Department,ensuring that all their computers andeverything is running OK. You walkinto an office, somebody calls andsays they have an issue; then yourealize actually the problem is thatthey never switched on their sockets.And then we had to, of course,record what you've done for the day.How do you even record that? “Iswitched on a socket”? People wereso comfortable that if there was nowork to do they were happy just taketea and relax.

What made you decide to into business, and why did you choose farming as starting point?

When I look back to when I startedthe entrepreneurship journey; Iwas more of an engineer than anentrepreneur.

I remember going to the farm five inthe morning until five in the eveningand having accomplished nothing.I used to challenge my mom, “Whyare we spending all this time? Whatare we doing?” So I said the firstthing is just to have a simple thingthat farmers could get informationout of. Nothing was really defined perse, but that is what I wanted to do.

Brian Bosire

Brian Bosire

Your first company Electrosoft failed. What lesson did you get from your experience?

The first thing I learnt is that it’simportant to manage personalexpectations and also that the qualityof people you surround yourself withmatters because they shape whatkind of entrepreneur you become.

When I started out I would say,“Within three years, I’ll be earningmoney.” And everybody around meat that point nobody knew nothingabout entrepreneurship. So you areonly one selling out this big visionand when everything fails, it's hardactually say that things are notworking.

So starting off, just be patient andjust be curious and learn a lot.

The best thing is look for people who have already done something. They go a long way in helping you skip some of the stupid mistakes that you would make. So learn, be patient, and get the right guys.

What does UjuziKilimo do?

When we started the whole idea was having a gadget that my mom will stick into the ground and two minutes later she knows what’s going on with the soil for example, “My soil is too acidic, I need 20 kg of lime to start off”. We set out to help farmers make better decisions. We spent a lot of time on the business model. It wasn't really defined but the problem was clear and we had the solution. In fact, we were recognized, in 2015, by the American Society for Mechanical Engineers for creating this solution.

We had a working product but we needed to figure how we would make money from it. That was a big challenge because then we had to look at the cost of this gadget; production alone costs about KSh.30,000. No farmer will spend that amount on a single purchase especially if it isn’t an immediate need and to be honest that's probably their entire farming budget.

We however found out that the better way to do it, was to offer a data centric service; so we gathered as much data as we could from our devices, and created a platform which would provide information on demand. Information can cost as little as 1 shilling per text. This model worked and woke us up to the fact that our most valuable asset is actually not just in the gadget but the data collected from the gadget and how we distribute it. So Ujuzi Kilimo evolved to become an agricultural data company.

Traditionally if you’re doing soil testing, you could take A MONTH from sampling to sending it to a lab and finally getting information at quite the expense to the farmers. We are doing that in FIVE MINUTES at the farm!

We took things a step further and integrated satellite imagery. So it means as long as they know the location of the farmer I can tell everything about the soil remotely. Which is now a very huge leap frog into reaching the most remote areas. Of course, we care distributing that information to farmers but we have also noticed that input suppliers need it as well and have started to collaborate with some of them.

So one of the things that we're doing in Central – where we

From left Victor, Brian & Dickson

From left Victor, Brian & Dickson

just started piloting- is we figure out what your soil needs, itcould be lime. So, Why don't we then stock and deliver thatlime to you? We’ve ended up creating a predictive modelthat anticipates our client’s needs. It has surely been ajourney of learning ‘on the way’!

Are there any missed opportunities that you wish you leveraged?

I don’t think there is. Because, for me, almost everythingI’ve done has probably been born from a challenge.However the closest I could relate to missing an opportunityis not realizing how powerful connections to the rightpeople can be.

Data science is the common thread that ties both yourcompanies together. What could local companiesand start-ups gain by incorporating Data scienceinto their practices?

Generally speaking, we are at a point calledIndustry 4.0 where everything is data driven.We cannot afford to ignore or avoid dataregardless of whether you're the biggestmonopoly or the smallest start-up or just anyindividual person.

Companies are going to great lengthsto get more and more data.And instead of just storingall that accumulateddata about everythingand everyone, it makesmore sense to startsorting the data, andthis starts to revealtrends which becomevaluable insights.

The insights you getopen up whole newworlds.

Brian Bosire

Brian Bosire

by Ian macharia for White Collar Magazine

Let’s focus in on hydro logistics Africa, which you have called the world’s first virtual water Network operator. What does Hydro logistics do?

The idea really came out of a very simple experience.You’re at the house, and your water gets disconnected. It’sthe only story everyone in Nairobi shares. Also after intensewater shortage you still have to pay the water bill. It is avery clear challenge and it’s one that we’re continuing tosolve.

Because water is life, the main interest lies in controllingthe resource. However if we can look past control, we seethe main issue resulting in shortages is the fact that inalmost all African countries about half of the water is lost

before it reaches the consumers, and that is clean,drinkable, treated water.

The second issue is about how people bill forthe water. There are reliability and consistencyissues here. A good example is the bestperforming public water utility in Kenya which isonly collecting probably 50 to 70 per cent of therevenue they are owed. And because they aren’t

making as much money as they should, they can’tafford to do upgrades and this leads to more

water leakages and losses. Andmore losses means less moneyis collected. See the cycle?

HydroIQ ideally want tomake every drop of watercount. We want to bringtransparency. And bytransparency, we meaneverything from thedistribution channelsto the consumer. Thesecond element is onbringing reliability andefficiency within the

systems. Because if you're able to even track a drop ofwater from source to final destination, that actually unlocksa lot of insights on where you actually need to put yourmoney. Currently, it takes more than six months to evenidentify a water leakage. If that could be done tended towithin a day or two, that is millions of litres of water madeavailable to the consumer.

The third thing is how we as consumers actually use water.Generally speaking, water consumption per individualhas been reducing because of increased efficiency in themachines and the things that we use at our homes. Ifyou could give consumers the power to understand theirconsumption, you unlock a lot of savings on water.

HydroIQ aims to fill all these gaps, bring transparency inthe water distribution networks by creating a smart watergrids. The second aspect is to enable people to tracktheir consumption, and make payments, and actuallyunderstand that “we are doing this because we consumethis amount”. I get my water bill, even in his office,sometimes it comes to Kshs.9,000 and then the nextmonth we get Kshs.1000. We want to end situations likethese.

How does HydroIQ differ from other companies like Kamstrup (which has been around for over 25 years) that offer smart meters?

The thing is, the fact that there's a lot of players is one ofthe biggest advantages. Our play is not to go into in thesmart meters. I can actually attest that in the next 10,20, 30 years smart meters are going to be their standardbecause of the efficiency. The only issue is the cost ofintroducing these technologies.

That being said our play is not going into meter productionlike Kamstrup, Honeywell, Siemens who are all devicemakers have the products and they have their platforms forsmart metering.

But the issue is they're only approaching it from one side.For us, we are open; what we want is to be the guys who

complete the loop. So when you bring a smart meter tooland install, it that is the one side of it. What completes it isthe end user experience. How do I get my readings? Howdo I pay for the water? Is there transparency? Can theseguys be trusted? Most people don't even remember thatthere is a meter somewhere. So if you come into the marketselling the meter, you are not capturing the real problemfor the consumers who the majority and the drivers of themarket.

We call ourselves the biggest virtual water network operator.We don't want to own the infrastructure, but we want tohave the biggest platform that integrates to whoever is theplayer on the infrastructure part.

The meter is just sending data. That is one side. The otherside is: what you do with the data. Third, is the informationand educational aspect of the consumers?

You have identified poor water infrastructure as one of the problem areas facing Africa and the world. In a country such as Kenya, our local governments manage water distribution. Are you collaborating with government institutions?

Government is interesting!

It’s always the biggest player in the room. The other aspectis; when you're starting off, don't feel like governmentplays a bigger role. But when you map out your businessfor the next 2, 5, 10 years you have to factor in the role ofgovernment. For now we just having those conversationsat a very basic level, trying to link with what is highlyregulated, from WRMA (Water Resources ManagementAuthority) to WaSReB (Water Services Regulatory Board).

There's a lot of players and county governments are theones managing local water resource and this has beenthe case since we got a devolved government. Now thatwater is devolved, every county governments have a say.Governments don't want disruptions to an ecosystem thatis somewhat working. They regulate everything to ensure asmuch stability as possible.

But we are a technology company,we don't want to feel limited by someregulation, we want to disrupt. Soit's a balance; we try to tell themthat the beauty of this, educatethem, tell them that this is the bestway forward. I always say that thebiggest thing is let the consumersdrive everything. Getting a million oreveryone in Nairobi using HydroIQ;I don't think our government wouldbe in a position to deny us. So themore adoption you have, the fasteryou grow, the more feedback you getfrom both sides, then more credibleyou become in front of government.

Do you feel as though your innovations have been better received internationally rather than locally?

The biggest difference I think is theculture.

I feel like wehave a longway to go asprofessionalsand just asentrepreneurs.

In Kenya, you grow in an environment where things go slower, lesser expectations, and more understanding to failure.

When abroad if you go out and say, “I’ve registered a company and we are doing this,” then you better do that. The standards are already set high. In Europe, you as a start-up, you are obligated to ensure that all your statutory requirements are met from day one.

On the work ethic as well, there’s a bit of a difference and it’s mostly centred on to the self-drive of the person. Generally, I feel like we have a long way to go as professionals and just as entrepreneurs. Our systemthat probably was the first question you asked about the educational system educational system - is not giving the right skills to prepare people for the real world. We’re producing graduates with no skills. And you start to wonder why Africa has such a tremendous skills gap.What's next for you your company?

For Ujuzikilimo, we've been concentrating our efforts on Central region, it’s our first market and we are working with over 11,000 farmers over there. By the end of the year we’ll be in three other most active regions in Rift Valley and Western. By the end of 2019 we intend to be working with over 100,000 farmers in Kenya. We'll also be setting up at least one pilot in East Africa and

we are considering Tanzania as a logical next step. Given their farming practices there it seems to be one of the best places to start the east African pilot.

For HydroIQ, our biggest target for next year is to hit our target of 30,000 households. I think it could bigger or less, depending on the guys that we work with. We want, in our second year, to cement our presence as the guys who actually bring transparency the water system. Whether you're a consumer, think of a wrong bill and think of HydroIQ; if you’re a water utility or supplier think of your revenue losses and think HydroIQ has the solution. ◊ ◊ ◊ ◊