A falling fruit made Sir Isaac Newton discover the force of gravity in England in 1687. In Kenya in 2005, a disconnected water supply made a third year university student Chris Gathingu develop an SMS alert system for water utility companies.
It later inspired him to create the SpotCash software that Saccos and other financial institutions use today to send SMS alerts to clients.
A few years later, an incident around payment at a restaurant made Mr Gathingu rack his brains and the end product is what is today known as “Lipa na M-Pesa” that allows users of the mobile money service to make payments easily.
Mr Gathingu was also involved in the creation of the software that enables Safaricom users to buy data bundles straight from their M-Pesa accounts. He also played a role in the development of the recently launched “M-Pesa 1Tap” service where a person can use a card, phone sticker or wristband device to make payments via M-Pesa.
LAUNCHING THE ‘TANGAZOLETU’ FIRM
The 34-year-old also took part in creating a system launched in 2012 that enables tuberculosis patients receive a stipend from donors so they can buy their medication; and in making another one that enables refugees to get electronic vouchers for buying food.
Those are but a few of the solutions Mr Gathingu has created since 2005 when he made his first innovation and later founded technology firm Tangazoletu in 2007.
Two weeks ago, Tangazoletu celebrated its 10th year in business with a dinner at the Golden Tulip Hotel in Nairobi.
The event was attended by, among others, Safaricom CEO Bob Collymore, NIC Bank managing director John Gachora and the head of supervision at Sacco Societies Regulatory Authority (Sasra), Mr Peter Njuguna.
Mr Gathingu told the gathering:
“To date, in the financial sector, we have worked with more than 70 financial institutions reaching up to five million Kenyans with our technology solutions.”
“We target to reach another 10 million people in the informal sectors and bring them to financial inclusion,” he added during the July 14 night event.
A FORTUNATE TURN OF FATE
But before he became a man rubbing shoulders with the high and mighty in Kenya’s technology and finance circles, Mr Gathingu was a young man who thought his calling was to be a doctor.
While sitting his Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education (KCSE) examination at Mang’u High School in 2001, all he wanted was to secure a slot in medical school.
But when the results came, he was one point shy for medical school.
“So I was admitted to JKUAT (Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology) to pursue Bachelor of Science in Computer Technology. It was quite heart-breaking to see that I had missed Medicine. I remember going to the medicine school and putting down my name and saying, ‘If anybody does not come, please call me,’” Mr Gathingu tells Lifestyle.
However, after a while in the computer class, he realised it was a blessing in disguise that he missed the medical school. Lately he has realised that he could not have withstood all that doctors go through.
“When I take my daughter for an injection, I can’t watch what the doctor is doing. I don’t enjoy the sight of blood, I don’t like seeing people being injected. I always wonder what kind of doctor I would have been,” he says.
In his computer class, he took up the topics taught with a lot of keenness, so much so that he graduated with a First Class honours degree in August 2007.
CREATING SYSTEMS THAT MAKE AN IMPACT
An experience he had at the end of his second year at university, while interning at IT company Databit along Nairobi’s Ngong Road, changed his life.
“During that time, being an Information and Technology company, I’d practise several IT things including networking and computer programming,” says Mr Gathingu, who had just basic computer knowledge when joining university.
The experience at the firm played a big part in the first software he ever created. While in third year, a relative of his had his water supply disconnected because of an overdue water bill.
“His bill had been sent through the regular post office which he had not bothered to check for quite a while. I could feel his frustration. I thought to myself that there must be a better way of doing things,” says Mr Gathingu.
“That’s how I created the system that was sending SMS alerts to the people who had overdue water bills. I created a system that I was able to sell to the water utility company,” he adds. The company, which he did not wish to name, paid him Sh50,000 for the product.
“That taught me that I can actually create systems that will make an impact,” he recalls.
Between then and when he graduated from JKUAT, one of the activities he engaged in was an SMS sending service on his campus. He would sell SMS units for students to exchange texts.
At one point, he created a system that would enable students to exchange messages for free.
“You’d log into a portal, and key in the number of the person that you want to send a message to. That message would go out for free,” he remembers. He then reasoned out that he could engage corporates to append advertisements to the free messages.
Later, it was possible for people to send advertisements via SMS and that was the origin of “Tangazoletu (our announcement)”, the name of his business.
SACRIFICE, HARD WORK AND DETERMINATION
After graduation, he cut his teeth in entrepreneurship, starting off with an office at Princely House along Nairobi’s Moi Avenue.
“When I was in campus, in my third and fourth year, I had employees,” he recalls. “They would range between one and three at any one time because a guy would resign after two weeks or so. Sometimes I would have to forego my food just to pay for their transport and other things.”
The employees are the ones who would go out to market his solutions too. Some helped him start his new life as a businessman in Nairobi.
However, life as a tech entrepreneur fresh from university was not easy.
“I got a lot of job offers, unsolicited — from big audit firms, from the banks and such,” he recalls. “And it was a difficult thing to turn them down because everybody thought that I would jump for an opportunity to be a graduate trainee or this and that. It was also very difficult to resist temptation because a lot of my colleagues had also been hired and of course were living better social lives.”
But he stuck to his guns, clinging on a vision he had to automate business processes.
“When I established that vision, I set my goals towards achieving that vision. So, regardless of what would come my way, I would try to evaluate how it would resonate with my vision,” he says.
From Princely House, where the business occupied a tiny office in 2009, Mr Gathingu relocated Tangazoletu to Vision Plaza along Mombasa Road. Three years later, it was moved to Mayfair Business Centre in Westlands, its address to date.
LIPA NA M-PESA, SPOTCASH AND BEYOND
It is at the Mayfair office that Lifestyle spoke to Mr Gathingu. Next to his spacious office, where he responded to our questions with a calm demeanour, 10 or so of the firm’s 41 employees were holding a meeting, strategising on the next move.
Our conversation at one point touched on life before SpotCash, when individuals would visit bank branches or automatic teller machines tens of times to check if that much-awaited deposit had been made.
Only bank walls know the muted curses spelt by many disappointed individuals each time they found their accounts still unstirred.
Once he created the system to enable sending of alerts, Mr Gathingu thought banks would adopt it enthusiastically. But he was wrong. He soon realised that creating a partnership with a bank requires meeting a number of stringent requirements, most of which he could not.
“The banks were not very quick to adopt that technology. And that’s what sent me to the Saccos who were more receptive. They didn’t have too many stringent requests unlike the commercial banks,” he said.
The closest he came to a deal was a job offer from one bank he approached with his mobile banking idea.
“They told me that, ‘By the time you get back to your office from this office, you’ll get an email from us,’” he recalled. “By the time I go to the office; yes, there was an email. I opened it just to find out it was a job offer as a project manager to implement the same solution which I had been trying to sell to them. I turned that down politely.”
Despite the rocky start, Mr Gathingu found a way of selling mobile banking to Saccos. He told Business Daily in 2015 that the system was first piloted in 2009 with the Nyeri Teachers’ Sacco before the official launch a year later.
Today, Mr Gathingu’s company offers services to Nation Sacco, Imarika Sacco, Qwetu Sacco, Nawiri Sacco, Ng’arisha Sacco, among tens of others. He is proud of the change he has brought to the sector, especially for those who had to travel long distances to access banking services.
Mr Gathingu’s first contact with Safaricom was in 2009 when he wanted to expand his SpotCash system to include the ability to send money from a Sacco to someone’s M-Pesa account.
“Before then, we were largely using SMS to do mobile banking and at that time we wanted to introduce M-Pesa and we also wanted to introduce an easier way of doing transactions by dialling USSD, the *645#,” he said.
It was a fruitful engagement that opened the gate to numerous interactions with the telecommunications giant a few months afterwards. The idea for Lipa na M-Pesa, he said, came out of an outing at a restaurant.
“We had made payment for the food that had been consumed. Because we had made the payment in cash, the first response from the waiter was that they don’t have change and ‘hauna pesa kidogo?’” he recalled.
“I sat and said, ‘There must be a better way of doing this. Instead of being held at ransom here, why can’t we create a system?’”
Once he was sure of what to do, he approached Safaricom with the idea.
“I found that they had similar ideas as well,” he noted.
That is how a collaborative effort started that saw Lipa na M-Pesa launched in 2013.
“We had several workshops, several discussions, several analyses, just to think about,” he recalls.
Later, he found himself taking part in the Tibu initiative by the Health ministry for managing multi-drug resistant tuberculosis patients that was launched in late 2012. Patients under the Tibu programme get a Sh500 stipend every day to facilitate their travel to a medic and it is through the system co-created by Mr Gathingu that that is possible.
Later, he would be involved in developing a system called Surepay launched in 2015. One application of Surepay has been to ensure money sent by donors for refugees to buy food is only spent on food.
Tangazoletu today boasts having made the SpotCash mobile banking system, SpotCash agent banking system, SpotCash core banking system and the Spot Pay system for making multiple payments.
“I DON’T CHASE THE NUMBERS TOO MUCH”
Tangazoletu also prides itself in having helped develop various M-Pesa add-on products that include a system which enables agents to get float on loan to repay on the next banking day.
There is also another system that allows M-Pesa cash exchange between two businesses.
“We sometimes visualise ourselves as an extension of Safaricom,” he said.
At the 10th year anniversary dinner, Safaricom CEO Bob Collymore said:
“We commit to work with local partners such as Tangazoletu to deepen our financial inclusion agenda.”
Asked how he makes money from the solutions, Mr Gathingu said a good portion of revenue comes from uptake fees and also money charged to maintain their systems.
“Most of the times, we’ll agree on uptake fees. We supply to them and then we engage on giving them support on a continuous basis,” he said, noting that smaller organisations are allowed to pay for products continuously.
“I don’t chase the numbers too much. I try to do well and the numbers follow us,” he said.
Firms that provide services like the ones he offers have in the past been reported to have fallen prey to hacking attacks. Mr Gathingu said he uses a number of measures to ensure the information is not compromised.
“To date, we are proud to say that we have not been hacked or we’ve not lost any money on any of the systems,” he said.
He has been married to Caroline Wanjiru since 2013 and they have two daughters, aged three and one.
“It’s an interesting thing to have a supportive wife who believes in you and is your number one supporter and cheerleader,” he said of his better half.
On his daughters, he said: “They give me a sense of purpose and they give me a way to be grounded.”
He wakes up every day at 5 am and is at his office by 7 am. For a man who has 41 employees in Kenya and 15 in Tangazoletu’s Uganda office, there is always work awaiting him.
To unwind, he likes spending time with family, playing golf, chess or swimming.
For Mr Gathingu, what will keep him waking up to go to work each morning is the change he is bringing to society.