The Success Story of a COMESA Innovation Award Winner

The “Valley of Death” is a term commonly used in the innovation ecosystem to refer to the failure of many innovations to make the transition to commercially viable products. Numerous studies have put the carnage of innovations lost in the valley of death at 90%. Only 10% make it to the level of product development and commercialization.

AfricarTrack International Limited is one of the survivors after successfully making the transition and is now among the fastest growing companies in Kenya. The company deals in motor vehicle crime and accident control system covering, among others, vehicle tracking, fleet management and fuel monitoring.

Space for young people

The story of AfricarTrack begun at the Chandaria Incubation and Business Centre, based at the Kenyatta University in Nairobi. The Centre provides space for young people to develop their ideas into products that can eventually be marketed. This is where Jacob Maina Rugano, a co -director of the AfricarTrack enrolled to develop his idea of an integrated car tracking and monitoring system. That was in 2014.

The system device is installed in a motor vehicle and linked to the owner’s mobile phone through an application known as Intouch. The application comes with a digital cut-off. If the car is stolen, it will send an alert to the owner immediately. The owner car can remotely immobilize it by gradually reducing its speed automatically leaving the driver with no option but to pull off the road. It can also send information on driver’s behavior such as careless driving, sharp cornering, hash braking and speeding.

In early 2015, while at the Incubation Centre, Jacob learned that COMESA had an Innovation Award. There was a call for submission of innovations with the potential for long-term technological or economic impact at national and regional level.

“I learned about the COMESA Innovation Award from a colleague who informed me to check on the advert that was in the COMESA website,” Jacob told eComesa recently at a meeting at the Chandaria Business Centre where he has an office.

The COMESA Innovation Award was launched at the 17th Summit of the COMESA Heads of States and Government in February 2014 in Kinshasa, DR Congo. The objective was to recognize and celebrate individuals and institutions that have used science, technology and innovation to further the COMESA regional integration agenda.

In the call for entries, five categories were identified: youth, women, small and medium enterprises, group and institutional awards. Jacob submitted his entry under the youth category and when the adjudication was done, his innovation was ranked number one out a total of 60 entries that had been received in all the categories.

In March 2015, he and four other winners from DR Congo, Egypt, Rwanda and Kenya, were invited to the 18th COMESA Summit in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia to receive recognition and a financial award of $10,000. The cash award was specifically aimed at helping them patent their innovations.

With the cash in hand, Jacob, and his brother and fellow co-inventor was ready to roll. With the money, they applied for patenting their innovation product, which was eventually acquired. They bought furniture, hired three staff, procured electronic equipment such as sensors and related devices for installation. They also finalized development of the software which they launched in the market six months later.

“We got the first job in December 2016 when one client gave us 35 vehicles to fit with the tracking system and since then we have not looked back,” Jacob told eComesa.

AfricarTrack now provides its clients with Web-based solutions and Mobile Application to fleet operators with visibility into vehicle location, fuel usage, speed and mileage, and other insights into their mobile workforce. This enables such clients to reduce operating and capital costs and increase revenue.

Two years down the road, AfricarTrack has opened branches in four major towns in Kenya including Nairobi, Nakuru, Eldoret and Kericho, with plans underway to expand the business to other countries in the region. A staff portfolio of 17 that include technicians, engineers and marketers work in the company.

Africa Achievers Award

Though cagey with the actual numbers, the portfolio of motor vehicles currently using the company’s mobile application runs into thousands. Jacob and his brother have received many awards including the Africa Achievers Award whose list of recipients include luminaries such as Desmond Tutu, former Malawi President Joyce Banda, and Former President of Tanzania Jakaya Kikwete.

In Kenya, Jacob has appeared in the Top 40 Under 40, an initiative of the Nation Media Group and top 25 entrepreneurs identified by the Kenya College of Accountancy. Jacob considers the COMESA Media Innovation Award as the best thing that can happen to emerging entrepreneurs who are bubbling with innovative ideas but lacks benefactors to give them the last push to product development and commercialization.

“Only 5% to 10% of the young people that come to this incubation centre make it, primarily due to lack of patient capital and good mentors,” Jacob says, adding that banks are not willing to provide such money on the strength of just an idea such as dealing in software.

As a way of giving back to COMESA for providing a bridge across the valley of death, Jacob says, he is ready to mentor upcoming entrepreneurs that COMESA may be working with whenever he will be needed.

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