Today somebody asked me to tell them more about Kili, the public cloud we're trying to build in Kenya. I said that I can tell them a bit about Kili by telling them a bit about myself.
I moved to Nairobi in January after leaving as CTO of Yipit, a NY-based startup, a few months before. Over 2 years, we had grown the company from the two that had founded it to 25 people. By the middle of last year, myself and the co-founders no longer agreed on our future together so we parted ways.
At about the same time, my wife, who works for Columbia University, had been coming to East Africa for a number of years as the manager of regional projects focused on climate and public health and was able to transition from being NY-based to Nairobi-based. I had been to Nairobi twice before with her and had talked to startup people on those visits and so we both decided that the time had come to make the move.
After arriving in January, I spent my days speaking to many of the startups at iHub (the local startup spot) and elsewhere and talked through the different ideas that I might be interested in exploring more deeply. For instance, taxis are notoriously poorly organized in Nairobi and I thought about how to fix that for a while - and concluded that even if solutions were found, they would be hard to scale to other cities and anyway, the market simply isn't that big. Taxi drivers don't get paid that much and downtime costs for parked cars are pretty low. The most expensive part of a taxi ride is probably the wear and tear on the car as it drives, and the gas. Solving this problem, while good for some people in the city, simply won't generate large quantities of money.
Something similar is true with e-commerce. There is nothing like Amazon here and it's a real frustration for users who are used to the service (aside from State Department employees who get their stuff freight-forwarded from the States courtesy of Uncle Sam). However, executing the right solution will be very difficult to do and even then, it's not clear how to scale beyond Nairobi. One reason that Amazon works well is that it has 10x the number of products available as Walmart does - so aside from simplicity, users have more choice. In Nairobi, managing a warehouse with 10x the goods as Nakumatt has (the local Walmart) would be nearly impossible because that company would be the only one carrying all of those products and there simply isn't a robust enough supply chain to support that product-depth. Security is a problem too and then there's the issue that there is no routinized mail or shipping service to residential addresses.
In addition to potential pitfalls with these models, there's the overarching problem that I'm not a typical African consumer. So, while I know a bunch about product development and technology and startups in general, it's not clear that as an expat American, I am best placed to deploy a consumer-focused startup in Africa at all.
What became amazingly clear however from talking to all of these different startups however is that each of them was desperate for high quality cloud infrastructure. The closest AWS or Digital Ocean presence is in Europe - thousands of miles and about 150ms away by fiber. For the most part, European and American companies don't accept local payment methods. And finally, some of the groups had regulatory concerns about their financial and health data being out-of-country. The need was high for a local provider of these services.
While not being the perfect person to handle developing a local consumer app, I am in the perfect position to supply those companies with modern public cloud infrastructure. A number of years before Yipit, I had been the CTO of a large website in NY during the Web 1.0 era, Forsalebyowner.com. In those days, we would get servers by FedEx, set them up, drive them to the colo facility, and spin them up. At Yipit, I architected a large public cloud installation. In many ways, I realized that I was one of the few people in the region with the right background to launch a public cloud and in addition, the market was clearly in need of one.
That's where Kili comes in.
Kili is Amazon Web Services for African markets.