April 12, 2018

In Kenya, Usalama connects users to emergency services at the tap of a button

The Stability Innovation Atlas team, led by FHI 360 and funded by the Rockefeller Foundation, will release their finished product in Spring 2018. The complete Atlas will feature economic stability-enhancing innovations that empower the world’s poor and vulnerable people in managing and investing with confidence in their future. We will be profiling several innovators and innovations that were identified during the research and crowd-sourcing process over the coming weeks and months.

From L to R: Tom Fairburn, Marvin Makau, Edwin Ingaji, James Chege, and Toby Hanington

A few years ago, Marvin Makau, co-founder and current CFO of Usalama Technology Limited, was riding pillion on the back of a motorcycle on his way to work when the driver crashed into a car. The accident left Marvin lying on the ground with a broken leg and nobody or no means to get him help. There were witnesses, but none knew how to contact a paramedic. “The only reason I was able to access an ambulance,” Marvin says, “was because a policeman was nearby.”

Around that same time, Marvin’s friend was attacked by a group of muggers in broad daylight. They stole his computer and other belongings but left him unharmed. It was an ordeal that Marvin realized many of his friends had experienced and they soon discovered that most accident and crime victims in Kenya have no way to access to security and emergency services. “We saw there was a serious problem and said, how can we solve this?”

Armed with the computer programming skills they learned at university, they developed a mobile platform that connects users to emergency services at the tap of a button, called Usalama or “security” in Swahili. It features a “panic button” that sends a distress call to family and friends and also connects victims of crime, road accidents and domestic violence with emergency service providers.

Extensive media exposure and grant awards enabled Usalama to grow. It then developed partnerships with entities that “could give our company some credibility,” says James Chege, the company’s co-founder and marketing director. It has since on-boarded private security firms, residents’ associations, emergency service providers and the Nairobi Women’s Hospital gender violence recovery center. It has also recently partnered with Amref Health Africa, the largest health development organization in Africa.

International exposure is helping too. James was invited to Germany to meet with other startups from around the world as well as representatives of global tech companies. Usalama CEO Edwin Ingaji visited the United States to pitch the company to an audience of corporate moguls and other prospective donors. News coverage in CNN and other global media outlets continues to generate publicity for Usalama around the world.

As a subscription-based model, Usalama currently earns only a few hundred dollars a month from the corporate funds and security companies that use the service, but James hopes this figure will rise as the company attracts more users. “We’ve essentially been surviving on bootstrapping,” he says, “offering services like mobile and web app development for clients, and then using the proceeds to work on Usalama.”

They hope more grants and investment funding will accelerate the company’s growth and “help us move to that next level”.

“And then we’ll make sure our infrastructure is independent,” he says, “to get our own servers where we can host the platform on our own to allow for as much scaling as possible.” That includes plans to eventually rollout across Africa and maybe even beyond.

“It’s always a good sign to see that your product is growing,” says Marvin. “There’s so much interest, it shows that we are actually solving a problem.”