Mama Mike’s is an online store and delivery service that makes it possible for customers anywhere in the world to purchase gifts online and have them delivered to specific destinations within Kenya and Uganda. The store has been going strong for 11 years. I interviewed Segeni Ng’ethe, Mama Mike’s founder, about his business.
Segeni holds a Bachelor’s degree in Business Administration from Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. and was a Reuters Fellow in the Digital Vision Program at Stanford University, where he completed a fellowship in Social Entrepreneurship in 2004. In addition to Mama Mike’s, he has founded at least four other start-ups in the past 11 years.
When and how did you come up with the idea of Mama Mike’s?
It all started in college, where I learned internet programming, an experiment that blew me away. A year before launching Mama Mike’s, I set up a website which promised travelers to Africa the best fares in December. I successfully shipped a planeload of people on Ethiopian Airlines to Kenya in December of 1999. It was stressful and time-consuming, but it showed me the power of the internet. This encouraged me to explore ideas which would capitalize on getting the African market into the internet revolution. I was really thinking way ahead of my time.
By 2000, the internet boom was well underway in the US. In Kenya, even the word internet was still unknown. I started strategizing on how to become the next Yahoo! of Africa (Yahoo! was more popular than Google at the time). I was keen to start an internet-based business focused on Africa. So when the idea of a shopping service came to mind, I figured this was it!
What did your family and friends think of this idea?
My family has encouraged me from the start. They are the ones who helped me get the business off the ground. They initially helped manage the deliveries in Kenya, while I marketed the service to fellow Kenyans in the US. I was still in college at the time.
Most people are impressed by two things: the idea itself that such a service exists, and the name Mama Mike’s—it caught people off guard. Who is this Mama Mike, they wondered? And when we started offering mbuzi (goats), they became our trademark item. Some have used Mama Mike’s to make dowry payments with mbuzi. Talk about being original!
What are some of the challenges you experienced trying to set up your business?
The initial challenges when setting up Mama Mike’s were related to trust. People simply didn’t believe it would work, or that it was genuine. The market I was going after had been subjected to scams and fraud, so when something looked too good to be true, they had doubts about it. It has taken time to win over customers’ trust. This is still our greatest challenge with potential customers 11 years later.
What are some of your successes?
One of Mama Mike’s greatest successes was realized during the height of the post-election violence in Kenya in late 2007 and early 2008. The violence that rocked Kenya kept businesses closed and people locked inside their homes. It was difficult, or almost impossible in some areas, to leave one’s house. Mama Mike’s made it possible for many Kenyans abroad to send airtime to their loved ones so that they could stay in touch and communicate during that volatile period. We realized then what an important role we play in helping many Kenyans abroad maintain strong ties to their loved ones at home.
Why Mama Mike’s—any significance to the name?
Our name is anchored in African culture. In Kenya, it is considered good manners to call a woman in society by the title Mama X (X being the name of her first-born child). This title carries respect and dignity. Over the years, people have come to believe Mama Mike’s is actually a person. And they believe she is responsible, honest and, most importantly, reliable. “Go to Mama Mike’s,” they say. “She will sort you out.”
You seem to mainly target Diaspora customers, but do you get any local customers using your services?
For more than 10 years we have focused exclusively on the Diaspora market. Only in the last 2 years has Kenya become ripe for e-commerce to flourish. We first needed to have reliable internet connections in Kenya, which we now have, and also a way to make online payments (thanks to Mpesa, this is now possible). All that remains now is for Kenyans to appreciate and embrace the benefits of online shopping. Now and then, a number of people in Nairobi call to place orders. Many are first-time customers who have heard about us and wish to use our service. In 2013 we plan to market our services aggressively to Kenyans in Kenya.
I noticed that you offer to send video confirmations to your customers of the delivery. What does a typical video show?
We started making the videos just for fun, and then we realized we were onto something when one of our customers cried after watching a video of her parents thanking her for her gift! She had not seen her parents for years and the video meant a lot to her. Her parents had never been on video, let alone on the internet. Now she has them on video forever.
Many years from now, we believe the simple videos we take of happy parents and siblings receiving gifts from their loved ones will become precious memories for our customers. We use a HD camera to film our videos.
Are your suppliers all local?
Yes, all our suppliers are local. In towns outside Nairobi and in Uganda, we have partnered with suppliers on the ground that can easily deliver the gifts ordered to their destinations. We have had long, happy and lasting relationships with our suppliers.
Have you ever received a significant piece of feedback from a customer that has affected the way you do business?
The one thing that has kept me going all these years is customer appreciation. Listening to the way customers appreciate our service has kept me going. People are very grateful for what they are able to do through Mama Mike’s. When the going gets tough, I simply remember these words and keep soldiering on!
What advice do you have for people who are considering being entrepreneurs?
Entrepreneurship is a journey; a challenging, but rewarding journey. Take small, consistent steps and in no time, you will have moved very far. Remember to enjoy every step along the way. Smell the roses by the wayside as you walk. It makes the journey more pleasant.
Looking back, what has been your greatest lesson about doing business in Kenya?
Throw away the business text book. Things here are dynamic. Simply work hard, stay focused and keep pushing!
Your tagline is share love, spread happiness. How did you come up with that?
It was a journey of words. One day there was an “Aha! moment” and that was it. We finally had the slogan of the century, which accurately describes what we do.
What are some of the services you have pioneered in the Kenyan market?
We pioneered online customer service through chat, video confirmations of deliveries, and SMS notifications. Recipients get notified by SMS as soon as a customer sends them a gift. We also pioneered the e-mbuzi (e-goat) offer (we are the first service worldwide to retail goats online), the instant airtime top-up service, which allows people to top up phones across Kenya instantly, and the monthly vouchers, a service that allows people to sign up for recurring orders of shopping vouchers delivered to their parents monthly.
Any future plans for Mama Mike’s that you can discuss?
Yes, this year we won a grant from the Kenyan Government called the Tandaa Grant. It is facilitated by the World Bank and is worth $50,000. We are investing this grant into a project we call Air-pesa (www.airpesa.com), a service which focuses on instant airtime top-ups from the Diaspora. Our goal is to make this service available Africa-wide.