There are 7.5 billion people in the world
7,100 languages are spoken worldwide
Only 355 languages are represented on the internet
The english language is used in more than half of all websites worldwide
Imagine you are a non-profit organization starting a project in a new country and you want to interact with the community using their local language. Or, imagine you are a business owner venturing into a new market and your biggest barrier to entry is not being able to communicate effectively with your target customer(s).
What if you had access to a platform that could translate words and sentences for community members, or your target customer to a language that you could understand?
ULIZA is revolutionizing access to information by delivering a unique voice recognition service that allows people to call a toll-free number, ask questions in their local language, and get voice answers within 15 minutes. It is available 24/7, it is automated, scalable, and charges half the cost of a call-center. Uliza is designed to serve rural, low-literacy and tech-constrained communities in any language. Callers do not need an app, internet connectivity, or even be literate.
We sat down with Grant to learn about Uliza and his entrepreneurial journey.
Thelela: Grant, tell us some fun facts about yourself
- I am South African. I was born and raised in Cape Town
- I studied Development Economics and Technology in Africa at Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University
- My favorite book is 'The Wealth of Nations' by Adam Smith
- My faith in Jesus Christ motivates me when the going gets tough
- I'm a terrible actor...really...i am!
Thelela: How did the idea for Uliza come about?
Grant: A few years ago, I worked at J-PAL, an economic research organization based at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). I worked as a in-field research assistant to their economists and was assigned to a project in Sierra Leone where I corresponded with economists via email and also received work assignments online. I had never traveled to Sierra Leone before and had no idea how I would execute my tasks given the language barrier in the rural community I was living and working in. At the same time, I met some people in the country who inspired me to learn through action and iteration, and to take action on ideas.
Along the way i met with Sierra Leoneans who experienced challenges accessing information online because of poor internet connectivity. Most of the time, the information they were able to get online was in English and not their local language. My experience there got me thinking about how to make phones better information portals for people who speak different languages.
Thelela: That's really interesting. So, language barrier and poor access to internet connectivity were key challenges you experienced while you were in Sierra Leone. What did you do with this information?
Grant: Well, I am a member of the Harambe Entrepreneur Alliance (HEA) – a network of highly educated young African entrepreneurs spearheading high impact social and business ventures across Africa. Julie Muriuki, Thelela’s Principal is a founding member of the Alliance by the way.
..Once I completed my assignment in Sierra Leone, I received a scholarship through HEA to study at Tufts University Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. At Fletcher, I shared my idea with fellow students Abhishek Maity and Janeth Jepkogei. They loved the idea so together, we began brainstorming around the topics of voice recognition and language translation to serve rural, low literacy and tech-constrained communities. Maity and Janeth are now co-founders of Uliza.
Thelela: That’s great! What did you do next?
Grant: The three of us started working fulltime on Uliza in June 2016. By July 2016, we had designed a business model and prototype that we chose to pilot in an East African country where Kiswahili is spoken by over 100 million people. We chose to pilot the prototype in Kenya because the country is a strong regional hub for meeting businesses, non-profit organizations, and investors who are familiar with tech startups.
Thelela: How did you get people to buy into your idea?
Grant: Right from the beginning, it wasn’t easy getting people to buy into our idea. However, because we truly believed Uliza will revolutionize access to information using voice recognition, we never gave up. In May 2015, we were invited to present our idea at the Fletcher Ideas Exchange Forum. This was our first breakthrough.
Thelela: Who did you identify as your customer base?
Grant: We targeted businesses and non-profit organizations who are looking for a platform like Uliza’s local language voice recognition service to better interact with their clients. Between July 2016 and September 2016, our pilot had reached 600+ customers and answered 1,400 questions country-wide. It was a success!!
Thelela: How did you get funding to bring your idea to life?
Grant: We applied for funding in many places. Our initial financing came through the MIT 100K Pitch Competition in 2015 and the Innovate Africa Competition in 2016. We also participated in the Tufts University $100K competition in April 2016 and received $6,500 in funding which we used to build and test our technology.
Building our network and company brand was, and continues to be very important for us. We want to tell everyone about our idea, and our working prototype.
Thelela: What has been your biggest challenge as a business owner so far, and what have you learned from it?
Grant: You will be asked difficult questions about your business and whether you can make it work. As a business owner you need to have a well-formed understanding of your businesses capabilities that can withstand tough questioning, and curate a strong network of advisors who can give you realistic feedback and credibility when talking to potential clients and investors.
Thelela: Now that you have successfully piloted the prototype, what’s next for Uliza?
Grant: We’re keen to expand the reach of Uliza. We are talking to businesses throughout East and Southern Africa, and thinking through how best we can serve their clients. To achieve this goal, we are considering using South Africa as our long-term pan-African hub. The aim is to use the voice data we collect to facilitate automated voice recognition in local languages across the region, to give billions of local language speakers a voice-portal for information and services in their own languages.
Let me point out that Uliza has not yet secured additional investment. Our primary focus at the moment is to secure our first paying client and prove our business model then bring in investors. We are currently in deliberations with multiple investors in Nairobi, and the Harambe Entrepreneur Alliance.
Thelela: For entrepreneurs in the early stages of their startup or for those looking for some inspiration to keep going, what advice would you give them?
Grant: Work hard even when things look impossibly difficult to achieve. Have a firm grasp of reality – what you see as a viable business idea may not yet be replicable in your country, your city or even your community. Understand, and be comfortable with what could become reality – sometimes, we remain fixated on the idea that our business ideas are ingenious but the truth of the matter may be that no one wants to buy our product or service. The sooner we realize that and move on to something else, the easier it will be to learn from our failures.
Thelela: Thanks for your time, Grant. To the team behind Uliza, we wish you great success!!! We believe the next few years in voice and speech recognition are going to be exciting! And we look forward to seeing you at the forefront.