Conversation with a Contrarian: Based on Peter Thiel’s Zero to One*
*Peter Thiel’s questions below have been drawn from his 2014 book, Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future.
THIEL: Every moment in business happens only once…. Doing what we already know how to do takes the world from 1 to n, adding more of something familiar. But every time we create something new, we go from 0 to 1. The act of creation is singular, as is the moment of creation, and the result is something fresh and strange.
MOJA: Africa doesn’t need another conventional e-commerce platform. Examples abound that are based on unremarkable Western models — all look, feel, and function essentially the same.
The largest e-commerce company in Africa has been derided as a clone factory managed by Europeans. Its Chairman has said: “[we can] launch a company within 100 days” anywhere in the world drawing on “expertise” from our developers in Europe. Africans may disagree. Long-term success in Africa depends on a culturally appropriate platform and business model.
Ethnocentric clones take e-commerce from 1 to n by reproducing a time-worn, one-size-fits-all model and imposing it on Africa. This is digital colonization. And it is an untenable business model. Western e-commerce clones in Africa have not proven themselves to be profitable, even after huge infusions of cash from European and American investors.
Moja believes something truly new is called for — a different paradigm. Moja’s interface, user experience, features and functions are truly innovative and developed based on decades of experience on the ground in Africa and in partnership with African entrepreneurs, business owners, opinion leaders, business organizations — and most importantly — Moja’s Trusted Networks.
The Moja platform is not the product of a detached, disinterested team of Westerners working at a distance. Moja is owned by African and American equity partners who work together on a daily basis. Moja’s technical development represents the best talent on three continents. Moja’s ethos is based on durable values, cultural relevance, a commitment to excellence — and above all working for positive social change.
THIEL: Humans don’t decide what to build by making choices from some cosmic catalog of options given in advance; instead, by creating new technologies, we rewrite the plan of the world. These are the kind of elementary truths we teach to second graders, but they are easy to forget in a world where so much of what we do is repeat what has been done before.
MOJA: Perhaps the most interesting IT innovation in Africa to date is the mobile-money payment system M-Pesa. M-Pesa was built in the UK and US by Sagentia and IBM and is a relatively new (2007) technology that truly deserves the label “disruptive.” M-Pesa grew out of an informal market system in Kenya in which people traded airtime on their mobile phones as a proxy for money transfers. This informal practice was soon noticed by telecom companies, which then provided a formalized system for credit swapping. One thing led to another.
M-Pesa is an interesting model in several respects. First, the idea was an indigenous, improvised solution. M-Pesa was based on how Africans actually conducted transactions. Although Africans had the capacity at the time to develop the mobile money idea to a certain level — this was done in Kenya by a student software team — the final product was sufficiently complex to require the services of Sagentia and IBM. Africa’s IT sector is growing by leaps and bounds, particularly in places like Nairobi, Kenya, the so-called “Silicone Savannah.” But while there is capacity and innovation in the African IT sector, it still lags the US at the cutting edge.
Moja, like M-Pesa, is built on an awareness of how Africans actually transact business. For example, Africans like to barter. Moja has a barter feature (in addition to other pricing options for sellers) that reflects the time-honored custom of haggling over the price of certain commodities. This is different than a typical Western bid site like eBay. African cultures are more social than Western cultures. Africans are more likely to buy from Trusted Networks and are often interested in aggregating based on social, tribal, regional, religious, industry, and special interest groups. Moja has a sophisticated system to facilitate connections between people and networks.
Moja is developing a new technology that incorporates into a single platform some features that already exist in the market but are atomistic — separate apps for separate functions — and combines those functions in one place with entirely new and innovative features. No one has built a platform like this before, instead choosing to repeat, replicate, and reissue the same old approach to e-commerce. This is as true of Africans as it is for Westerners and Asians. So while Africa is going digital at an astonishing rate, and its IT workforce is growing exponentially, with the notable exception of M-Pesa, Africa hasn’t yet produced many Big Ideas.
THIEL: To a definite optimist, the future will be better than the present if he plans and works to make it better… To an indefinite optimist, the future will be better, but he doesn’t know how exactly, so he won’t make any specific plans. He expects to profit from the future but sees no reason to design it concretely … Instead of working for years to build a new product, indefinite optimists rearrange already-invented ones.
MOJA: Moja is a definite optimist and wants to help Africans to help themselves make a better future. There is an acute shortage of bricks-and-mortar institutions of higher learning in Africa. Moja will offer both free and paid courses online through its Moja University and, in the process, help to equip a new class of entrepreneurs, youth, and the general populace for the future. In so doing, Moja will create users, contributors, suppliers, and customers for its trading platform. This self-replicating, customer-serving machine will be good for Moja and good for Africa. Basic courses will be offered for free, but most classes will be offered for a modest and affordable fee. Because of the sheer scale of the mobile learning market in Africa, the potential revenue may be significant.
Moja Connect will allow existing entrepreneurial networks to gain traction, increase exposure, and grow through the digitization of membership bases. Most networks in Africa are local, have little access to outside markets, no platform to promote themselves, and no opportunity or means to connect and trade with each other. That is, they function like isolated economic islands. Moja will build the future by facilitating complex, fractal connections within and across networks, linking people, businesses and organizations organically and easily. Africans are more social and less individualistic than Westerners. The popularity of WhatsApp and Facebook in Africa is remarkable, but for the most part this urge to connect has not facilitated trade or encouraged entrepreneurial networks to coalesce. The rise of social networks has not been matched by a commensurate rise in trade networks. Moja will fill the gap with Moja Connect.
THIEL: Why has so much of our society come to believe that there are no hard secrets left? Given that assumption, anyone who might have had the ambition to look for a secret will first ask himself: if it were possible to discover something new, wouldn’t someone from the faceless global talent pool of smarter and more creative people have found it already? Only by believing in and looking for secrets could you see beyond the convention to an opportunity hidden in plain sight. The best place to look for secrets is where no one else is looking.
MOJA: The idea for Moja has been hidden in plain sight for years. The proliferation of the Internet across Africa — a relatively recent phenomenon — has alerted entrepreneurs and investors to the potential of e-commerce. And the disinterest of Amazon, eBay, and Alibaba in the African marketplace has certainly been noticed. Platforms like Jumia and Konga were inspired by Amazon. And the almost complete vacuum in the B2B space has been noticed but not filled. Kaymu started in the B2B space but quickly morphed into a B2C platform. Kaymu’s product made few concessions to mobile users, was modeled after Alibaba, and no effort was made to develop a UX and UI that people would actually want to use.
And no existing platform offers the user a means to learn the basics for online success beyond the bare minimum. The vast majority of aspiring entrepreneurs, SMEs, and microbusinesses have no access to proper business education and nowhere to acquire even the minimal skills needed to setup an online store and market their products effectively. All existing e-commerce platforms rely on the seller to acquire these skills on their own — and that is a difficult task, even if you live in a major city. If you live outside a major city in Africa, the educational resources required to build and operate an online store are non-existent. There is tremendous pent-up demand in the business education sector and no one is filling it.
Africa is a continent of local networks — an economic archipelago — and few of them are interconnected. Moja is working to create a new economic unity. There are thousands of networks in Africa, many of them dedicated to mentoring or training entrepreneurs. For example, one denominational network, which has more than 250,000 SMEs among its members, has a base of 8 million people. There are many more networks in Africa — church, NGO, secular, and governmental — that are already looking for ways to promote and build trade for their members.
Yet, this huge resource remains invisible and untapped. Moja has built relationships with key organizations and is launching its platform with the support of established entrepreneurial networks. Why build networks when they already exist? Such networks are a built-in client base from day one. Moja calls these organizations Trusted Networks. Carefully selected Trusted Networks will serve as the first Moja Centers. These networks are already doing on the ground what Moja proposes to do in cyberspace. These networks will promote Moja to their members and beyond. Rather than launch to strangers, Moja is launching amongst friends. This approach to building an initial network has the potential to proliferate virally.
The synergy of combining Moja Marketplace, with its culturally adapted UI/UX, with Moja Connect’s powerful business networking tools, and Moja University’s educational resources — on a single platform — reflects a complete rethink of e-commerce for Africa. This is why we speak of Moja as Africa’s first super app. And all of these features are built into an app designed from the ground up for how African’s actually access the Internet — on their mobile devices. Every other e-commerce platform in Africa launched as a website and their apps look and function like an afterthought. Africans deserve better.