Africa is, without question, the poorest yet one of the most populous of the world’s continents. But in recent decades, it has seen some of the fastest growth and development globally, spurred on in part by the continent’s young population and the emergence of the mobile phone. So why then are its communities some of the least connected and most vulnerable to natural disasters, in particular, outbreaks of disease? This is the problem which two undergraduates at the University of Edinburgh are working to change. I sat down with Helen Williams and Oonagh Mannix, the founders of Polorum, a community messaging application, to discuss volunteering, their startup and how they’re hoping to improve communication in Africa from their outpost in Edinburgh.
The first thing to note is that, as with all startups, things can change. In fact, between sitting down with Helen and Oonagh in Brew Lab to interview them and publishing this article, they’ve taken the decision to change their name. When we first met, the company was called ZvakanakaSMS. Today, however, the company is known as Polorum which, Oonagh notes, is a lot easier to spell and reflects their “slightly nerdy or geeky personal technical interests.” They also see their new name — which, translated from Latin, means ‘many poles’ — as a portrayal of the role they see themselves as playing in creating links between the female tech community in Scotland and Europe with entrepreneurs working on the ground in another hemisphere. Helen and Oonagh have suggested that we meet in Brew Lab, one of Edinburgh’s many quirky coffee houses which are particularly popular with the student community. Their choices of beverage are the first of many indicators that the pair are very different, each bringing something different to their startup; Helen, who grew up in the infamous Silicon Valley opts for a coffee while Oonagh, who was brought up in rural Ireland, picks a more adventurous Golden Monkey Tea (she seems particularly well-versed in the drinks menu and freely admits to being a loyal customer).
I start with the obvious question: do the pair see themselves as entrepreneurs? “Absolutely,” Helen responds with a laugh as our order arrives. Oonagh agrees but notes that it wasn’t a conscious decision, saying that they “wandered into things accidentally” and that only now would they call themselves entrepreneurs. It is clear to me, however, that the word ‘entrepreneur’ is much more than a title for the pair; with both Oonagh and Helen coming from technical backgrounds — the former studies Chemical Physics and the latter Software Engineering at the University of Edinburgh — they argue that the word ‘entrepreneur’ better reflects their roles as both developers and businesswomen at Polorum.
“At many startup events, in particular, events for tech startups, there are often only one or two other women present.”
— Helen Williams, Co-Founder of Polorum
Being female entrepreneurs is of huge importance to the pair. Helen notes that “at many startup events, in particular, events for tech startups, there are often only one or two other women present.” Female entrepreneurship is most definitely a growing practice globally, however, Helen’s comment acknowledges that there is a long way to go before women are fully integrated into tech and entrepreneurial circles. “It’s the same on our courses,” says Oonagh, “there are very few women.” It comes as no surprise then that Polorum has become as much about improving much-needed communication links in rural Africa as it has about promoting the potential of and opportunities for women in the business and tech spaces.
“So tell me about the other side of your company,” I ask. “The idea for the company came from Oonagh’s volunteering experience in Africa [the exact location has been redacted out of security concerns for members of Polorum’s team] where she was working on a number of community development projects,” Helen says. Oonagh takes over: “I was based at a mission in the mountains, two hours from the nearest town. It was really rural — even more so than at home in Ireland,” she jokes. “While I was working out there, I started to notice patterns. One week, someone went out to all of the communities to tell them to attend a village meeting. We did the same thing again the following week and there were a few occasions when groups couldn’t make it but had no way of contacting anyone to tell them.” Oonagh realised, however, that the problem went much further than simply arranging meetings. The lack of infrastructure also meant that mass-communication among communities was well-nigh impossible, resulting in instances where communities were put at serious risk as a result of a lack of awareness of emerging health crises (such as typhoid outbreaks), natural disasters, etc. “You have to remember that, in many African countries, most don’t have access to television, newspapers, Facebook and so on,” says Oonagh. “Think of all of the communication mediums we rely on in our everyday lives. With one exception, they have none of them. And the exception is the mobile phone.”
“We can’t just anticipate their needs — we’ve done a lot of research, but we need to ask them in person.”
— Helen Williams, Co-Founder of Polorum
While working on a lesson plan as part of her community development project, Oonagh realised that adapting simple marketing techniques — such as the use of a mobile phone to advertise one’s business — could prove a life-saving solution to the communication issues faced in the region. After some initial concern over the technicalities of the proposition (namely the use of a computer), Oonagh returned to the UK and, after putting things off for a while, set to work on designing a simple computer system to allow for the collection of mobile phone numbers and the distribution of community alert messages via text message. “We now have a working prototype which is currently being tested in Africa,” notes Helen. “It’s been there since February and we’re now working on gathering mobile numbers and training the community in how to enter them into the system.” But the pair note that there is a long way to go before a finished product can be presented: “We’ve got a lot of development we want to do and we’re keen to collect feedback on the ground to understand how it could be used best by local communities,” Helen says before commenting, “we can’t just anticipate their needs — we’ve done a lot of research, but we need to ask them in person.”
I’m intrigued then — besides Oonagh and Helen, are there other’s involved in the project? “Oh, there’s loads of us,” Oonagh laughs. “We’ve just spawned,” Helen adds. The company now involves nine individuals spread across six countries with some working in Edinburgh, others in Africa and Europe and with an American outpost in New York City. Whether or not all of the outposts are necessary might make for an interesting debate (they claim it makes meetings a nightmare) but, at the same time, the company’s setup seems representative of the growing number of international, home-office startups. “We’ve recruited many of them through friends — it’s all about knowing people and networking,” says Helen, “but it is also about identifying what it is that we need help with and finding individuals who are keen to develop similar skills themselves.”
“The community has really been getting behind it and the partner charity I was working with have been watching in anticipation for months.”
— Oonagh Mannix, Co-Founder of Polorum
“So what does the future hold?” I ask. Despite their long list of development plans, Helen assures me that their finished product is not all that far off. “Then, our plan is to go out and sell it,” she exclaims. As any entrepreneur who has launched a business in Africa knows, the sales and distribution stage brings with it a whole range of new problems, however, the team appear up for a challenge and are fully aware that such a technical product (although simple by standards in the developed world) will involve a considerable amount of one-to-one training. “You said you’d be going out and selling it. Who will you be selling it to?” I ask, remembering that the initial idea received a lot of support from Oonagh’s volunteering and charity colleagues. “We’ll be selling it as a complete package, perhaps with training on the side, to charities on the ground who can pass on the technology to local communities,” Helen tells me. “The community has really been getting behind it and the partner charity I was working with have been watching in anticipation for months,” Oonagh adds, clearly aware that, until that point, I had not been entirely convinced. “There was definitely some skepticism on the ground,” Helen says, “but the pilot project has really demonstrated the capabilities of our product. It isn’t believable until you see it.” “Do you think you’re product can be used outside of Africa?” I ask. “I’m hesitant to answer that because we haven’t done any detailed research into it, but I’ve learnt that there are always uses for something which one never anticipates so yes, hopefully,” says Helen.
Interestingly, neither Helen nor Oonagh had any business training prior to launching Polorum (or, as it was known then, ZvakanakaSMS), however, they have both overcome this challenge. “Google is the business brains behind the project,” Helen jokes, but they also place a lot of their business success on key partnerships with organisations including LAUNCH.ed, the Scottish Institute for Enterprise, Business Gateway and, most recently, the Young Innovators Challenge. “They’ve been amazing,” Oonagh tells me, “anything we’ve needed help on, they’ve been there for us.”
I change the topic, focusing again on the entrepreneurs in Helen and Oonagh. As both of them graduate this summer, I’m intrigued as to whether or not they’ll opt to run Polorum full-time or whether the lure of a paid graduate job will win either of them over. “We don’t know,” says Helen, “but at the moment, it looks like I’ll find myself a job and Oonagh is thinking about managing it longer-term.” Helen appears to suggest that her role, as a technical developer on the project, will be at its end by the summer, allowing the company to scale back its technical workforce in favour of a more business-heavy approach, but maybe that’s just my interpretation. Either way, their social enterprise has come a long way in enabling future change on the African continent through improved communications.
“Entrepreneurship: It’s about acknowledging and exploring what you don’t know.”
— Oonagh Mannix, Co-Founder of Polorum
To finish our chat, I want to return to the first part of our conversation, about entrepreneurship. I’m interested in how Helen and Oonagh would define an entrepreneur, given that this is the title they’ve given themselves. “I think the big difference between an inventor and an entrepreneur is that an entrepreneur is happy to take an idea or invention, acknowledge that they don’t have all of the skills needed to bring it to fruition and, rather than struggle with it, choose to build a company around it and find the people who can make it happen,” Helen says. Oonagh agrees: “It’s about acknowledging and exploring what you don’t know.”
We finish up our mugs of coffee and tea (or Golden Monkey Tea in one case) before heading towards the University library where, after I’ve taken my obligatory photographs of the pair, Helen and Oonagh return to their revision. It’ll be interesting to see how the company progresses in the months ahead and whether they head down the entrepreneurship route post-graduation.