One night in 2012, Samuel Njuguna, then a fourth year Computer Science student at the University of Nairobi, was busy making final touches to a class project.
Without a warning, the data bundles on his Orange modem ran out.
After scratching his head for a few seconds, he remembered that a Safaricom line, which was on his mobile phone, had some airtime.
Excited, the 26-year-old reached for his phone but after removing the SIM card, he realised he could not use it because the modem belonged to a rival operator.
In a different hostel room, Byron Sitawa, also 26, recalls facing similar problems, albeit on a different day.
“At some point my airtime ran out and when I rushed to top up, the shopkeeper only had airtime in denominations of Sh500 and above, which many students — like most ordinary Kenyans — cannot afford,” says Mr Sitawa, who studied Industrial Chemistry.
Frustrated, he returned to his room and had to wait until morning to look for affordable airtime.
Then on an idle afternoon, the two friends shared their experiences with Stephanie Gaku, 25, a mutual friend and Mr Njuguna’s classmate.
It then emerged that all of them had also gone through the nightmare of erroneously buying huge amounts of airtime through mobile money transfer services instead of making a withdrawal or sending the money.
BIRTH OF CHURA
The trio then started racking their brains on ways to avoid undergoing similar predicaments.
After days of brainstorming, the trio, together with two others: Samuel Njogu, 26, who studied architecture and Jack Kinga, 25, a software developer, came up with what they felt was a brilliant idea.
And the idea that was conceived in a hostel is today an award-winning online application, which allows users to transfer airtime between different SIMs regardless of the operator.
It also allows people to buy airtime from service providers, which can be used on any network, as well as allowing for airtime to be sent to family members or exchanged for cash.
The application, dubbed Chura (Swahili for frog), is anchored on the idea of being able to leap from one operator to another at will without having to port.
The application scooped the Demo Africa award at a gala event held in Lagos, Nigeria, last week.
More than 400 innovators had entered the competition and only 40 were shortlisted and five awarded.
As part of the goodies from Lagos, Chura team will be sponsored alongside other winners for a tour of the famed Silicon Valley in the US next month for 10 days. While there, they will meet with venture capitalists and network with other innovators.
“We are excited to be Demo Lions,” said Mr Njuguna. The same innovation has been shortlisted for the Africa Prize for Engineering Innovation out of entries from 15 African countries.
The prize is organised by the Royal Academy of Engineering, which is based in the United Kingdom.
It is bankrolled by the Shell Centenary Scholarship Fund, Consolidated Contractors Company, ConocoPhilips and the Mo Ibrahim Foundation.
There are 12 shortlisted entrants from Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe, all receiving six months mentoring after which three finalists will be chosen.
From there, the finalists will present their fully developed innovations with business cases, and the winner will receive Sh3,725,000 (£25,000).
The two runners-up will be awarded Sh1,500,000 (£10,000) each.
“Deciding on the shortlist was extremely difficult because the standard was high, and the entrepreneurial talent was clear to see,” said Malcolm Brinded, a fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering.
POTENTIAL TO IMPACT
“All the shortlisted entrants have innovations with the potential to have a significant, positive impact and will benefit from the networks and entrepreneurial skills gained during the next six months.”
But just like any start-up, it has not been an easy ride for Chura.
It took at least one year since the inception for the idea to go commercial seven months ago.
“All this time, we were saving and getting assistance from friends and family,” recalls Mr Njuguna.
In the end, they had accumulated Sh200,000 which they used as capital.
“Our fellow students were our first customers. We then tried to market through word of mouth and social media platforms,” says Ms Gaku.
“We were making a solution for ourselves and, in the process, came up with this idea.”
Today, the business is self-sustaining although it has not yet started paying their personal bills.
Chura has made at least 7,000 transactions from 1,000 Kenyans, 700 of them repeat customers.
The innovation comprises four parts: switch airtime service, airtime for cash service, bulk airtime service and buy airtime service.
In the exchange airtime from one service provider to another, if you have Safaricom airtime, you can exchange it for Orange airtime or Airtel airtime.
All you need to do is fill out a form on their website, www.chura.co.ke, and send the airtime to the team.
They in turn send the desired airtime to the phone number of your choice.
They charge a fee of as little as Sh4 depending on the amounts being exchanged.
The same applies for the service where users are able to exchange airtime for cash. You will need to fill a form with the phone number and network you are sending the airtime from and the number to receive the money as well as the service provider.
You will then send the airtime to Chura agents who will instantly send the money to your mobile money account.
Mr Sitawa says before Safaricom started reversing airtime bought erroneously from M-Pesa, this was the most popular service on their platform.
However, so far, only Safaricom is offering this service meaning customers in other networks still require a third party if they make such a mistake.
The bulk airtime service enables users to send airtime conveniently to multiple phone numbers in any network in Kenya, at once.
Then there is the buy airtime service where you can buy airtime for any mobile phone number in Kenya using any mobile money transfer service.
For instance, it is now possible to buy Airtel airtime or Orange airtime using Safaricom’s M-Pesa.
All you need to do is to fill a form and send the required amount to Chura using your mobile transfer service such as M-Pesa, Airtel Money, YU-Cash or Orange Money. The team will then send the airtime to the phone number of your choice free of charge.
In this service, you even get an airtime bonus of five per cent.
Mr Sitawa says their innovation has received support from local mobile phone network operators.
“We have had a lot of support; in fact, Orange has been sponsoring a promotion of buying airtime from the competitors’ money transfer service,” he said.
“We also met with some Safaricom executives and they said they did not have any problem with what we are doing.”
Mr Njuguna described the application as a win-win for all operators.
“We are simply enabling mobile users to spend money they would have otherwise not spent because of a hiccup or two,” he says.
But the group has so far not received any support from government. Since last October, they have, however, been incubated at the C4DLab Start-up Incubation Programme, an initiative of the University of Nairobi.
“We are grateful for the opportunity because this lab is not interested in milking anything from start-ups; they just want to support ideas,” he said.
Some start-up incubation labs and capital ventures in Africa are notorious for forcing innovators to sign contracts with strings attached.
Another hitch arose when Chura attempted to patent the idea with the Kenya Industrial Property Institute (KIPI).
“KIPI said it is not possible to patent a technological idea,” said Mr Sitawa.
Moving forward, the group plans to diversify the innovation in terms of target market, taking on other aspects of inter-operability they feel would benefit users.
EYES ON THE PRIZE
Shortlisted entrants for Africa Prize for Engineering Innovation
Adaptable safety: Removable window burglar-bar system.
Captain Abubakar Surajo, Nigerian Army Transformation and Innovation Centre, Nigeria
A removable burglar-bar system that enables a quick emergency exit from a building is a new innovation that makes burglar bars more versatile. A locking mechanism incorporated into the burglar-bar system can only be unlocked from the inside. Until unlocked the bars are impenetrable.
Mobile payment application: Tolulupe Ajuwape, University of Ibadan, Nigeria
Innovation that allows merchants and customers to make and receive card payments for products and services using their phones and tablets. Mobile money applications have had great success across Africa, and the application incorporates innovative functionality to take it a step further. This includes receipts issued by SMS or email and building customer databases for marketing.
Mechanical system to prepare clear banana juice: Dr Oscar Kibazohi, University of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania and Makerere University, Uganda
Clear banana juice is difficult to produce because pulping ripe bananas produces a highly viscous puree. The mechanical mashing of bananas without the addition of enzymes or extraction aids is an innovation from Tanzania to create clear banana juice. It is mirrored on the traditional process of kneading a mixture of ripe banana and grass or fibres until the juice oozes from the pulp.
Real-time quality control for fluids manufacturing: Dr Reinhardt Kotzé, Cape Peninsula University of Technology, South Africa
Flow-Viz is an industrial system, which improves process and quality control in a fluids industrial operation. Its aim is to replace time-consuming off-line measurements with continuous real-time process monitoring that takes place directly in the production line. Currently, operators take fluid samples and conduct time-consuming lab tests to monitor product quality.
Low-cost sustainable water filter: Dr Askwar Hilonga, The Nelson Mandela African Institute of Science and Technology, Tanzania
To the point: environmentally-friendly precision fertiliser applicator; Musenga Silwawa, Zambia Agriculture Research Institute, Zambia
This innovation is an efficient and consistent fertiliser applicator that eliminates fertiliser wastage and allows farmers to apply fertiliser to targeted spots with one simple action.
Latrine systems to improve urban sanitation; Samuel Malinga, Makerere University, Kampala, Uganda
This innovation involves several interventions across the process of a properly functioning sanitation system.
An even playing field: small-scale crushing machine for sustainable gold mining Rujeko Masike, Harare Institute of Technology, Zimbabwe.
Early warning system: Precise Fence Decurity Alarm System
Ernst Pretorius, University of Pretoria, South Africa
Mounted to the wiring posts of a fence, the Draadsitter (Afrikaans for ‘fence sitter’) innovation detects tampering on fences of up to 800 metres using sensors.
Mother tongue: Mobile phone application to teach children local language Ian Mutamiri, University of Zimbabwe, Zimbabwe
This Android application teaches children how to read Shona.
Biodegradable degreaser for mining, agriculture and manufacturing; Chinenye Justin Nwaogwugwu, Federal University of Technology, Owerri, Nigeria