Podcast Transcript – Series One, Episode 09
DR KALA FLEMING MAR 2020
[00:00:00] Kala: [00:00:00] Water scarcity and shortages situation that invades lives every day
[00:00:04] we come in with a combination of sensors and people to determine what’s required to avoid a shortage.
[00:00:12]on the first day he gave us a pop quiz and I aced it and I was the only one.
[00:00:16] well, how do you make AI visible to everyone?
[00:00:19] I have to do this as a startup.
[00:00:21] then it was Afro tech Mandela, her energy and vibe, and I’m like, I want to know these people.
[00:00:26] get to having 1 million properties, in the next five years, it’s just scratching the surface.
[00:00:31] Dan: [00:00:31] What’s up Unfound Nation Dan Kihanya here, your host for Founders Unfound thanks so much for listening in. These are some extraordinary times in the midst of the COVIT-19 pandemic. Many of us are stuck inside, physically away from one another. Our health and safety and the economy are under serious duress, no doubt.
[00:00:49] So please follow the appropriate precautions, but hang in there. Remember that hope has the power to move us forward. Individually as a community and as humanity. So to that end, founders unfound will continue telling stories of compelling entrepreneurs. Listen in when you need a little inspiration.
[00:01:07] Today you’ll be hearing from Dr. Kala Fleming, a PhD and scientist by training who has a passion to bring AI into the lives of the everyday person like you and me. She is co founder and CEO of SMAJI.ai, a company using AI to solve water scarcity and shortages around the globe. Our episode is sponsored by founders live. As always, you can find our podcast on Apple, Google, Spotify, SoundCloud, and Stitcher, and now YouTube.
[00:01:32] And please follow us on Twitter and Instagram @foundersunfound or go to our website founders unfound to see the latest. Follow like and share. And please help us grow now on with the episode.
[00:01:43] Stay safe and hope you enjoy.
[00:01:49]Hello and welcome to Founders Unfound spotlighting the best startups you don’t know yet. We bring you stories of exceptional founders from underrepresented backgrounds. This is episode nine in our series on founders of African descent. I’m your host Dan Kihanya. Let’s get on it.
[00:02:15] Today. We have Dr. Kala Fleming, founder and CEO of SMAJI.AI, a company that uses AI to solve water scarcity for property managers. Welcome to the show, Kala, and thank you for making the time.
[00:02:28] Kala: [00:02:28] Thank you so much for having me, Dan.
[00:02:30]Dan: [00:02:30] All right, so let’s start off with helping the listeners understand what exactly does SMAJI do.
[00:02:36] Kala: [00:02:36] So we want to make it easier for the property managers that are responsible for ensuring that their facilities, always have water, that they have less of a struggle to do it. So, across Africa and the Caribbean, in many urban centers, water availability is becoming increasingly a challenge.
[00:03:01] So in many cases, as an intermittent water supply. Where water is available once, maybe twice per week. And so what that causes then is a lot of extra work on behalf of the person who has a multitenant apartment building or the person who’s running a school or a hospital. Somebody has to think about how do I always have water here?
[00:03:24] And in the cases where the water is runs out. You either have tenants complaining or you have kids at school who either false it because they can’t wash their hands, or maybe the school closes. And then at hospitals, you know, there are a bunch of ripple effects that happen as well in terms of patient care.
[00:03:43] So what we want to do is to take that off of the hands of the property manager. And so we come in with a combination of sensors. And people, and that allows us to determine what’s required here to avoid a shortage. In some cases, maybe. what happens is that we end up monitoring a water tank and then ensuring water that’s delivered on time.
[00:04:10] In other cases, maybe there’s been an escalation of bills because there are leaks and other things that are going wrong on the property. And so we also address that. We’ve been working in Nairobi with different property managers. So we have hundreds of thousands of data points that have been collected.
[00:04:27] That have helped, to reduce the number of individuals and facilities that, have run short of water. We also, have gotten to a pilot in Jamaica. Where we’re working with the water utility, in that process we will be, increasing the number of underserved communities that have more reliable access to water overall for our work in Jamaica and the work going on in Nairobi, Kenya, we’ve touched more than 5,000 individuals in terms of allowing them to have more reliable access to water .
[00:05:04] Dan: [00:05:04] That’s awesome. water it’s everywhere. And yet it’s not something that we can take for granted around the world as we do sometimes here in the United States. so, I want to unpack that definitely a lot more, but before we get more into the company, wanting to help our listeners understand a little bit about you and what’s your story is.
[00:05:25] So maybe tell us a little bit about your background. Where did you come from? Did you always think about water ?
[00:05:31] Kala: [00:05:31] So I grew up in the Caribbean, in Antigua and Antigua is one of the most water scarce, islands actually.
[00:05:41] But, and I’ve sent to too many individuals that maybe you’d think that my story would be that I came to, you know, working on all of this water stuff because I grew up in a water scarce Island. And then had to struggle every day. you know, to think about how to get water, to live. And it actually, that wasn’t the case because, for my parents, for the place that we live, we somehow planned for the intermittency. So that was a problem, like water didn’t come every day.
[00:06:12] But I had a lot of storage on site, so we had, You know, like an underground cistern. I don’t know if you’re familiar with that term, but that’s a popular, Caribbean kind of installation, so, you know, yeah. Underground storage tank. And then we also have, but I, I find that the.
[00:06:32]The way the store’s tanks are done, they kind of vary based on geography. So our storage tank was literally under the kitchen, and so you’d be walking over it, right? Like, and that’s done right, where you incorporate it into the foundation. And so in Jamaica, and I think even Nairobi, when you see underground tanks, it tends to not be, right under the living situation.
[00:06:59]And so, you know, so the combination of having rainwater harvested and then, gathering as much as possible when there was supply was what kept us from having to think too much about it. so I think that experience of understanding how we coped with that.
[00:07:16]Dan: [00:07:16] and one of the things that’s interesting though is.
[00:07:19]For people who may not connect the dots here. Yeah. They may think it’s not intuitive that an Island, which is surrounded by water wouldn’t have water, but it’s surrounded by ocean water and salt water. It’s just not drinkable and not potable and all that. So, it is a very real thing on islands , that water.
[00:07:40] Yes. It’s not available in such plenty that people would think.
[00:07:45] Kala: [00:07:45] Yes. And so, I mean, and so for Antigua, desalination is the primary mode of how, you know, the water utility sourced its water, but then it’s expensive. And then there are a bunch of just operational challenges around that. And so I think even up to today, you know, this is still an ongoing struggle about how to ensure that is provided and delivered 24 seven.
[00:08:10] Dan: [00:08:10] Right? So, you grew up, conscious of water. I think a lot of people in the United States just again, take it for granted, comes out of the tap. You can drink it. It’s pretty much anytime you turn it on, it’s there. Except for a few places in the United States. It’s pretty consistent. So, so you come from a background already where there’s a consciousness and awareness of how we get water, what do we do with water, how we get it, where it’s stored and so forth.
[00:08:38] Kala: [00:08:38] Can I say though, you know what’s interesting in the U S is that, so water provision 24 seven is mostly solved. But the issue that’s looming on the U S side is around affordability. And so the question is, because it’s, it’s getting, more and more expensive to provide that water. 24, seven. And so when you look at California and a bunch of other urban spaces, that the challenge is, how do you ensure that this water that’s being delivered.
[00:09:09] Consistently is actually also accessible and available, you know, given how much you’re selling it for.
[00:09:17]Dan: [00:09:17] Interesting. I wonder what is driving up that cost? Is it the redistribution, the cleaning or filtering or.
[00:09:24]Kala: [00:09:24] Yeah. There’s a lot that goes into ensuring your water is available 24, seven and so, you know, increasingly with the sources that are available and there are a bunch of emerging contaminants that have to be accounted for.
[00:09:38] And so increasingly as you’re adding all of those other treatment layers and levels to your water, it takes money to do that. And so, the cost overall for what it takes for utility to be solvent and then provide you that water, that keeps on increasing.
[00:09:53]Dan: [00:09:53] Interesting. So back to you. so how did you come to the United States from Antigua. How do you go from there? to the US?
[00:10:05] Kala: [00:10:05] So via the Virgin islands, I guess. So my undergrad is at the university of the Virgin islands. And so it was like a chemistry undergrad. And so I was surrounded though by peers who, for them, grad school was just what was next. And so that was like in grad school was going to happen in America. So, for me, I knew that I had to figure out, okay, I was just doing what my friends are doing. And so I had to figure out grad school, what was I going to do? so, you know, I didn’t internship for chemical engineering because I had a chemistry undergrad.
[00:10:37] And university of the Virgin islands is pretty small school. and so your options are what you could do, you know, are somewhat limited. But cause I was always good in the sciences, you know, chemistry worked out really well. And then I took the opportunity to look at what chemical engineering might look like, you know, possibly for grad school.
[00:10:55] but I ultimately settled on doing environmental engineering. And so for the places where that was happening, you know, Wisconsin just bubbled to the top in terms of the package. So I would get as a grad student. And so that began my academic journey, began my us journey, and then after that I think work continued that journey.
[00:11:17] So. I’ve lived across a bunch of States. just pursuing various opportunities. connected to water, actually. So for my PhD work, so it was in civil and environmental engineer. And so I looked a lot at, water quality under different, disinfection regimes. So, for us water quality, one of the concerns is what happens when you put chlorine into the water. And so they’re possibly.
[00:11:52]Pop up depending on your organic matter content of the water. And so in some places, chlorine is not the preferred option because it’s too risky because of the byproducts that could form. So I did a lot of work to understand how this alternative disinfectant called chloramines. It could be properly managed. And so what I developed was a model to help water operators manage the water quality in their systems.
[00:12:20]Dan: [00:12:20] Fascinating. You gotta tell me though, going from a small school in the temperate climate of the Virgin islands to a big university in that it States in probably one of the coldest parts of the United States.
[00:12:35] How did you make that transition plus the sort of the cultural makeup of the student body? I mean, what was that like going from one to the other?
[00:12:45] Kala: [00:12:45] So, you know, it’s interesting. So when you’re younger, before I went, I didn’t even think about it. So I knew it was a different place I was possibly going to be.
[00:12:54] Different and colder, but it didn’t Dawn on me, you know, all of the things that I’d have to think about. And what’s, what’s funny is that, so the summer before I went to grad school, I also did an internship with, I think it was ramen Hass. And I remember the scientists there, they were like very concerned.
[00:13:11] They were like, you’re going where Wisconsin? Do you know how cold it, you know, they’re like, find me another option. They’re like, poor baby you’re to, and that was the first time I had to lie. Consider, wait, am I going to freeze to death? So, and actually, you know, growing up in the Caribbean. Separately.
[00:13:31] There’s always this fascination with cold and snow because your whole life, it’s just. You know, sunshine. And so I remember like when when I was younger, we’d do things like open up the freezer to kind of get a sense of, like, well what does cold really feel like anyway? And when you’re watching TV and seeing snowman and that of you have no concepts, right?
[00:13:53] So there was a piece of it that was really kind of exciting, the idea that finally you get to see snow. And so I didn’t get to see snow or even have a notion of what that was until I went to grad school. I think I remember, by the first winter, I went out with a bunch of friends to, some kind of salsa dancing something. And then I think, the weather report had snow possibly on the forecast. So by the time we left, the event, I remember were like walking towards the door, with all of these friends.
[00:14:22] And then we opened the door and then for the first time, the snow is coming down and I like it, and then I’ll have them, or like over it, they were like, no, we’re not into my enthusiasm at all.
[00:14:36] Dan: [00:14:36] Yeah. When you grow up with snow, you realize that, sort of euphoria peace that comes over you.
[00:14:42] When you see that first snow, you just know in the back of your mind, okay, this three or four months more of this stuff that I’ve got to slog through every day, it’s going to affect how I move around and how I feel . So, how has it from a cultural standpoint, did you find it a hard, just a adjustment or because you were in sort of your academic world that it wasn’t as, pronounced the difference.
[00:15:07] Kala: [00:15:07] Yeah. I mean, for me it was fine, but I think it’s because maybe I’m just such a nerd where I like, there’s a lot to do, I think just for the whole academic program, and then. There were so many people that were so very nice. and so for me, I guess to get comfortable, I also did just seek out, affinity groups so, you know, there’s a black student union and a couple of other things.
[00:15:32] And then just technically, I was also on a program, there was a grad program. what was it called? Like GRRS. So that was meant to focus on just, you know, increasing the number of underrepresented minorities, and support them just through their graduate journey.
[00:15:50] So I had these different cohorts that were really, helpful as well, but then that was just a layer. That’s you that helps you too. The guests get comfortable, but, but then ultimately you have such a rigorous schedule and, as you’re working towards just getting work done that, it’s consuming in and of itself just for that part of the journey.
[00:16:10] And it’s just amazing how, you know, the years that you could enter that, it just goes by so quickly.
[00:16:16]Dan: [00:16:16] So did you always have an affinity for the sciences or you just sort of gravitated to, the particular aspects of, chemistry or environmental engineering or yours kind of have that mind, do you think.
[00:16:28] Kala: [00:16:29] Well, the first time I figured out, but I was really good at, it was a, I remember like back in the high school, we had this really cool chemistry teacher who would do crazy things. I don’t know, like, he to keep us motivated. he’d call us names, but the way he taught just really got us loving the subject.
[00:16:50] And then I remember. Like there was a physics class that we, I think the first day, you know, like, I forget which part of high school this was with the first physics class, I think on the first day he gave us a pop quiz and I aced it and I was the only one. And so I was like, huh, maybe I’m, I’m like, really?
[00:17:08] You know? So, so I think, you know, and then by comparison for things like geography,
[00:17:18] so I think, you know, some of those things, you know, I think another part of it is that I think you’ll probably hear, you know, the same way that you hear from African students about. Peer pressure. So not so much from my parents. you know, they’re just fine with me, you know, doing well academically.
[00:17:36] But there’s also just this sort of, cultural pressure about academics. Like your, your peers are like, look. You know, this is how, you’re going to be successful in life. Either you come from parents that are, have got it, or you’re going to hustle and do the academic thing. And so a lot of my friends had that mindset that they’re like two ways to go and you don’t come from who I am.
[00:17:59] You know, really rich parents. So, you know, and that was just kind of the thing to do. And then, you know, school in general didn’t come hard. So for so many it just made it that that was just the obvious thing to do and how to live and how to be.
[00:18:12] Dan: [00:18:12] That’s really interesting. I think that’s a fascinating look at, you know, sometimes you come from an environment where you are the only one.
[00:18:20] And so then there is this idea that, okay, I’m going to break out and. Work hard and I’m going to hustle hard. And then there’s other environments, my kids go to a school basically like what you’re talking about, where everybody is sort of working towards, academic achievement. And so the peer pressure does it become, Hey, let’s go out and hang out tonight.
[00:18:40] It’s like, Oh, you have homework. I have homework. Yeah, I’ll talk to you tomorrow. and so, that’s really interesting for sure.
[00:18:46] Kala: [00:18:46] Now, don’t get me wrong though. So like the part of being in the Caribbean way of life is one where, it’s never fully academic by the way. So I did also have to balance, you know, in terms of, we’ve got our party on a little bit.
[00:19:02]Dan: [00:19:02] Nice. So we will take a short break to hear from our sponsor and be right back with Dr. Kala Fleming from SMAJI.
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[00:19:57] Dan: [00:19:59] So we’re back with Dr. Kala Fleming from SMAJI. And before the break, Kala, we were talking about, life in the Virgin islands. so let’s switch back and let’s talk a little bit more about the company now. You, you started with something called diaspora.ai. Maybe you could tell us a little bit about that and then lead us into how that, essentially spun out into SMAJI.
[00:20:20] Kala: [00:20:20] Sure. So the work that I do now, if you look at just the underlying theme and what’s threading through it is that I’m very, interested to ensure that, in our increasingly digital world. That there are more individuals, the norm among us who understand what AI is about and can benefit from it.
[00:20:46] And so I, I think quite a bit about blue collar workers and where they fit into the whole conversation. So. I came to that point because, you know, about five years ago, when I started to work with, IBM in Nairobi, it was for me, I had this very, just big revelation about the power of tech. In terms of delivering services to individuals.
[00:21:15] And so before that, you know, for my work, a lot of it had been very focused around, you know, sciencey kinds of things. Maybe you do models and, help increase our improve operations. But in terms of feeling as if you’d really built a new service that literally can transform the way somebody’s life works.
[00:21:34] I feel as if the, for the work that I did in Nairobi with IBM, it just set off this whole new set of thinking about how to be useful in the world, and that’s my underlying goal anyway. And so we started to prototype a lot of ideas around, you know, water, healthcare, food security.
[00:21:57] Yes. Yeah. So that’s where that happened. But then I wanted to be able to more than prototype really, scale it and, have it impact many people. that wasn’t what our aloud was designed to do. And so that’s what then got me to thinking about, like, I have to do this as a, startup. I want to be able to use technology to create social impact, but do it in a way where I’m also, creating opportunity for the normal people. So that was the whole thinking and the idea. So the diaspora AI, like what that means and what that’s about is that, well, how do you make AI visible to everyone? you know, specifically the, the normal people, the regular people that are around us, whether they are our teachers, our are just the average people that let you know, or at least that I know. and so that vehicle thinks about water, it thinks about food security, and it thinks about, things like health care and where AI fit.
[00:23:00] Dan: [00:23:00] So how do you make the jump though from being able to do that in the quote unquote comforts of IBM to saying, okay, I’m going to go and try to figure this stuff out, hang up my own shingle, so to speak, and, pursue it more vigorously. how do you make that jump?
[00:23:18] Kala: [00:23:18] Yeah, I mean, I’ve been asked that question, I think very carefully, but I think I’m motivated in general by using the skills that I have to do things that are useful.
[00:23:33] So, and I also always have had the feeling that I want to be able to do things that others aren’t, working on. So there is this drive to have some impact that I think is unique. So there’s a personal piece of it. And then I think what’s layered onto that is that with that driver, I feel as if I found a way to do something that’s really valuable given what I’ve seen.
[00:24:03] And then also just with the, the numerous collaborators, that I’ve been able to work with. there’s an untapped opportunity to really, think about the normal, when we think about Africa for many who are not familiar with the continent. It’s still the case that, in 2020 that mostly we think about the lack, or maybe just the very extremes, right?
[00:24:26] Almost like a poverty, porn portions of it. And I’m not, you know, negating that there are real issues and challenges to be addressed. But there’s also like a beauty, there’s a regular person, like I know a lot of normal people, you know, the ones who want just like you, right? They want more simple access to water.
[00:24:47] They want, you know, more reliable health care. Like they’re not like about to die, die tomorrow, but they also just want to have, an increasingly better quality of life. And so I also just felt as if there weren’t as many individuals that are able to tackle that space, where, where you’re talking about Africa and the Caribbean from a point of just knowing regular people and speaking to their needs in a way that’s not overly dramatic.
[00:25:17]Dan: [00:25:17] And that’s, such an important distinction. first of all, that arc, you just talked about, that idea of I wanted to make an impact. I wanted to do in a unique way. I saw the need, that’s the common story for a lot of entrepreneurs. There’s this pull that says, okay, I’m the one that’s got to go figure this out. And the only way I could do that is if I step out on that branch on my own and say, okay, let’s go. And really 150% is double down on this.
[00:25:45] And I also like that you talk about the fact that there’s normal people and across the African and the Caribbean, that there is the narrative. right there, like you said, about poverty and hopelessness and all the statistics, right? And there are, there are people who are, striving and are leading their lives and they want to find a way to improve their, way of life, but isn’t necessarily, like you said, where they’re all in this dire situation.
[00:26:16] Kala: [00:26:16] But in the end, thinking about, the corporate role in the trajectory that I was on. Yeah. I just knew that I didn’t see a way where I could do the things that were calling me without, you know, making that leap. That was the only way. So then the decision became increasingly, I think easy because ultimately I couldn’t go through life not knowing.
[00:26:41] Dan: [00:26:41] Spoken like a pioneering founder for sure. so I imagine as a part of the work you were doing with diaspora, water. emerged as one of these interesting aspects of how to deploy technology, to serve either the marketplace or society in general. How did that, epiphany or focus come about?
[00:27:02]Kala: [00:27:02] I mean, there were already ideas, that we had started to work on even during my, time with IBM.
[00:27:09] And so, I also have a Ted talk, that was done about five years ago spells out just this idea of digital water management. So it had always been there. The idea that we have all of this technology that’s available to us. And then increasingly, you know, when you think of even a space like Nairobi, the way connectivity is growing, you know, the different networks that are there and then how people are interacting. That seemed where we would focus first, in terms of, you know, building on existing credibility in this space and existing contacts and that kind of thing.
[00:27:45] Dan: [00:27:45] And Hey, Unfound Nation, there’s a little nugget there. You should definitely go and check out Kala’s Ted talk. It is awesome. And. I’ve never heard anybody speak so eloquently about water, and so it’s definitely worth checking out. but let’s talk more about how did this SMAJIi emerge from Diaspora?
[00:28:05]Kala: [00:28:05] Yeah. So, given that background where we, had already started to figure out, some of the pain points in the market. And so I have a co founder who is from Kenya. And so she does, a lot more on just the, depth around our technical approach, for some of the pieces that we saw that could address the pain points in the market. So, you know, sensors. So a big piece of, the water scarcity challenge or what features centrally is this, idea of water storage tanks that are ubiquitous and they dot the landscape. And so. From the beginning when we, whenever you talked about water between the two of us, we just had this fascination that there all of these water tanks everywhere and nobody knows what goes on inside them.
[00:28:57] And then like what if they are like the ultimate thing that gives you some insight to really understanding what people are facing. with this whole water scarcity and shortages situation that, that invades their lives every day. So, in some ways, there’s also just a little bit of a technical obsession with that piece of the puzzle as well.
[00:29:19] Like, well, how does that work? so we found there are our ultrasonic sensors that don’t touch the water that you can put onto the lid of a tank that allow you to infer water levels, that becomes really interesting to provide just so many more insights, right? So if you understand, just a water level, then you’re able to let somebody know when a level is low. But then some people also just want to know, did the guy come and did he fill the tank up? And then if you did fill the tank up, how much did he add?
[00:29:48] And so what gets interesting is that when you think of now an entire property, if that property is being supplied by water at some points from, the water utility, and then it also gets water delivery. And then maybe they do some rainwater harvesting.
[00:30:06] If you only monitor the water meter that’s bringing water from the water utility, you won’t really understand the situation on that property. You want to understand what the sources of supplies are, and then ultimately what’s driving how consumption works. And that’s ultimately at the core if you’re going to have a chance at tackling shortages and scarcity on a, large scale.
[00:30:31] Dan: [00:30:31] And do you find the opportunity in terms of how you’re starting, is it, around residential, is it around hospitals and commercial buildings, or how do you see the market opportunity where the pain point is the highest?
[00:30:48]Kala: [00:30:48] Yeah, so we’re focusing on multitenant, commercial entities and, larger properties.
[00:30:56] So in both cases, what happens is that for the property manager, they have got a situation where, they either need to know what’s intimately going on with their tenants so that they’re able to properly serve them. if you’ve got a property that’s got, I don’t know, 10 apartments or more. The question is how will you reliably ensure that those folks that are paying you rent are going to have reliable water service? And how will they also be comfortable that how you’ve chosen to charge them for water is fair. And so what we’ve seen in some of the customers that we started to work with is that there’s a sensitivity that, an apartment dweller has to their overall bill. And so in some cases, the way that, an apartment or the property manager might charge for water is that because they don’t have adequate metering, they will charge a flat fee. Right? Some sort of service fee.
[00:32:00] And so the complaints then that come back are, you’re charging me one number. I’m, you know, being conscientious about how I use this water, but that guy, and how are we paying the same number? So that’s what comes up. There’s also this other thing of depending on how old your infrastructure is.
[00:32:18] Leaks can pop up. And so how do you know what’s going on when with that? And so now you find yourself with, you know, just either ordering more water for delivery or your bill from the utility has gone up and you’re not sure why. And so it’s for you to get a control of that, you need to have some sense of how water is flowing through your system.
[00:32:42]Dan: [00:32:42] So basically you have sort of this monitoring system or, platform that involves sensors and some humans in terms of deployment. And then do the, property managers get some sort of a dashboard or an app or something?
[00:32:59]Kala: [00:32:59] So for the water utility manager, there is a dashboard that allows him to, understand usage, and then we’re tailoring it in a way that meets the needs of the particular manager. So in some cases, maybe it’s. help with billing that’s required. but in other cases, it could be that they want to get updates on what’s going on so that they can plan ahead. so for example, to even know ahead of time that it looks like there’s a leak on your property. it’s something that now a follow up action can be taken on, or, you know, if you know that, Whoa, something’s going on with the delivery or because usage has increased and you need to know, take another action.
[00:33:43]Dan: [00:33:43] That makes a lot of sense. And so how does the pricing work? How do you charge for this?
[00:33:47] Kala: [00:33:47] It varies. Let’s say. So we charge for, in some cases, if it’s a more of a audit that’s being done versus continuous monitoring, you know, there’s a set fee for that. And then if it’s more longterm monitoring that happens. It depends on the number of sensors. So on average, you know, maybe a property managers spending, you know, 1000 to $2,000 a year with us on the range of services. I’ll just give that as a ballpark. it depends on the set of services that works for what the want to do with us.
[00:34:23]Dan: [00:34:23] That makes sense. Then that seems like it’s about the right price point, because obviously the ROI is probably pretty high in those cases. So where does the name’s SMAJI come from?
[00:34:33] Kala: [00:34:33] So it’s a guess based on its Swahili roots and Magi in Swahili means water. And then the S just means smart. So it’s a water intelligence or smart water.
[00:34:47] Dan: [00:34:47] Nice. That’s pretty straightforward. We will take another short break to hear from our sponsor and be right back with Dr. Kala Fleming from SMAJI.
[00:34:56] Founders Live: [00:34:56] Hi, this is Nick Hughes from founders live a growing global community of entrepreneurial inspiration, education, and entertainment. The founder’s live movement includes unforgettable livestreamed, happy hour pitch competitions held in over 50 cities worldwide. And the monthly events are coupled with a growing online platform where articles, videos, expert talks, technologies and tools together help create world-class entrepreneurs.
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[00:35:44] Dan: [00:35:46] So we’re back with Dr. Fleming from SMAJI. So Kala, where does SMAJI go from here? What’s your vision for the future for the company?
[00:35:56]Kala: [00:35:56] We want to grow the number of property managers that were, able to work with and influence. we also want to really grow our impact across schools and hospitals, so that the, the critical community infrastructure that just anchors how a group of people are able to live and be together.
[00:36:19] We also want to work much more closely with, you know, with those entities. And overall, the longterm vision is to get to a million properties that are under our management. and then I think that we, we’re thinking we see that making a big dent in how urban spaces are managed and, overall what quality of life looks like.
[00:36:41] Dan: [00:36:41] And so help us understand that a million properties, how big is that, are there 100 million properties? Are there 10 million properties that you would go after?
[00:36:50] Kala: [00:36:50] So if you look at, the 1 billion that exists across sub Sahara in Africa than 50% of 1 billion are in urban spaces. And that’s, you know, roughly the trend that increasingly it’s an urbanizing, you know, society. And then if you take, a fraction of that, assume that one in 10 is going to be a property manager and then take a fraction of that.
[00:37:14] So we, we’ve gotten to a point where we’ve estimated that there are roughly 50 million property managers, and so to now get to the point of having 1 million properties, let’s say in the next five years, it’s just scratching the surface.
[00:37:27]Dan: [00:37:27] And so how have you funded this? Or have you raised any money? Are you going to be raising any money?
[00:37:32]Kala: [00:37:32] so far to get to the point where we are at, we’ve bootstrapped and then of course, you know, had some paid customers so far. but the next step is to, have a pre-seed round of about 500,000, and we want that to be the next step in our growth to accelerate our efforts.
[00:37:51]Dan: [00:37:51] And have you started that raise yet or are you just getting started with that? And, is your entity, is it a US-based entity?
[00:38:00] Kala: [00:38:00] yes.
[00:38:01]Dan: [00:38:01] and you split time, I imagine going from Nairobi to the U S to other, places where you’re trying to get a foothold.
[00:38:11]Kala: [00:38:11] so we have our developer team is primarily based in Nairobi. And, we have pilots, well, the pilot that I mentioned, that’s, kicking off in Jamaica and, customers in, Nairobi. So my time is spent between. The U S Jamaica and Nairobi primarily. And then, you know, other trips for just, whether it’s to meet with potential funding partners or just, you know, for other, Are there engagement activities that talk about our work? You know, that happens as well throughout the year.
[00:38:46] Dan: [00:38:46] Well, that’s a lot of travel. which in this day and age is particularly now can be interesting for sure.
[00:38:52] Kala: [00:38:52] Yes. So we’ll see how the next few months, shape up. I’ve had a few, sort of meetings and, just other groups and fellowships that I’m a part of, sort of go digital, versus having in person meetings.
[00:39:08] Dan: [00:39:08] Yeah. So for those of you who are listening to this, sometime in the future, this is late winter, spring 20, 20, and there’s a global concern over the Corona virus and it’s spreading. And so it’s affecting businesses considerably.
[00:39:22] So let’s shift gears a little bit, Kala, and let’s talk about, as a woman founder, as a woman from, South African descent, Afro Caribbean. Do you feel that there are situations where that aspect of who you are and what you represent, is at the forefront, either in a positive way or in a challenging way?
[00:39:42]Kala: [00:39:42] so I think we’re in a climate that I think has benefited me. I think there’s maybe more awareness than ever about boosting the number of female tech entrepreneurs.
[00:39:57] So I’m finding, I guess a lot of, just spaces of affinity that have been quite, you know, helpful. Just because of it’s just top of mind and a lot of the discussions. but so separately though for how I think about, maybe my worldview and how I navigate, it’s one where I don’t hold a lot of preconceived notions about how somebody might think about me. because I, I feel as I’ve had just a range of lived experiences that, predispose me to thinking about just getting to know people one-on-one on their merits.
[00:40:34]Because I, I found, I have, I guess, in my set of experiences, something that’s contradictory from what the prevailing notion of, you know, I guess who’s good and who’s bad or who’s useful and who’s not. And so I don’t have a way other than, you know, when we meet, you give me your energy received.
[00:40:52] Hopefully it works. And if it doesn’t, then, you know, I got to move on to the next, cause there’s so many people who have been, I think amazing to me throughout my career , but I am very appreciative for the opportunities that I’ve had because there are just a lot of, very topical narratives about women race and all of that that have, I guess been tremendously helpful to me as I’ve been navigating the tech space.
[00:41:22] Dan: [00:41:22] So you find that uplifting?
[00:41:24]Kala: [00:41:24] Which part? The fact that there are these narratives or the fact that, well, to the extent that it means that maybe there are more people that are predisposed to lending a helping hand or just being open to offering advice to that extent, yes.
[00:41:41]Dan: [00:41:41] Are there specific, organizations, events, people you want to call out, or shout out, I guess, in terms of their impact on you?
[00:41:49] Kala: [00:41:49] Sure, sure. So one in particular is Founder Gym. so when I, left corporate America, and for the last six months before joining Founder Gym, I still had to figure out my tech entrepreneurship networking chops and really just understanding, you know, for the venture process.
[00:42:11] Like, what is it that, you know, investors are really looking for? What do they want to hear? What do they care about. And so, I feel as if, in terms of really getting a good grounding on understanding the game, you know, what is it , how do I need to be prepared and how do I just get to the point of addressing, what’s being required? I think that experience was, was really impactful and useful for me.
[00:42:36]Dan: [00:42:36] Founder Gym is an amazing experience from what I hear. and it’s spun up fast and it’s been really impactful, so that’s great to hear. How did you find Founder Gym or how did they find you?
[00:42:49] Kala: [00:42:49] You know, it’s funny, I came to Founder Gym because of, Afro tech marketing. So I remember being on Instagram, and then I saw something that looked like a tech event, but people were doing, like, they were just having crazy fun in a way that wasn’t typical for the spaces and the circles that I had been interacting with.
[00:43:10] So that just led to. A whole rabbit hole of like, well, what’s this about? And so then I think somehow through that, I think Mandela, was speaking. And then I came across her and then I thought, Oh wow, she’s amazing. You know, her whole vibe. And then I was like, well, let’s see what is she working on? And then I was like, huh, let me try this.
[00:43:33] So then it was Afro tech Mandela, her energy and vibe, and I’m like, I want to know these people. I want these people. That’d be my friends. And that, that was kind of it.
[00:43:41]Dan: [00:43:41] That’s great that, it can be organic like that. I think that’s one of the interesting things is that there’s this emerging Afro tech ecosystem that’s evolved and it makes it easy and accessible
[00:43:55] Kala: [00:43:55] I think it’s so unique though, and necessary because I mean there, there are bunch of different ways that people get interested in even understanding what this tech space is about. and sometimes I think for the way I’m, that the tech industry can look, it can feel as if maybe it’s not your thing or like maybe there isn’t really a space, for your skills and abilities. And so, I dunno if it’s just a cultural thing, but that kind of juice and energy and the vibe that Afro tech adds.
[00:44:29] But it’s necessary. It’s helpful, I think, for really promoting the inclusiveness and having more people even consider that, huh, okay. I see people who look like me who are doing what seems to be fun things, maybe, you know, and so I think they’ve probably helped quite a few people, even maybe we consider or just begin to explore in ways that they hadn’t before. you know, the whole tech space.
[00:44:52] Dan: [00:44:52] Yeah. I think, there’s been a traditional sense of it is welcome to all in and the surface, but yeah. But it hasn’t really felt that way, so I, I really, I’m really glad to hear that. I agree that, this, explicit Avenue that is more inviting, that shows, Hey, there’s people that are doing things that I can specifically relate to, that are experiments inspirational.
[00:45:19] Because I, believe entrepreneurship really has to be, just like anything else. I mean, you have to see people doing it and you have to be able to identify with that path and say, yeah, wow, they’re doing it. I know where they came from, or I know, you know, the origin story. And so that’s not too different from me and I can do it. And so I think it’s so important that these organizations are emerging and they’re being supported, out there.
[00:45:46]Kala: [00:45:46] Yeah. I mean, there can be, you know, a hundred people seeing similar things. But until you find one that just resonates, well, they don’t all resonate the same way. And so I think that’s ultimately why entrepreneurs always have a chance, because it does matter who says what, when and how. And there’s a niche that you probably are able to then carve out because there’s just something unique about how you’re able to, explain and expose that piece of thing or that unique insight that you found.
[00:46:21]Dan: [00:46:21] Have you been able to find mentors in the startup world?
[00:46:24] Kala: [00:46:24] So, you know, that’s interesting. in general, I have not been a person who does mentorship, the whole mentor thing very well, even in the corporate world. that’s one of the things that’s accessible to you or available to you. when you’re in a very big organization. And so I think I’m still figuring out how best that that should work.
[00:46:47]I do have individuals who are maybe trusted advisors to, bounce things off of. whether it’s about. Culture, Africa or maybe, specific tech kinds of things. in terms of overarching business mentors, I guess that’s still a gap. and I think part of it though is that I’m still thinking about how to approach that.
[00:47:09] Dan: [00:47:09] Oh, sure, I tend to echo some of that same sentiment. I think it’s an interesting thing to move through life in this pursuit of whether it’s academic or more business or however you want to find success in that excellence where you’re sort of doing it on your own and taking tips, taking instruction, taking some inputs.
[00:47:31] But how do you transform that into a place where you can take in ideas and perspectives from other folks.
[00:47:40]Kala: [00:47:40] Yeah. And what is the best setup for that? but I think, for me, I think what’s been, very good or, the thing that I thirst for is just to be able to be among likeminded people.
[00:47:53] that was the other thing with, Founder Gym that was so cool. Is that you’re in the huddle with, just a bunch of people that are cool and you really like them. And then you’re all at a stage where you have struggles that are similar or just things that you’re trying to figure out that are similar.
[00:48:09] And so sometimes you have some people asking questions that you do and think about asking you like, Oh, I need to think about that as well. And then separate from that, being able to now access, others who have depth in a particular area, whether it’s a lawyer or just someone who’s been through multiple funding rounds who can advise you on literally do this, do that, like that. That kind of network is invaluable to have. And that’s what I’m still building for myself.
[00:48:37] Dan: [00:48:38] Makes sense. So if you are going to be Dr. Kala Fleming of today and mentor Dr. Kala Fleming of say, I don’t know, eight or nine years ago when you were at IBM and you’re going to instruct her on, here’s what you need to look out for, here’s what you need to do to be an entrepreneur. What kind of advice would you give her?
[00:49:01] Kala: [00:49:01] Yeah, that’s a good question. I know one of the things that wish I gotten into earlier is maybe thinking about the whole angel investing world and I’m getting my feet. Wet with that. So, that’s one thing that I think would have been quite helpful.
[00:49:22] Dan: [00:49:22] I mean, to be an investor or to just be exposed to people who are investors,
[00:49:27] Kala: [00:49:27] both, because, well, you said nine years ago.
[00:49:34] Right, right. Because there were like several, you know, versions, right? There’s sort of the policy phase, and then there’s sort of a little starstruck tech, you know, phase environment. Then, you know, sort of the pragmatic, you know, technology stuff, but ultimately, I think I always want to be the network builder person and I think I’m still learning how to be better at that part every day. and so one of the things that I did notice is that, so when you’re with a large organization, you know, like IBM, your networking skills, you don’t have to hone them as much.
[00:50:12] Because it’s almost built in for you. we were doing things that were so interesting in Kenya that you didn’t have to work at building a network. People just wanted to get to know you and then you already just had.
[00:50:24] You know? So your networks got built for you. You didn’t have to really try very hard. So even if you want a good networker, then by magic it just kind of happened. so it’s been very interesting to really think about literally, you know, the process that, an entrepreneur has to go to, to meet the investors that are interested in their business to study the different funds and the thesis that they have, you know, to have warm intros and all that.
[00:50:50] You know, that whole sort of, that’s a, it’s a new muscle. it’s been very interesting to think about. I’m never having to really tap that per se before because it just wasn’t what you were focused on.
[00:51:01]Dan: [00:51:01] Well said. So we’re coming to the end of our time, Kala, but before we go, can you let our audience know how, can they find out more information about SMAJI? Maybe get in touch with you if they have, interested in talking to you more about what you’re working on.
[00:51:15]Kala: [00:51:15] I’m on. Socials, but I am very receptive to email, so I don’t know if you want me to give my email address. Yeah, , so Kala@diasporaai.com you can send an email, but I’m also on LinkedIn. I’m also on Instagram and Twitter. So just, just give me a shout.
[00:51:32] Dan: [00:51:32] And is there a URL or anything for the company yet?
[00:51:36] Kala: [00:51:36] Oh, sure. So you can go to www.smaji.ai to see what we’re doing, and then we post updates across our socials quite regularly.
[00:51:48] Dan: [00:51:48] Outstanding. Well, this has been so much fun. I appreciate your time.
[00:51:51] Thank you so much, Kala.
[00:51:53] Kala: [00:51:53] Thank you so much for having me. This was fun.
[00:51:55]Dan: [00:51:55] Thanks so much for listening to the show. We’d like to take our guests, Dr. Kala Fleming and our sponsor Founders Live. Don’t forget to subscribe wherever you listen to podcasts and follow us on Twitter and Instagram @foundersunfound. This podcast was produced by Dan Kihanya. Our music was composed by Paul Mitchell Beebe, Bobby Cole, Patrick Smith, Frederik Storm, Michael Vignola, and Justin Wright.
[00:52:20] I am Dan Kihanya. And you’ve been listening to Founders Unfound
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