💡 Founder Spotlight: David Akinin
This week is Cloudflare's Founder Spotlight on Cloudflare TV, featuring dozens entrepreneurs from across the tech industry and beyond!
This session features David Akinin, founder and CEO of JABU, Southern Africa’s fastest growing e-commerce for small retailers. JABU is powering the way in which shop-owners order, source and stock their products, and executing thelast-mile of distribution for FMCG brands.
Visit the Founder Spotlight hub to find the rest of these featured conversations — and tune in all week for more!
And we're live. Hey, everyone. My name is Matthew Shimizu, and I'm one of the Customer Success Managers here at Cloudflare.
And today I'm joined by a really, really special guest, and coming up, a really big fan of David Akinin.
David comes to us from Southern Africa.
He is a really big entrepreneur out there that's changing lives, whether it be sending shoes to Africa, building homes and communities out in Africa, or conquering last-mile distribution today, Bojabu.
I'm really excited to have David here and to talk about his story. David, thank you so much for being here.
How are you doing? Yeah, this is very exciting. Thank you so much.
We're literally very far apart. I think it's one of the farthest points we could be speaking from.
I'm in Southern Africa, in Namibia, and you are in South Francisco.
Absolutely. Most definitely. But we're here today on a Zoom call somehow, and it's incredible.
So thank you so much for being here with us. I'm loving the hat, loving the jacket.
Very on-brand with Bojabu. I love it. Trying my best.
So to kick things off, David, today we're highlighting founders. We're having a segment called Founders Spotlight.
So perhaps to kick things off, I'd love to hear about why you decided to pursue entrepreneurship.
So I started out my career, I spent two years at Google and four years in banking at Credit Suisse in New York.
And these were amazing places to learn how money works, to learn about corporate, to engage with people, to know how to professionally write an email.
But there was always something in me saying that I wanted to have an impact in my work.
And you can have a lot of impact in life personally, but to choose a work of impact means that you have to really pick a mission and then from that mission, try to build a business around it.
And I think that's what entrepreneurship is. It's a business with a mission.
I think all entrepreneurship has a social impact. Some people think of social impact as only charitable process, but whatever you do, whether you have a car wash or you are having running a kindergarten or building homes, there is a social impact in what you do.
And I spent my four years in banking traveling to the African continent.
So I went to Nigeria was my first trip.
I was 22 years old and I came back to the bank and I could never sit in my chair again.
I just felt blood flowing in a different way when I was in Nigeria. And when I came back, it was like tamed down and I knew I had to go pursue that again.
And I kept traveling around. Eventually I came across Namibia. I found one specific opportunity that I thought was worth pursuing and the rest is history.
I'm here still eight, nine years. I love it. I love it. And also bring it back to you.
Like, so as an investment banking, you're traveling to Africa, had exposure to Africa there and then came back to the States too.
I know you also founded a company called Sending Shoes to Africa as well.
So I know you have a lot of connection to the continent there.
Talk a little about that project. Maybe I'll give you a bit of background.
So my mom is Moroccan and my dad is Spanish and I was born in Venezuela in South America.
I think a lot of people are probably watching this by now have heard of the Venezuelan diaspora, right?
We're like six, 7 million people who've left our country in the last 10 years, but we left a long time before.
My brothers and I were kidnapped growing up in Caracas. And at the age of 13, we, my parents, when I was 13, my parents decided to leave the country.
We were four brothers and we moved to Miami. So I grew up in Miami. I came from a very small private school in Venezuela to a very large public school in Miami with like 4,000 students, a huge diversity.
Not everyone spoke Spanish, obviously.
And it was an amazing opportunity to like get immersed into the public school system, which really gives a lot of opportunities and you can make the best of it.
That's when I started Shoes for Africa. I wanted to, I took a class at a dual enrollment course at a local university.
My professor was African and I thought, Hey, maybe they can help fix some of the problems I'm seeing from far away.
And America makes you feel that you can do whatever you want.
And I just started collecting shoes.
I told everyone I'm going to send them to Africa. The truth is I had no idea how to do it.
My parents were super pissed. My mother was like, what are you doing?
And I co-founded this with a friend, Joel Wismitzer. And we just worked our butts off to make sure we collected a ton of shoes so that eventually we would find a way to do it because we were accountable to so many people, right?
I mean, we had 6,000 pairs to send. So that was my first interaction with the continent.
I think my trips to Africa when I was an investment banker were vacation trips, by the way, my bank did not work in Africa.
So I, when I had a vacation, I would actually fly on my free time and like try to see what are people doing.
And I had like a little formula. It was, I would meet an accountant. I would meet a lawyer.
I would try to go to a municipality. I will take a trip to two or three supermarkets and see how people buy stuff and what prices look like.
And I would then get a good feeling for like, is this a place where I could build something?
And what are the opportunities around the ecosystem that I've noticed? Yeah.
And years of looking eventually made me, made me kick something off and take, take a leap of faith.
I love that. I love that so much. And if I recall from, from past interviews that you've done that you decided, you know, going to the grocery store, and if I recall, it was your father's idea, you know, to take pictures of the, you know, the items in which you would buy, you know, had you been, you know, a part of that community and to, you know, add everything up and to see how much that would cost and, you know, to interview the store clerks and, you know, the people that were stocking the shelves and to see really, you know, if they could afford to, you know, buy the products that were on their shelves.
And, you know, I would love to just kind of hear as now a business owner, you know, how you're able to, you know, carry that forward and, you know, making sure that, you know, you're doing right by your community.
A hundred percent. So to your point, anyone watching this, you'd land in a country you've never been to, a city you've never been to, and you want to understand the context of that place, walk into a supermarket, go look at how much a bottle of milk costs, how much a loaf of bread costs, and have the courage to ask the cashier, how much do you make?
And try to sum it up, try to find out, does the average basket, you know, the family's basket of a monthly purchase of what you would have bought where you come from, could that person afford it?
But today, I started a company about eight, nine years ago called Ateno Developments.
It's a construction business. We build housing, affordable housing in very small towns.
Very exciting how I came to that and how it came to be. From another context, we run a tech startup that is in growth stage right now called Jabu, the brand I'm repping today.
And Jabu is a last mile distribution business for the informal sector.
And I'll tell you a little bit more about that. But to your point, when I started the construction company, which is the original thing that I started moving, I didn't know how much to pay a plumber, an electrician, a builder.
I was trying to figure stuff out. And I burned my fingers and my wallet trying to get to the right price.
But today, when I fly to a new market trying to understand, oh, can we do this here?
The perspective is completely different.
I flew to Rwanda, to give you some context. Like, I'm based in Namibia. We have operations in Zambia.
We do some stuff in South Africa, Botswana. We're in the Southern African continent.
Like, we're in this bottom part of the continent.
Rwanda is kind of like in the middle. And a lot of the tech community says Rwanda is the future.
That's where money is. I was on a plane to Rwanda in 2017.
Beautiful country. Everyone's happy. First thing I did is went to supermarket. Second thing I did is I went to a construction site.
And I asked a builder that was working there, how much do you make?
He made four times less than any of my builders made in a country no one's talking about being the future.
And that was one of the main things that drove me to decide we're not building a company here.
Because we have to build companies around communities that are sustaining themselves.
And I think if you're not part of that equation of that solution, you're part of the problem.
And inequality is the biggest driver of hunger. And hunger is the biggest driver of crime, and lack of education.
And when you don't have education, you don't have a future.
So to build a real society, you need to put your part.
And I think as entrepreneurs, we have a responsibility to make sure families are able to feed their kids, so they can go to school and you can build a stronger economy.
Well, I think that I wish, I truly do wish more founders thought the way you do, with regards to that.
And, you know, you bring up the sense of, you know, building communities, right?
And this idea of habitat, right? So not just a home, but you know, an area where communities can gather, and people can, you know, really be the best versions of themselves.
You know, I'm curious, you know, when you first got to Namibia, right?
What inspired you to go into becoming a housing contractor?
I mean, that's huge. And you're changing people's lives by providing homes and schools and, you know, clinics.
What inspired you to pursue that?
The truth is, is I made a mistake. I thought I was pursuing something else.
And then I pivoted. I, when I first came to Namibia, one of the things I used to do was open the newspaper.
Like this is something I learned when I was at Credit Suisse, they sent me to South America.
You know, when you're reading the New York Times, everything you're reading was already published online, and acted on and traded on in the stock market.
When you read the newspaper in a developing world, in a developing country, you're finding out at the same time as the CFO of that company, something that was written about them.
And it's a real medium of communication still remains newspaper.
When I first came to Namibia, every page you looked at, talked about housing demand, housing demand, housing demand.
It was an obvious thing, there was an housing demand. The second thing I found was, Namibia is about 31 years old now, when I came here, I was 24.
So Namibia was about 24.
I'm the same age, we were born five days apart, the country. And yeah, and when I first came to Namibia, I realized that the thing I found that drove me to come do this was that teachers, nurses, police officers, civil servants, people who worked for government at the federal level, have a 70% subsidy of their mortgage payment.
So I said, hats off, let's go build this thing. I moved to Namibia, I built a mortgage startup, like a fintech, something very similar to Banner.com called Fundroof.
I raised a million bucks, I convinced investors this was going to work, and then came crashing really quickly.
I had registered 1000 people to give them mortgages, I had the funding to go do it, I was excited to get started.
But here's the problem, there was no houses to mortgage. So I thought because I found the subsidy on the demand, and that people were saying we need housing, that if I gave mortgages, it would work.
But what I didn't realize is that opportunities sometimes are on the flip side of where you see them.
And I had some money that I had raised and an idea that had failed because I couldn't fund it.
And I just decided, well, for God's sake, let's just start building. So I made a lot of mistakes the first year, this was 2014.
I took off my suit, I moved to a construction site, and I tried to figure out how do I hire plumbers, how do I buy materials.
And it really was a Lego process. Anyone who wants to be a builder, if you put enough time into it, you will figure it out.
And that's how it all started.
The road wasn't easy, made a lot of mistakes on structuring, on hiring, on developing, on grabbing opportunities when they presented themselves.
But I think consistency and good ethics is really what will always keep you growing as long as you stay true.
And it's helped me look at new opportunities. The mortgage company exists now, the one that originally was the idea, and it does some of that work.
And I'm spending 100% of my time on Jabu, which we are busy working on distribution to the very informal communities where you have little stores that are not being serviced by suppliers or supermarkets, and we're helping them order and stock their products on a B2B basis.
We're enabling tech, and we're really just pushing in that realm right now.
That's sick. And tell me a little more about your work with Jabu too, then.
I know you guys are bringing the technology there, you guys are working on that last mile.
If I'm looking at the informal communities, it's the idea of, for example, if you're in a town and you have a lot of eggs, for example, you can set up a little shop in front of your house and sell the eggs.
Or let's say you are interested in selling milk.
Before Jabu, what you may have to do is to drive two hours or perhaps take a taxi to the city center to buy the milk before going back to your home and your shop to sell it.
Tell me a little more about how Jabu solves that problem so that people aren't having to spend precious time away from their shops and can instead focus on selling.
100%. You've described the pain point of thousands of mini shops that we service daily.
I think it would serve a lot of people listening to this that have never thought about mini markets in an informal sector to understand what that is.
Namibia, as a previous colony of the German Empire and the British Empire, suffered from obviously a lot of discrimination and people of color, who are the vast majority of the country's population, were also not allowed to enter cities, work in cities, live in cities, have access to water, electricity, even property ownership until 1990.
And this was the same context for previously known Rhodesia, which is now other countries in Southern Africa, as well as South Africa.
And what apartheid meant was that people didn't have the rights to access this, but it also meant from a commercial perspective that supermarkets, banks, service providers didn't establish themselves in the periphery of the city where most people started living based on these restrictions.
Independence came 31 years ago and the countries made amazing strides in actually improving access to services, roads, water, electricity.
On my end, I thought housing was the initial thing, so I got into education, clinics.
But when you start thinking about it, there is not even a broken supply chain.
Where I come from in Latin America, Bimbo, FEMSA, you name it, every supplier you can think of will deliver to the small corner shops.
And there are some tech startups getting into last mile distribution.
But when you see what's happening in Southeast Asia and in China, where there is a lot of last mile distribution going to previously inexistent businesses, that's where a lot of the inspiration comes from.
So what we did is we created a way for small shops, thousands of them.
There's literally one shop every three houses because people become small entrepreneurs in their backyard, in these little shacks that are very informal structures.
There's no supermarkets nearby.
As you mentioned, they have to go take a taxi, buy it at a shop, come back, sell it at more expensive than retail prices.
Because if you buy this juice to resell in your community and you buy it in a supermarket and you want to resell it, you pay tax and you spend four hours, you're going to charge people 20 to 30% more than what they paid or you paid for it now to resell it.
So you've got the bottom of the pyramid, the lowest income of the population paying more than Matthew or David would be paying actually being on the shelves of these supermarkets.
So the first problem we're solving is literally just allowing them to find a digital approach to ordering and stocking their products immediately.
We are vertically integrated.
We own the supply chain, the trucks, the warehousing and all the tech.
We are a tech startup. We were on Y Combinator's batch this summer.
Our team's grown massively. Our revenue has grown like 35 times this year from where we were in April to where we are recently.
We have about 200 people in our team.
We've expanded to Zambia. We're in five cities in Namibia. And I think now it's an amazing pivoting space because the problem we were solving from a supply chain perspective has now expanded to banking services.
So how do you deposit and withdraw money if there's no bank near you?
Well, don't go to the bank and take a taxi.
A small shop can now start offering these services and you can start getting onboarded into the JABU wallet.
How do you pay for your TV license, which gets turned off unless you normally pay it, which you would have to go do it at a supermarket?
Well, now small JABU shops start integrating this idea that they're going to be receiving your monthly payments for this.
So I think we're becoming a brand for the community within it.
My vision is that one day we will be offering construction services.
You need to build houses. You need raw materials. A lot of the experiences I've had over the last decade are starting to come into fruition into this ecosystem of how do we bring things closer to you and with dignity.
I think that's the main thing.
Oh, yeah, absolutely. And I love how you're already thinking about how you can tie in potentially a ton of new developments with JABU as well and bring it in.
For example, you're just bringing things closer to you so that people can really just, whether it be running their business or spending time with their family instead of spending time in a taxi, really that's going to be changing lives for so many people.
And looking at gojabu.com, I recognize that if these shop owners were to order before 12 p.m., they're able to get, if I recall, same day delivery too, which is wicked fast.
It's not only wicked fast, but our operations team hates it, but they understand the importance of it.
But yeah, I mean, people talk about in New York or San Francisco, 15-minute delivery guarantee.
Like I don't think we will ever get there. It takes more than 15 minutes to like leave our warehouse and much less 30 to 40 minutes to get to some of the points we deliver in, which are highly informal.
But I think this idea that JIT, which is a concept in distribution called just in time, that you don't have to stock product for three weeks in advance.
You can order and have enough for the next couple of days and manage your cash flow better.
I think it's one of the biggest tools of development is helping people move their cash flow faster.
And so working with all these small shops, obviously there's going to be a lot of food and different drinks.
What would you say is your favorite thing if we were to go to Namibia?
What should we try if we were to go to one of these informal shops?
So I think something, well, it depends. If you're a little bit more risk taking, go try their food.
Something that's very famous here. Like when people ask me, what's my favorite food, I say dim sum, which no one knows in Namibia.
Like dim sum is like San Francisco staple, you know, like you could probably get it at 7 -Eleven these days.
I don't know. But in Namibia, people eat something called PAP, P-A-P.
And PAP is, you know, it's a very humble food. It's very basic staple. It's maize meal, boiled, and they turn it into something that looks like a puree.
And it's on everyone's dish every day.
And you'd be surprised, as basic as it sounds, how many people I ask, hey, what's your favorite food?
And they say PAP. And I'm like, maize meal?
You just want like some maize mixed into water and boiled up into a puree?
That's your favorite? And I think culturally, a lot of people would say that that's what they grew up with.
And that reminds them of happiness and a full stomach.
So I think if you come down here, don't forget to try PAP. That sounds lovely.
And I assume I could find PAP at some of these informal shops as well then. Yeah, people are cooking.
That's one of the most amazing things is that these informal shops are mini restaurants, mini bars, mini shops.
And I think it's, if you don't find it in one shop, you turn around, look around, and you'll find someone cooking it up.
That is fantastic. I love this. What do you say like the main ingredients that people are purchasing them from Dabu are, you know, ingredients to perhaps like to make PAP, would you say?
Yeah, surprisingly, this is something I haven't been really willing to try.
So for those of you who are even higher risk takers, one of the main ingredients Dabu distributes today is sugar.
And you would think like, oh, are people just like throwing sugar everywhere on their food?
And it's not.
There's a lot of traditional drinks that are made at shops and at bars and at places of gathering that are made by fermenting sugar and putting sugar into the water and making some sort of traditional drink that is more affordable.
And I think it's a strong replacement for the likes of Coca Colas and beers and juices that are quite unaffordable to the vast majority of the population.
So even though we do sell maize meal and pasta and, you know, drinks and all sorts of stuff, sugar is a big thing.
And you'd find shops buying 10 kilograms of sugar at a time so they can make their own drink and resell it.
And that's real entrepreneurship.
It's risky entrepreneurship. I'm pretty sure you'd get drunk if you try it.
It's fermented sugar. That's fantastic. And you bring up a really good point, a nice segue.
You talk about being a risk taker and whether it be trying food or starting a business, it all starts with taking that risk, too.
So bringing it back to entrepreneurship, I know in the past you've spoken at length about the idea of accountability and how important it is to be accountable for the actions that you do and, you know, have that pressure of a community, you know, counting on you or even just one person counting on you, you know, to make all the difference.
You know, we'd love to hear from you a little bit more about that if you could speak to it.
Yeah, I mean, I think I was very lucky at an early age. This is probably a concept I learned from my parents, both my father and my mother, the idea of accountability.
I'm not even sure if there's a word for it in Spanish. I think it would be responsabilidad, which is, you know, the idea of having responsibility towards something.
But accountability is such an amazing word in English.
It talks about the fact that you owe it to everyone. It's not just about the duty to do right, but that you've now created a debt to others.
And I think it was a tool that I discovered early in order to get things done, right?
Like when I spoke about the shoe project that I did with my friend, we had no idea how to send those shoes.
But we told everyone they're going to West Africa and we're going to figure it out.
And once people gives you a pair of shoes or 100 pairs of shoes, you're now accountable to them.
You've now created a sense of responsibility and everyone's going to find out what happened.
Did you send it? Did you not send it?
They're going to pursue you. They're going to check you. So I think I've always exposed myself to a sense of accountability in order to push myself to do something.
So when I knew I wanted to move to Africa to start a company, I told everyone in my team at Credit Suisse, I'm moving to Africa in a couple of years to start a company.
And I kid you not, every week I would have someone say, hey, how are your Africa plans coming?
It doesn't matter whether I changed my mind, whether I cooled off or whether the idea was bad.
I now was accountable to my word. I had told everyone it was important to me to do it.
So I think it could be as light or as deep as you want to take it.
It is when you speak up and you assign a task to yourself and you tell people, I'm going to go do this.
If you tell your mother, I'm going to make the table tonight, she goes out to the supermarket and you come back, table's not made and you have guests arriving at the same time as her, you've let her down and she'll figure it out and things will happen.
But she'll remember like you told me you would do this and you didn't.
And it can be in a basic task at home growing up all the way to the point of you're running a company and you tell your team salaries will be paid at the end of the month, you can count on it.
And if you pay salaries two days late, people are counting on it and you've let them down.
So I think it's a lot about setting goals and benchmarks and being outspoken about the things you want to get done, even though you're not sure you can.
And that serves as a tool, I believe, to help you accomplish it.
And some people may disagree.
They may say, oh, that's crazy. You're putting too much pressure on yourself.
Or what if you don't get them done? You will disappoint others. But that's the risk you take when you become accountable and you learn by not over promising, but rather over overperforming to the things that you commit to.
And accountability is so important, especially in the work that you do.
And now, you know, you know, overseeing hundreds of people, you know, what would you say is, you know, I suppose the biggest thing that you've learned through this process of, you know, obviously, you know, not only hiring people, but training people and, you know, having people, you know, look up to you and to hold you accountable as an entrepreneur, what would you say is, you know, what are some things that you've learned and through the process?
Sure, that's an interesting question. I'm sure tomorrow I'll have a different answer because it's all circumstantial.
You mentioned at the beginning of this that you're in customer success, right?
We created a customer success team.
I don't think any supermarket or wholesaler has that in Southern Africa.
We have over 20 people working in customer success today to just answer the phone, respond to a text message, get on the app and provide service.
I think what I've learned that is really important as an entrepreneur is every voice counts.
And it's not like it counts for your customers, but also for your team.
And when you don't make it count and when you don't give it the attention of the search, it's chaotic.
It actually disrupts performance. And I've been victim to failing at that as a manager many times.
And I try to learn from it on every instance because it comes in different shapes and forms.
Like you don't always see a voice as a voice, but sometimes it's a text message.
Sometimes it's an email.
Sometimes it's a lack of someone's performance. That's the voice. That's the voice telling you, I'm not happy.
I'm not listened to. We grew very quickly now.
Like we were, I don't know, 20 people in March, April, like we're 10 X that amount of people at the end of the year.
I'm not even sure I've fully met everyone that maybe might have been hired in the last week.
And that's on me to go figure it out from an operations perspective.
But what I can tell you is I had an awakening moment when five or six of the original blue collar employees who claim they're founders, right?
Like they're founding members. They're people who were there with me at a very early stage, even if it was a driver, came once close to room door and said, if you're not listening to us about the problems we have now that we're hundreds of people, like we will not work.
And the head of HR at the time said like, hey, listen, you need to speak to me.
I'm the head of HR. You don't have to find the CEO.
Like what is the issue? Said, no, we have a relationship from day one with this guy.
Like our problem has to be fixed through him, not through you.
And I think obviously that's not the right approach on their behalf because it was an HR issue that they wanted to understand how we grew so quick and they were not all the CFOs, CEOs of the company and rather what is their way of growth?
And I think communication is so important. What I had to do to fix that was learn that when we have roles that are opening up, not just go external, but go internal first.
Like I don't even know what we, I didn't even know about some of the roles that had opened up and they were already going out, you know?
So how do we communicate about the onboarding of people and how do we keep everyone happy?
And that's an impossible task.
I will tell you all your clients happy, all your employees happy, but that you have the intent that you have the processes of to listen is something I am working extensively on that I am learning as never before and that I paying a lot of attention to others.
If there's anyone listening who has ideas, I'd love to hear them, but always trying to figure out how do we better our service, not only to our customers, but how do we create an employee success team?
And that's, we've just hired Marta.
She's our head of people and culture. We're trying to build a team around her and really trying to pay as much attention internally as externally, because the image we build internally will eventually be the image everyone knows.
And I think that's, we want to create a good workplace, a happy workplace, one that people feel like they can grow and they can sustain their families, but also that they can collaborate with others, regardless of their race, their ethnicity, their work-life balance, that there is just a line to communicate.
And when you're not happy that you can express that in a way that can be constructed, even if it doesn't solve the problem.
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