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Pepeza – disrupting the noticeboard

Noticeboards are so yesterday in a world where you can order food using your phone and have it delivered by someone on a bike.

Betting is big in Kenya. So big, in fact, that when a centre for university students at which I usually help out wanted to raise money for new chairs for its study room back in 2014, it came up with a modified version of betting. It was the year of the World Cup, and guys were offered the chance of winning a big prize for predicting the scores of more games than their friends.

To participate, each person would part with a certain amount.  Because they are Kenyans, so many guys signed up for the competition, it became impossible to track their progress using pen and paper. There were errors all the time and, constantly, the possibility of conflict among disgruntled participants. This is where Felix Andego came in. Hold it! I am well aware you don’t know who Felix Andego is. Let me introduce him through his work, because he solved our problem.

He built a simple website, hosted it on a subdomain of the website of a small web-design firm he had started with his friend, and allowed participants in the competition to key in their predictions before the games. He devised algorithms which worked in the background and updated the website with the relative positions of the participants in real time, so that everybody could openly track everybody else’s progress.

So good was the app that, when the World Cup ended and it spat out the name of the winner, nobody disputed the result (although, to me, the greatest source of credibility for the result was the fact that Felix himself didn’t win; he didn’t tweak the system to give himself an unfair advantage).

And the chairs that were bought with the money raised? I’m sitting on one of them as I write this. Felix Andego was a hero, but when the award had been given and guys had celebrated Germany, he went back to class, because he was also a student of Computer Science at Jomo Kenyatta University of Science and Technology (JKUAT).

Then a few weeks ago, as I was busy staring at my laptop’s screen, wondering what to write, I got this phone call from Felix Andego. He wanted me to write about his new baby, an app he has been working on since last year with some friends. I didn’t take time to say yes. Because, how else do you respond to the guy who “bought” the chair on which you are sitting if he asks you for a favour?

When we met, he introduced me to Pepeza. It’s an app he says will replace the traditional noticeboard. Because noticeboards are so yesterday in a world where you can order food using your phone and have it delivered by someone on a bike. You know it’s true. Sure, noticeboards are put in the most accessible places within institutions. But therein lies the problem; they are in places. And their target audiences are in other places.

This means a guy in the target audience has to somehow know a notice has been posted on a noticeboard of which he is the target, rise from his phone-ordered food, walk to the noticeboard, hunt through a million notices piled on top of one another (99% of which are already outdated but have not been removed by the guys who posted them because they are lazy), find the notice he magically knew was there, stand there for minutes to read it and, if he needs to refer to it later, take a photo of it.

Of course, this never happens. Our guy never leaves his phone-ordered food. No one ever sees the notices on a noticeboard. Yet the fact that noticeboards exist means that organisations have information to share; it’s the process that comes in the way. What Felix aims to do with Pepeza is to dispense with the process. Because our guy would eventually take a photo of the notice if it’s of interest to him, Felix wants him to keep munching on his phone-ordered food (as he would still do anyway) and have the notice delivered to his phone by Pepeza.

It sounds like a simple idea, but it has immense potential. In the app, organisations have virtual noticeboards which the people interested in them can follow. Then, when the organisation posts a notice to the noticeboard, the followers get an instant notification on their phones and/or (in the near future) through email. Because the notice is thus delivered directly to the target audience, the likelihood that it will be seen, and in good time, is much higher than if it was posted on a physical noticeboard that the target has to walk to.

Felix told me he came up with the idea for a class project and created a prototype with fellow members of his project group. Then, once the marks were in, they shelved it and went on doing academically important stuff. But when someone suggested that the idea could have more merit than they gave it, he resurrected the project, registered it as a company and, with his friend and co-founder Ngugi Ndung’u, presented it at the Tokyo International Conference of African Development (TICAD) IV pre-event which was held at JKUAT on 26th August 2016.

That’s where the unexpected happened. They received the top innovation award at the event, beating many other teams from around the continent. For Felix, that was the validation he needed to open the throttle on the project.

Felix and Ngugi (kampusville.com)

In January, they ended the beta-programme and launched the product. At the moment, Pepeza consists of a mobile app for Android and Windows-phone, as well as a web app, all running on the same back-end (he explained what this means, but I won’t bore you with the details; just know it works very well). They are constantly adding more features to improve it. It is a free service, for now, but Felix envisions one day charging organisations to use some features. The money for servers and food has to come from somewhere, you know. But it will remain free for the audience, forever.

Almost 500 people have joined Pepeza as I write this; mostly schoolmates of Felix who follow a noticeboard Felix and his co-founder created for their university — because the university didn’t want to do it just yet. More are joining every day. Felix says he looks forward to the day when the numbers will convince the university that it is missing out on a large, easy to reach audience. And he envisions a day when the space now used for noticeboards will be used to display artwork… OK, he didn’t tell me this, but that’s what his app will do if he convinces enough people to use it.

Felix is now in his fourth-year, his last in university. His final exams are mere days away now, so much of his focus is naturally on showing those papers who’s boss. Then, when they have been handled, he says he will have only this project to focus on. He wants to make it work, and he believes it will. And would be wrong to call me mad if I say I believe it will too. Because I have seen what the app can do.

Note: In the interest of full disclosure, I must state that Felix did not pay me to write this article. You could argue that he helped pay for the chair I am sitting on but… whatever man, Pepeza is a killer product whether I write about it or not.

Feature image: Pepeza.

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