Kenya’s Top innovator Creates First USB Cable Disrupting Foreign Domination
Anthony Muthungu, 29, has inadvertently and indelibly inked his name to the hallowed corridors of Kenya’s manufacturing terrain after becoming the first Kenyan to manufacture USB cables, disrupting aeon years of a monopolistic chokehold enjoyed by foreign firms in the sector.
This milestone by a vicenarian is understandable when it’s borne that Kenya bears the enviable moniker of being Africa’s “Silicon Savannah,” including being the second-best innovation hub in Sub-Saharan Africa, according to the Global Innovation Index (2021) report with South Africa heading the pack.
“ India, Kenya, the Republic of Moldova, and Viet Nam hold the record for overperforming on innovation relative to their level of development for the 11th year in a row,” partially reads the report.
Muthungu, a computer engineering degree holder from Zetech University – a local institution whose innate genesis also can be traced to a daring local entrepreneur– has arguably become the first African drawn from within the East and Central Africa region to manufacture USB cables – that from a quality point of view – can stand toe to toe with their imported peers.
To prove his burgeoning outlier pedigree this pathfinder was in 2019 feted as being one of the top 40 entrepreneurs in Kenya aged below 40 by the local Business Daily newspaper brand.
Two years later he was shortlisted for the Kenya-South Africa Chamber of Business award, a continental jamboree that shines the spotlight on entrepreneurial excellence.
According to the Association of Countrywide Innovation Hubs- a Kenyan focal point representing 17 counties out of a possible 47 whose objective is to support and build sustainable businesses and startups across Kenyan counties, Kenyan tech
start-ups topped the continent as they raised an impressive Ksh 21.4 Billion (US$ 177,593,359.14) of funding in 2020, underlining the alluring nature for local companies to thrive.
This level of funding is attributable to a socio-professional environment that is conducive to work notwithstanding Kenya’s unregulated start-up ecosystem.
Whereas countries like South Africa, Tunisia, Senegal, and Nigeria have pegged regulatory policies to govern start-ups, Kenya has no government policy that caters to the sector.
But in 2021 the country took baby steps towards reorganizing the sector by sponsoring a start-Up Bill, 2021 which seeks to govern the interactions and relationships between start-ups, the government, investors, incubators, and ultimately consumers.
“Efforts have been made to create an enabling environment for local innovation to thrive. For instance, through the Science, Technology, and Innovation Act, of 2013 the Kenya National Innovation Agency ( KeNIA) was established to coordinate innovation efforts in the country.
Some include offering linkages to investors, creating and disseminating guidelines on commercialization, among other roles,” says George Masila, communications manager, KeNIA.
Based in Kirinyaga County, a rural and agricultural-rich enclave found in Central Kenya, 136 km South of Nairobi, Muthungu’s two-year-old TOTOSCI holdings limited, which produces
between 300 to 500 USB cables daily, owes its existence to an unlikely occurrence.
In 2020 after completion of an undergrad degree, he opted to pursue an entrepreneurial career rather than seek formal employment believing fortune favored the brave and registered TotoSci Academy – a mobile school that taught science, technology, engineering, and arts to children aged between 4-17 years.
The name TotoSci is derived from two words -Toto stands for a child in the Kiswahili dialect, the highly spoken language within the East Africa region, while Sci is an abbreviation for Science.
And as is normal in the capricious world of entrepreneurship the school was shuttered after the global Covid-19 epidemic set foot in Kenya on 12 March 2020.
Housebound and with no work to do, his restless entrepreneurial spirit stirred him to design a ventilator. Then one day while transferring research data from his phone to a laptop he hit a snag.
“ At my house, I had six USB cables and none was working. I thought I was probably jinxed. But coincidentally I discovered my friends too were facing a similar challenge. I then opted to buy their faulty cables at Ksh10 (US $ 0.083) per piece and within a fortnight I had 7,000 cables, which I dismantled hoping to discover what the problem was. What I discovered was the USBs were of low quality,” says Muthungu who initially wanted to become an army officer.
“ If you ask me why I wanted to join the army, I cannot tell you why. Even when I was already engaged in innovation, I tried three times before giving up in 2013, 2014, and 2015. In all of these competitions, running was a problem, because l was always among the last. In 2014, I placed 129 out of 142,” says Muthungu.
Meanwhile, as is routinely taught in business school, opportunities often creep in during crises as Muthungu discovered with the USB fiasco.
“I documented each of the 7,000 USB cables and I identified the problem and decided to fill the gap and decided to build something that is ten times better than what was already in the market,” says Muthungu.
Unfortunately, even though the USB cables have to date received approval from including the Kenya Bureau of Standards (KEBS), a 48-year-old government organization that ascertains local products comply with international standards, and the Kenya Export Promotion and Branding Agency (KEPROBA), the Kenyan market is seemingly oblivious to the quality of the product.
“It’s probably a colonial mentality hangover where the locals think anything made in Kenya is inferior to imports while others think I should sell the item cheaply because it’s locally made,” says Muthungu who invested an estimated Ksh 3 million ($ 24,916.94), monies he had been loaned by a friend to begin the company that relies heavily on social media to market itself.
A TotoSci-manufactured USB cable retails for between Ksh 135 ($1.12) to Ksh 200 ($1.66), prices that compete favorably with imported contraptions found on the Kenyan street.
Currently, the company has employed five people directly – all engineers -with an additional 20 indirectly on the supply chain, says Muthungu who complains of a need to tame the high tax regime that defines the local market that disadvantages upstarts.
The machines he uses in the factory are imported from India and China.
Admitting that doing business is not for the faint-hearted, Muthungu says he’s into entrepreneurship for the long haul.
“I am a dyed-in-the-wool industrialist and even if I was making Ksh1($ 0.0083) profit per USB cable and I sold say to one million people, I would make a tidy profit of Ksh 1 million ( $8,305.65 ) and despite the inimical environment that is Compounded by high taxation I know no situation is permanent.
This calling is not for everyone. When I sought to find if anyone in Africa was involved in manufacturing USB cables so that we could compare notes I pulled a blank,” says Muthungu.
In 2023 TOTOSCI holdings limited hopes to begin producing mobile phone accessories with the end goal of eventually assembling mobile phones by 2025.