Anyone accustomed to international standards of getting things done, i.e. quickly, efficiently, and often using online resources, may find ticking things off their to do list in Accra a tedious and frustrating process. This is especially true when doing so from a distance. Simple tasks such as locating and buying a gift for a loved one, collecting an official document, or sourcing your favourite West African fabrics, can become long drawn out missions taking days or weeks rather than minutes or hours. This is mostly due to business and processes in Ghana largely happening offline, many still being entirely paper-based.
Accra’s predominantly offline status makes it difficult, time consuming, and sometimes totally impossible, for anyone outside the country (or even someone within the city, but without local contacts) to locate local suppliers, negotiate prices, or coordinate a timeous delivery from them.
However, Accra’s online / offline divide is beginning to shift and some of its youngest entrepreneurs are leading the way with innovative, tech based, yet easy-to-use solutions.
One of those businesses is Beam: a bespoke errand service anyone (in or outside Ghana or Accra) can use to get things done quickly and efficiently in the city. As part of our Q&A series featuring successful young Accra-based tech entrepreneurs, we chat to the energetic and enthusiastic crew turning requests into real results.
What's your 'elevator pitch'?
Gerald Pharin (CEO): Beam is a smart errand service that provides professional errand running, like personal shopping and collections, including laundry pickups, forms, tickets, etc.
Kingston Tagoe (Operations Manager): We help you to get things done on the ground; especially busy professionals who don’t have time to deliver or collect things, or do their own shopping.
Falk Benke (Marketing Manager): We try to avoid the term “concierge”, but we essentially save you time by doing things for you. Also, Beam is Whatsapp-based.
Precious Addo (Assistant Operations Manager): We make your life convenient. You contact us via Whatsapp, and we do your errands done for you.
What inspired Beam?
Falk: We saw that Ghanaians living overseas have strong connections back home in many ways; they have their family here, most people want to come back, start businesses here, they want to buy land, they want to build houses, they want to support their family. They have all these strong ties, but at the same time it’s very difficult to get things done when you’re not physically on the ground because everything here is so offline.
The goal is still to serve the Ghanaian diaspora, but what we’ve found out is that the same services we provide to these guys, we can also provide to local people. We’ve literally had some of our customers bring their family members who live overseas to meet us in person when they’re in town, to show them they can trust us. But, when we started offering our services to locals we saw that this barrier goes away, because they can see you when they do a transaction, and that makes it so much easier.
And, even though our primary focus has shifted to people in Accra who are very busy, it doesn’t mean that our services aren’t helpful to those living abroad as well. Word of mouth works well, and I feel that Ghanaians abroad know what’s going on back home, so if they hear of a new cool thing in town from a friend or family member here, then they’re more likely to use it.
What drew you each to tech?
Gerald: What drew me to tech was a video game. I grew up in the northern part of Ghana, and computers and tech weren’t really a thing when I was growing up. When I came and started high school in Accra I visited a friend, and he was playing a video game. I was really impressed with it. I took a video game back, and tried to get my dad to buy me a laptop. Eventually one of my aunts out of the country sent me a small laptop. So I started playing games on it. As time went on I decided to find out what went on behind those games. So, I started to try to program on my own. In
In second year of uni, studying physics, I had my first formal introduction to programming, and I found that it came easy to me once someone explained how it all fell into place. After that course I knew I wasn’t that interested in physics, and it was time for me to go into technology. I continued with my physics degree, but kept studying IT by myself on the side. I heard about the MEST program after school, applied and came in and built my tech skills and business skills.
Kingston: I remember my first lesson in computing was in primary 6 or so. We didn’t have any computers in the house, so I had to save my lunch money to go to the computer school, and learn how to use Microsoft DOS (laughing)! So, it wasn’t really exciting for me learning computing in senior high, but when I went to university I started to do a lot of product design work with computers. In the first year we started to code, and that’s when I realized we could actually make money on campus. One of the easiest ways to earn money was to build software for the school; for their different departments. We built an e-library application for students, we built election software, etc. It was really exciting times, because I was building a skill, and I could use it to survive. It all fell in place… “hey, if I’m using this to survive, I’m also creating value for people. So, why not go into the mainstream, and make something out of it”.
Precious: My interest in technology started with my dad’s pager. He would page my siblings outside the country, and I found it cool. What interested me about technology was the ability to communicate within a fast period, regardless of the distance between you. I’m interested in working with Beam, because we use a means of communication to satisfy our customers.
Falk: I also got interested in tech because of computer games, which I got introduced to at an early age. I have a Masters degree in computer science, and I came to Ghana from Germany to teach at MEST. When I got here it became very interesting to see all the opportunities, and the entrepreneurial spirit that people have. There’s a lot of interesting things going on; especially here in an emerging market. I feel that it’s way more interesting than Berlin.
Did any of you know each other before MEST?
Gerald: Well, the funny thing is that I didn’t know Kingston at school, but later I found out that he was my competitor in my final year. There was a software competition, and he won! I never met him though. It was only at MEST that I realized, “Hey, it’s this guy that I was competing against!” (laughing)
How has being based in Accra influenced your business?
Gerald: Both Kingston and I know Accra in and out. From the markets – Makola, Kantamanto, Agbogbloshie – to the malls – flashy places like Accra Mall, MaxMart, etc. So, that’s one of the things that motivated us to start Beam. There’s a lot of things that you might need to get done, but Accra is a very offline city, and getting things done using technology, when so many things are offline, is very difficult.
Falk: To be honest, we couldn’t easily replicate what we do in Nairobi, or Lagos. Sometimes people say, “Oh! This type of service would be perfect in Lagos!”, but the problem is that what we really leverage on is the connections and knowledge that we have on the ground. Kingston is well connected, Gerald is well connected, Precious knows a lot of people, and we leverage off that local knowledge. They know how to get things done here. They know the challenges, they know the price ranges, they know the pitfalls, they know all the things where, for example an expat, would fall into these traps. Also, we take advantage of the fact that a lot of things are offline here, because that’s basically our value proposition. In most other cities most of what we offer could be taken care of by an app, or website where you can place your order online and you’re done, and this simply does not exist here.
Accra is growing, so there are more people that might find these things useful; both expats and the rising middle class. More people are getting fancy jobs, moving into bigger houses, and have less time for the kind of services we offer. So, we think that there’s a group growing that value time over money. If you are making money, but are busy all day, that’s where a service like Beam becomes useful.
Then, of course, there’s trustworthiness. There are many people who’ve been scarred, and made super suspicious, by bad experiences. They’re afraid of fraud, false pricing, bad surprises, unreliable people, the provider becoming too much trouble to deal with, etc. and so they’ve become very cautious. So, we leverage returning customers. Once they’ve had the Beam experience, they’re likely to come back because usually the first reaction after a Beam transaction is, “OK, they’ve achieved what I wanted. What can I use them for next?” And that’s the effect that we want to encourage and build on.
What changes would you like to see in Accra in terms of IT?
Gerald: I think it’ll be great if more businesses would leverage technology. That’d make our work even easier. Even using simple technologies such as Whatsapp, and other messaging technologies that everyone has, would make business easier for us. The reason I say that is, for the services we offer, we literally have to walk to go check on stuff and then report back to people. It would be much easier if these businesses adopted some simple tech-based means of communication, and then we could just pass on information to them.
The other challenge is having to deal with government agencies for instance. Because they are paper-based, processes take a very long time; so much so that we have moved away from them in terms of our service offering. Technology would definitely be helpful to them in terms of being able to serve a larger customer base more efficiently.
Falk: In other countries you can simply sign up for your passport online and pay, or even register a business online and have it in a day, and this doesn’t happen here. The funny part is that some departments do have the web interfaces for this, but these just don’t work.
Kingston: Yeah, one of the things we really want to do is to is to talk about products in Ghana and how they match up to international standards. There are a lot of people coming up in the tech space who are adopting standards in technology development, and approach to the market. So, if we can talk about and highlight grey areas, and show people standards, they will definitely pick up and use them. This is very important if we want Ghana to get to the point where South Africa is, or where Nairobi is. It won’t happen overnight, but it will take someone taking on the challenge to get people to stick to the standards.
Gerald: I think education will play a huge part. I think the kids of today will get to a point where the minimum requirement for a phone will be for it to be a smart phone, and you don’t want to have a smartphone and not be able to do something basic, like install an app. These are simple things that everybody should know how to use. Sometimes technology is there, but people aren’t really used to it. Most kids that have exposure to technology at a young age quickly adapt to it, and it’s not really something that’s complex to learn, but kids here don’t know how to get access to this equipment. So, some form of education and exposure would help them.
Where are your usual hangouts in Accra?
Gerald: For Beam we’d have to say Makola! But from an individual perspective, I love to swim. So, Lizzy’s Sports Complex and the Burma Camp swimming pool are places I love to go and relax at.
Kingston: I want quietness and peace, so I usually go to the Aburi mountains. When it’s nightfall you see the clouds covering the mountains. I like that view.
Precious: I love cupcakes, so Cupcake Boutique. And I like the Junction Mall.
Falk: The obvious one is The Republic Bar and Grill, because everyone goes there. For a weekend getaway Kokrobitey is awesome. If I want to treat myself I go to Kokrobitey Gardens, which has great meals. Plot 7 is the coolest club these days. So, if you wanna go clubbing you can go to Plot 7. Back to business… What's the biggest challenge you've encountered in business so far?
Kingston: As a company it’s about balancing marketing and operations. We are a small start-up, and this is a very operations intensive business. It’s a thousand times easier for us to market now that we are targeting people in Accra, but with every marketing effort we do there’s a wave of inbound demand.
Having to manage and balance that is a challenge, but of course that’s a good challenge for a start up like us. It’s makes us identify what to address in terms of operations, and helps us to identify which use cases are promising and more likely to adopt if we give that focus.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received in terms of business/entrepreneurship?
Gerald: The best piece of advice I’ve had is from my own team mate Falk, which is, “for anything to work, you’ve got to put at least five years into it.” That keeps me motivated to keep pushing Beam for as long as I possibly can, and we’ve actually seen some of the results as time goes by. We started with making eight to ten transactions in a month, but volume kept picking up as time went by. So, it goes to show that if you persist it will pick up.
Kingston: The best advice I’ve gotten is something that relates to African start-ups, and Ghanaian start-ups, and that’s that we need to start making money from day one. We don’t have the luxury of trying to get users, active downloads, active sessions, and all that. For us it’s about survival. In this space, if you don’t survive you die, and to survive you have to make money. So, for me, regardless of the business, you have to think, “How do I make money from day one?” That is why I’d rather build a business like Beam that’s solving a real problem and bringing in cash from day one, than building something that is
nice to have, has lots of users, but brings in one cent per year.
Precious: It’s basic knowledge, but “The customer is always right”. I believe in customer satisfaction, and the level of quality you are offering. You can have competitors, but your success depends on the quality of service you are offering to your customers. That’s what keeps them coming back again and again, and recommending you. So, what the customer wants is prime in the transaction.
Falk: Something I’ve done wrong many times before is to build something before I’d validated whether it’s something anyone wants or needs. So, my advice is to find your product market fit first. Focus on solving a real problem, and having a good solution for it. It’s about finding that sweet spot, and you’ll know when you’ve hit it… people get excited, they come back, you don’t have to bug them, they bug you. Finding this should be first. You don’t need to build a very sophisticated software solution, get a fancy office, and design a web page, to find out if you’re on to something. It’ll take you less than a day or
two of going out, trying something and hacking things together. When you’ve found your fit, then you can focus on scaling and making it really perfect, and lean. I think we now all have the mindset that we want to find out the facts first... We’ve seen other products where someone has found product market fit, and so we know what to look out for. When you find that, then you can focus on really making it big.
What do you think are some of the biggest tech trends that will shape the next 5-10 years?
Kingston: Communication apps… You can build anything into a communication app. You can put in a shopping engine, you can put in feedback, there’s a suite of other things you can do around a communication app. That’s something I think will definitely change. Things like Whatsapp, Facebook Messenger, Skype for Business, etc. These are going to be very very interesting to watch as we move on.
Falk: I think we’ll see the death of social networks, Twitter, Facebook, etc. They will die, and people will move towards more peer to peer interaction. Also, as Kingston said, I think people will be using Whatsapp and other messaging services for communication and business, for more informal communication. The cool thing about Whatsapp is that it gives you so many opportunities. It allows you to send dropped pins, photos, audio recording, share links, send an invoice… you can do everything with it, and the tone is very conversational. It doesn’t feel like an email. Writing emails takes forever, but - for
us - completing a transaction via Whatsapp is pretty fast. The only thing we need to figure out is how to build a strong backend to effectively manage all the conversations, and all the items being shared. The good news is that we have a very strong IT team, so once we have the scale, it won’t be too hard to build that ourselves. There are solutions out there that we are also looking into, building strong database support systems, customer relations systems, etc. behind these modern messaging technologies.
Gerald: My prediction also ties into what Kingston said. I think both artificial intelligence and messaging are where the world is going next. For example, for a typical Beam transaction to take place there’s a conversation over Whatsapp between either Kingston, or Precious, or I, or Falk, and the customer. We have to figure out exactly what the customer wants in a natural way, and then go out there and get it. I believe it’ll get to a point where computers completely replace this. Facebook, Google, and Microsoft are already building robots, and I think things are moving towards a more natural conversation with robots. That’s a major thing that’s going to shape the future, and that will help us move much much quicker.
Precious: I think very soon the mobile networks will fade out. Currently we have to spend a lot on mobile credit, instead of using data connections. I’m sure there will be more satellites providing data, and data will become cheaper.
What do the next 5-10 years hold for Beam?
Kingston: I think Beam will be the concierge for the Africa you can never reach, unless in person. If I’m in Ghana, and I want to purchase something in Lagos, for example, I’d talk to Beam, and they’d be able to bring it over for me. And, we’ll be known for exceptional customer service, customer support, and on-point execution.
Falk: Beam will be an app across sub-Saharan Africa. It’ll be a word that everyone knows, and the app that they open to get whatever they want. It’ll bring all offline businesses online. It’ll be the one single app that you’ll use if you’re too busy, and need to get anything done, no matter where... South Africa, Lagos, Nairobi, Accra or Dakar.
Kingston: And, maybe we’ll even be beaming things to people virtually! (laughing)
Gerald: That might take more than ten years! (laughing)
What advice would you give to your fellow youth in terms of ways they can harness their creative, quick-turnaround ways to make money (AKA the “hustle”), to become tech savvy entrepreneurs like yourselves?
Gerald: My advice would be to get a smartphone. While I think smart phones are not really smart, they open up the opportunity for a lot of other things. That would basically be their connection. The next thing is to be curious. I think people get where they are because they want to know more. Unless they have a burning curiosity to want to know more, they’ll always be behind. Technology is moving very fast. Even last year and this year alone, so many things have changed. So, the two things I’d say is get a smart phone and become very curious. With these two things you’ll be able to keep abreast, if not over take everyone else.
Kingston: Nothing takes the place of hustle. You have to hustle, that’s just Accra. But, of course it’ll be great to know your stuff, and to build a technology interface between you and the customer wherever you can and however you can. More importantly, you need to deliver exceptional customer service. We live in a country where customers are victims. You want to pay for something, and you get shouted at. If you want to get your hustle right, you want to get your customers coming back, and that only happens when you deliver exceptional, top notch, customer service. Technology can help you do that. You don’t have to drop out from education either. You can learn something as a side track to what you’re already studying in school, and that will make the hustle count. What else? There should always be that mind set to not give up. It’s hard using technology in our part of the world when we didn’t grow up with it. So, you have to be bold enough to take the right steps to learn, and it will pay off in the long run.
Precious: They should be more open to researching. Most people don’t like to research. They’re waiting for the information to drop at their doorstep. So, do more research and keep up to date with the latest technology available.
Falk: To add to that, I think anyone running a tech business at a young age is privileged, and should acknowledge that somebody else has inspired them to do what they’ve done. It wasn’t because you or I are so smart that we’ve gotten this far, but because we had access to certain things at a young age. So, my point is that we have a responsibility in the future to inspire others, or give them the same exposure that we got. This can be done in different ways… you can employ somebody who can learn from you, you can give someone access to a device you no longer need, or if you see somebody who’s curious you can answer their questions. It’s something that you can do in small ways on a day to day basis, or when you see the opportunity in daily life. You were the lucky ones who got here, so now you have a responsibility to help the others who want to get into tech.
For further information, and to make use of Beam’s fantastic services, contact them on:
Whatsapp: +233 24 145 1551
*Beam were recently featured on BBC news. Click here to see them in action: