Zeenode, a software development company in Uganda that offers cloud-based ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning) solutions for higher institutions of learning, is the creation of six software engineering university students who saw a problem and decided to solve it.
Frustrated with the inefficiency of manual and paper-based management, they ended up automating all of their university's processes and creating an e-campus system that managed all of the institution's operations.
In 2011, they created their own company, Zeenode, to provide cloud-based solutions to other learning institutions. In five years, by 2016, they jumped from 6 to 12 staff, and began to work with different tech and financial partners, including local mobile money payment platforms and banks.
'This enabled us to provide a fully integrated, comprehensive and cost-effective system, and by 2017 we had signed up 15 public universities, 4 private universities and 2 other institutions in Uganda,' said Dean Rwothomio, Zeenode's chief marketing officer.
In 2018, Zeenode joined the export development initiative designed by NTF IV to increase export competitiveness of SMEs in Uganda. Working with ITC's experts Fred Janssen and James Bulenzibuto, Zeenode was able to develop an export marketing plan, prioritizing internationalization and interfacing with potential buyers, as well as attending door-opening trade shows such as AfriTech and Kenya Virtual B2B.
Virtual and augmented reality
Zeenode now has 30 employees and is ramping up its internationalization efforts. It has met with five universities in Kenya and identified strategic partners and markets in Europe.
This year, the company plans to launch a WhatsApp API integration for its education ERP, to provide students with a more real-time experience ranging from school applications to checking financial balances. They are also incorporating virtual reality, machine learning and augmented reality in their e-learning solutions.
'I believe this is the present and future of education not only in developed markets but also Africa,' said Rwothomio. 'Learning is moving from the classroom to online learning, where students can attend a lecture on their mobile devices and use digital textbooks. These are all changing the ed-tech space.'
The NTF IV Uganda project works around 4 pillars, including influencing government policies, capacity building of SMEs and business support organisations, as well as identifying opportunities and preparing and coaching SMEs in connecting to potential buyers and partners.
Export Marketing Plan methodologies and linkage programs have boosted SME exposure to export markets in the region and beyond. Given the negative impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, Janssen says it is even more important that small businesses' use EMP-thinking to re-strategize their export ventures and develop scenarios for the post-Covid period.
Janssen believes Africa-based software development and BPO sector development has the potential to be more strongly linked to the European sectors, where areas such as fintech, edutech, e-commerce, and online event platforms are currently booming.
What is needed in providers is a mindset based on longer-term international business export plans, he says.
The power of global thinking
'This includes companies first establishing themselves through a sustainable foundation in their home countries, acquiring recognized certifications and having an organized ecosystem, and only then contacting foreign companies,' Janssen explained. 'Quick money is not always the best solution.'
Janssen has worked for more than three years in Uganda, The Gambia and Kenya, and mainly with software development and business process outsourcing companies.
'I help them to focus, to fine-tune their core products and services that are of interest to specific western companies in particular sectors, and pinpoint product-market combinations, and finally, to understand that foreign companies, especially in Europe, are looking for strategic sustainable partners, not just opportunistic business,' he explained.
Rwothomio agrees that building a global brand needs global thinking.
'This means, Ugandan SMEs need to recognize different cultures and values, collaborate with international experts, participate in international trade shows and events, get industry related certifications, and develop customized proposals that appeal to an international market,' Rwothomio said.
'Success takes a combination of focus, mindset and strategic planning,' he said.
The Netherlands Trust Fund (NTF) IV is based on a partnership between the International Trade Centre and the Dutch Centre for the Promotion of Imports from developing countries and funded by the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In Uganda, the project is implemented in collaboration with the Ministry of ICT and National Guidance, Ministry of Trade, Industry and Cooperatives, and the National Information Technology Authority (NITA) of Uganda.