Expulsion from school didn’t stop the tech genius from conquering the world…
We warn the reader that this is a true story. If you find some aspects of it sounding like a movie, then well, life can be a theatre, played on the real stage of genuine actors doing their thing 24/7.
For Morris Mbetsa, it has been long coming in the world of technology. He has learned, the hard way, that help is hard to come by. Actually there is no help out here, in the rough and tumble of today’s Kenya and the new world; you are on your own.
In his own words, just do it yourself. He for instance points out that on your way to building a car, you may start with a bicycle, before proceeding to a tricycle. This way, you shall learn the ropes of the business and gradually accumulate some capital. “The mentality of financing through a miracle of getting government money is a pipe dream,” he says, while noting that most financiers are in the real estate space.
Yet he also reckons that technology is where the money is, since an investment of kshs.1million will very easily give you a return Kshs.10 million – making it ten times over in terms of yields.
It does not help that most commercial banks ask for title deeds and other assets before giving loans which many investors do not have. “Since a start-up may not have assets worth talking about, the intellectual acumen of the entrepreneurs behind various innovations should be taken into consideration by the financiers,” says Mbetsa. “That is where the real assets are,” he quips. Barring venture capital, it is difficult to see how the new tech giant would ever have made it in Africa.
Food for thought
In 2008, one of his friends was carjacked. This gave him food for thought. He invented a system which could enable drivers to control their vehicles remotely using their mobile phones. “By using this system, drivers could immobilize their stolen cars,” he says. The young entrepreneur was supported by the National Commission for Science and Technology (NACOSTI) to develop a prototype for this innovation. Unfortunately, he could not get a local partner to manufacture the prototype in mass even after he had passionately pitched it in the media. This forced him to travel all the way to China where he identified a partner who supported him to produce the anti-carjacking device.
After this experience, it dawned on him that time was ripe to set up such a business locally. That is how Numeral IOT was born. In 2018, he went to China for two months with a few members of his team to be trained further on how to manufacture electronic devices as a final step to starting his own company.
Ever the committed maverick, Mbetsa is no stranger to advertising and controversy. He started reading physics books as a kid. In the process, he got acquainted with capacitors, processors and transistors; what most of us adults consider as mumbo jumbo.
Yet he was not brought up with these gadgets. He is your usual rural kid who grew up with his grandmother in a mud house. He walked ten kilometers to school. Even his own workers have never had to eat ugali with salted water for supper! Yet that was his regular stuff before retiring to bed.
He recalls that at the age of seven, he built a small generator from a bicycle dynamo, put on a bulb and eventually fixed electricity to light up their hut. He could also make to mechanize toys to the awe and admiration of fellow kids.
When his books were stolen from his locker, he modified it so that it would electrocute whoever touched it. To get around gaining free entry to video halls, he found a way of using a self-made transmitter to distort the signals of all the video shops in his locality. The owners had no otherwise but to play ball. He would be allowed in for free!
Chala High school was his lucky break. Here he encountered computers for the first time. The very sight of a computer mesmerized him! He would ask insightful questions. He was interested in how a computer worked, not just what it did.
“I spent countless hours dismantling and assembling the computer in order to acquaint myself with how it worked,” he reminisces.
Yet his genius was about to land him in trouble. In form three, on the prodding of fellow students who disliked preps, he developed a device and planted it at the main switch of the school. This way, he would cause a power outage at 7 pm every evening. He was a hero among his friends.
When confronted by the principal, he denied any knowledge about the anomaly. The school called an electrician, but he could not fix the problem. He hinted to the electrician where the device was. The electrician reported him to the principal. Guess what? Disciplinary action was taken against him. The young man was expelled at the second term of his final year – just a few months before sitting for the national examination.
His comrades at school helped him out with books. It turned out fine for him. He passed his Kenya Certificate of Secondary Examination. To join Technical University where he had been admitted to pursue a degree in electrical engineering, he travelled to Nairobi for the first time in his life after getting a lift from a lorry ferrying goods to the city. It was a journey to a totally new experience away from his sleepy village. After a few months in the university, he quit his studies since as he casually admits; he was getting bored with their theoretical nature. “I had covered most of the stuff I was learning in campus during my computer studies in high school,” he says as a matter of fact. He eventually went to the United States for a short course courtesy of Barack Obama’s Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI). From 2015 to 2016, he was employed by IBM . Back in Kenya, he worked with the tech giant Microsoft.
After establishing Numeral IOT in 2019, his next best bet was to find suitable partners. Mbetsa’s Numeral IOT produces speed devices for eight companies which have been licensed to do that business by the National Transport and Safety Authority (NTSA). Out of forty four companies with this license, only fifteen are currently actively engaged in the lucrative business. Fortunately for him, after setting up the business, NTSA gave a directive that all the speed governors in the Kenyan market should transmit data in real time. His device was therefore given a green light by the Kenya Bureau of Standards (KEBS) and NTSA since it met that requirement. The rest as they say is history. His business has been on a roller coaster.
His greatest ambition is to help other youths become useful members of the society who contribute positively to the welfare of their families.
So it is not a wonder that in 2018, he had built a drone capable of carrying passengers. He went out the open space of Kajiado to test it. This earned him rare reviews in the media. “Drone technology can effectively be used to fight the locust menace that our country is currently grappling with; we do not have to use helicopters while carrying out aerial sprays since that method is cumbersome and very expensive,” he challenges the authorities. Hopefully, this faint call from a corner of his Mombasa Road factory will be heard by whoever is concerned. He is confident that what the Chinese can do he will do it even better given that he understands local business terrain.
But how has he been able to finance himself? Well, whenever he got orders to design electronics for Chinese companies, he would not take his payment in cash. He would be paid in kind (machinery) which he later used to establish his manufacturing plant.
After designing printed circuits boards for several Chinese companies, he went to China for training on how to use his equipment in 2018. He set up the factory in early 2019.
He specializes in manufacturing new-generation governors for firms which have been licensed to conduct the business by NTSA . Soon, he will be churning out 8000 devices daily from the current 2000 after fixing a modern assembly line.
There are plans to launch a tracking device for motorbikes too. He will also be rolling out a vehicle tracking device combined with an alarm system. As we all keep watching that space, he is having an audacious goal of acquiring 3,000 acres piece of land in order to set up a technology village where young techies graduating from universities will test their mettle.
He also manufactures his Simba brand for his competitor and customers. With seventy employees and outlets in Industrial Area, Ngara, Kisumu, Eldoret, Kisii, Meru, Kericho, Mombasa and twelve others outside the country, Mbetsa has made his fair contributions to his country at a tender age. Steve Jobs would envy him. Many of his pranks as a kid out shadow those of Jobs and Wozniak by far. The two (Jobs and Wozniak) were only able to tamper with bicycle locks of fellow pupils during the early years. But cause blackouts and tamper with signals…no!
Yes, you can `make it in Africa where the money to start-up is hard to come by. Just don’t give up!