Conversations with Zimbabwean startups: Mazwi & its play on book publishing

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Publishing has always been at the mercy of technological disruption and when the internet became a huge force in service transformation it managed to introduce another dimension to the way this industry is continually altered.

In light of all these changes, Mazwi, a local startup has put a lot of effort into the creation of an avenue for publishing through the internet.

The Mazwi platform allows authors to publish and distribute their electronically, and through the integration of a functional payment platform ensures that any book published on it generates revenue for the content creator. Part of their efforts have involved the integration of digital rights management software to curb the piracy of the content.

However, these are not the only challenges they face as a Zimbabwean startup. In our Conversations with Zimbabwean Startups series, we managed to have a discussion with Taf Makura, the founder and CEO of Mazwi, and he offered these responses to our questions.

What are the three biggest challenges that you’ve faced since you started?

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Inexperience,

lack of experienced mentorship,

and an exceptionally difficult market to succeed in.

If you could have offered yourself some advice when you started what would it be?

Learn about the industry that you wish to operate in before you start building anything. Gain important contacts, credibility and insights in your chosen sector or industry, also make sure that what you want to do is already making money in a different form and that your product will simplify or enhance an existing process for your target customer. Don’t try to create new markets on a tight budget in this economy.  Also stay away from people, mentors or organizations that try to force you to innovate for the sake of innovation; more often that not you will be left with a novelty product that is cool but not relevant within the current context.

From your experience so far, how much work should an aspiring Zimbabwean tech entrepreneur be ready to put in?

Unfortunately my experience has taught me that hard work and long hours are not all it takes to succeed in the tech startup space in Zimbabwe. More often than not it has a lot to do with credibility, politics, connections and exclusive relationships that will place your startup in an ideal position to solve or simplifying  a huge problem in a particular industry using ICT. So if you want to run a successful tech startup in Zimbabwe, I would say put away your favorite programming language and enter the market scouting for opportunities where technology can simplify, improve or even enable a previously impossible or complicated part of an existing process that is already making money.  Build relationships and credibility while learning and establishing a name amongst important stakeholders in a particular industry. As you hunt for a opportunities be honest and professional.  Once you have identified, negotiate and secured a commercial agreement start building the product or repurpose existing software to solve that problem in a proficient and scalable way. It is hardly innovative, but it requires entrepreneurial brilliance to pull off.

How is tech entrepreneurship viewed by the people around you?

Most people I know including family look at tech entrepreneurship as just that, entrepreneurship! Only when you talk to fellow tech entrepreneurs do you start to hear some familiar catchphrases, slogans and clichés that frankly don’t mean much to the average person on the street. Depending on who you ask and which investor (read donor) they are angling for I’d say tech entrepreneurship could be anything from a hobby, a business, an obsession to the panacea of all the world’s problems.

Have there been any sacrifices that you’ve had to make as an entrepreneur that you think are relative to Zimbabwe?

Of course. Very few Zimbabweans from my generation would prefer to be in the financial circumstance that most Zimbabweans – tech entrepreneurs or not – find themselves in. I would have preferred a more predictable career path and better economic opportunities for business. Most startup founders are really unemployed youth trying to find a means of survival and a way to be relevant and admired. For most the sacrifice is incredible.   I have personally quit employment and turned down offers that will not return anytime soon.   I have essentially gambled my future on the promise of a local technology boom that may not come in my prime lifetime.

How have you handled team building? Is it that big an issue for Zimbabwean startups?

I believe team building and collaboration are by far the biggest issues most startups face. Successful businesses are built by talented people, talented people are in demand. A startup that cannot pay its employees has little chance of attracting or retaining talented people. In other parts of the world this gap is bridged by investors who invest in ideas, these invested funds are then used to build and retain talented teams. Because investors only invest in markets where they can get returns, few investors, if any, will invest in Zimbabwean ideas given the current state of the economy. For this reason most local startups are fronted by founders that are incompetent to run the startups they founded or to attract and retain co-founders and people to operate these start-ups. This is a difficult situation that I have personally not found a way to handle. Perhaps it is incompetence on my part 🙂

What will be the definition of success for Mazwi? What are you chasing? ie pot of gold at the end of the rainbow?

Profitability and growth are the true measures of a successful enterprise in my opinion. Reaching this point means you have built something that a growing number of people find valuable enough to pay for. Impact , innovation and relevance are often the natural byproducts of attaining profitability and growth.

Are there any skills you think have made your entrepreneur journey easier that others need to pick up?

I can think of  many skills that I lack that would have made my journey easier. However, I would let others be the judge of the skills that I do posses that have made the journey easier.

Is there any other area that you want to disrupt or seek opportunity in? 

I have recently decided that disruption in of itself is a dangerous and potentially misleading goal for any entrepreneur to focus on. Profitability and growth are by far the most important objectives for success in my case. As far as opportunities are concerned, content publishing and distribution is an area of interest that I have learnt a lot about over the years, opportunities in this area are very exciting for me.

What are your views on piracy in the publishing industry. How do you think it should be handled?

Piracy, digital piracy in particular, represents an evolution in digital publishing.  As content is made more readily available and accessible it becomes easier to replicate and pirate. As content creators migrate to digital distribution they must adopt new strategies to counter the threats piracy poses. With ebooks, one of those strategies is DRM encryption which protects digital files from unlawful copying and replication, our platform mazwi.com utilizes implements this technology for our authors. The downside is that DRM, in many cases, adds friction to the purchasing process as users often struggle to implement it on their reading devices resulting in buyer apathy.  Alternatively, we encourage authors to do away with DRM technology altogether and instead leverage the power of technology to make their ebooks cheaper and more accessible than pirated copies. We have observed that pirates almost always operate with a profit incentive in mind, where they don’t see an opportunity to make a profit their activities are nowhere near as organized and aggressive enough to pose a real threat to a well organised marketing campaign by an aggressive author.  Many of the world’s leading publishing houses have often stated that they do not see a significant threat posed by torrent sites on the growth of their sales, that said, it is important for authors and publishers to use available digital tools to seek out and legally confront pirates.

Net neutrality is a growing discussion point in tech, largely because of the cost of Internet. What is your own opinion on this issue?

Net neutrality is a wonderful concept but a complicated reality. I am a strong advocate for  the idea. I believe that there should be no exceptions on the Internet and all data should be treated equally. Advocates against net neutrality, particularly In Africa where internet access is still a privilege, present a strong case for making some services freely available. They state that non-profit platforms like Wikipedia are perfect candidates for preferential treatment on the internet. For me, anointing favorites of any kind on a network presents a slippery slope as many people will also argue the case for platforms like WhatsApp, Gmail, YouTube, and Facebook that have economic benefits for their users.  An acceptable alternative for net neutrality in my opinion is the provision of free or subsidized data bundles, in some cases these could be parceled out by government as vouchers or capped open WiFi hotspots to vulnerable communities.

Disclosure: The founder of Mazwi and the subject of this interview, Tafadzwa Makura, is also a Techzim contributor.

4 Comments

  1. macd chip says:

    Just a trivial question: Was there any reason not to use a .co.zw? What made you go for .com?

    On a separate note, my observation about internet usage in Zim is mainly around communication eg facebook, whatsapp, skype etc.

    If you are starting a business whos life blood is a online platform, then there is a bigger challenge. How do you find customers for your product when most customers do not use that online platform for their daily needs.

    People use internet sporadically for shopping(with exception for buying japanese cars).
    I have yet to see people here who take pride in buying online. When people talk about having internet on their phones, its all about whatsapp facebook twitter.
    When home users talk about having internet, its all about downloading movies and series.

    There is no lack of drive to use internet for business.

    1. Tafmakura says:

      To answer your question

      We chose mazwi.co before migrating to mazwi.com primarily because mazwi.co.zw was taken but the rest of the reasons have something to do with our intended scope

      Your observation may be correct that internet usage in Zim is mainly for communication, however, you must not overlook enterprise applications fro the internet from ZESA, banking, medical aids, point of sale systems, billing and accounting applications for huge corporates. I would venture a guess and say that this is where the internet is the most useful and lucrative.

      I would say that finding customers precedes any business. I believe it is a bad idea to build a product and then look for customers. So if you want to build an online service for customers that don’t use the internet, i’d say it’s a bad idea. It is way too expensive to try and change behaviours to align with your business. Good entrepreneurs probably align their business with existing customer behavior or needs.

  2. Big Fan says:

    I fucking luv this guy. thanks for the advice man .information in your article is worth paying for.

  3. Zee says:

    So l stumbled upon this late post and loved the insight but still thought l had to voice my opinion. The opinion being : yes, Good entrepreneurs align their business with existing customer behavior or need BUT BETTER entrepreneurs go against the grain and create businesses which challenge and change existing behaviors albeit at a cost but still these are the better ones… talk about the Facebooks, Ubers, Apples, Airbnbs,Twitters, Starbucks of this world

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