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An internet business working backwards: building a web start-up in Zimbabwe

We wanted to be online but the Zimbabwean public wanted to pick up the phone. What was amazing was that the reservations number on the website was just above the booking form but they would still prefer to pick up the phone and incur the cost of calling us…

Joseph Bunga, Eaout.co.zw Founder (credit: relzim.org)

Zimbabwean web entrepreneur, Joseph Bunga, explains how after launching his first internet startup he found the market wasn’t ready for it. Today, his startup eatout.co.zw is not only profitable; it’s the most popular restaurant guide and reservation website in the country. The Eatout journey wasn’t at all rosy, he recalls, nor did their expectation of an easy and relatively quick path to profitability turn out any close to the experience they got into for the next 3 years later; it’s perseverance and passion for the food and beverage industry that has kept Bunga and his team going. And the fruits are starting show.

The first hurdle was finding developers to build the first version of the site. Bunga’s tertiary education was in hotel management and he didn’t have any experience at all creating websites so he set up a team of developers to help him out. But 6 months later, the website was not online yet and he was frustrated. “People can sell very well but when it comes to the deadline, not only do they not deliver, they disappear” he says of his experience dealing with the few developers available in the country.

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Not wanting to waste any more time Bunga decided to just do it himself. He started learning PHP web development and open source content management systems, and within a relatively short period his first web creation came online. He used one of the web’s most popular content management systems, Joomla, and used the little PHP he had taught himself to write a few lines of code to get things working the way he wanted.

But with the site now online came a second hurdle. No one wanted to use the internet to make restaurant reservations. Zimbabwe was not ready for the internet; the restaurants were not, the internet users were not, and even more frustrating, the internet connectivity in the country wasn’t either. The founding team of 6 quickly realized that despite a lot of visitors coming to their site, none wanted to use the website’s inbuilt tools to make bookings.

“What happened was we launched the site expecting to see a large number of online bookings,” Bunga explains, “but to our surprise the Zimbabwean market still wanted to talk to a person to make a restaurant reservation. So we introduced a telephone number and saw the number of reservations go up significantly immediately. So someone would call and tell us the restaurant they wanted to eat at and we would then call the restaurant and make the reservation on behalf of the customer and then phone the customer back and confirm the reservation.” Quite a process but it worked very well.

The team also realized a lot of the functionality they had built in to the site was far ahead of the capacity of the internet connections the Zimbabweans had at that time. “We already had Google Maps on our restaurant pages,” he says, “but the bandwidth just wasn’t enough locally, people had to wait for pages to load. It just slowed our site down. Whereas today everybody expects Google Maps to be integrated into such a site, it was a great feature then but the country just wasn’t ready for it.”

Today, restaurants that refused to be part of the project saying they “didn’t believe there was any scope for online business” are increasingly getting new customers via the website and are keen to contribute their information to it. Bunga says their service is so effective it’s not uncommon for a restaurant to list on the site one day and receive their first booking from the platform the next day.

Eatout now charges the restaurants US $30 a month to list on the site, and 50 cents for every person they send to eat out at a restaurant.  The startup also takes ads on the site and so far their target clients have been the suppliers of the food and beverage industry and the restaurants themselves. Without revealing any figures Bunga says his business has been profitable for about 7 months now.

Thankfully for Bunga, the number of website visitors making reservations via the website’s forms is also growing as more people locally get accustomed to using the Internet to communicate and get things done. “A year ago we would do 95% telephone bookings and 5% online,” he says. That ratio has changed to about 70, 30.

The startup is also looking at other avenues for revenue, mainly the promotion of eating out to the growing middle class, who, Bunga says may not be exposed to the eating out lifestyle but have the money to do so. In fact, this month, Eatout will be running Zimbabwe’s first “Restaurant Week”. Bunga’s team is also working on a “Wine Route” and Coffee Tour which they are looking to roll out this year.

The team has doubled since launch, making Eatout one of largest employers locally in the web business, outside the internet providers. The startup has also engaged 10 independent food bloggers (called taste spotters), who blog about their eating out experiences on the site.

Web development skills are still a challenge and Bunga is considering what he thought he’d never need to: “One of the plans I have for this year is a trip to India to find developers. I’m very proudly Zimbabwean but we seem to be in a situation where either we cannot find in Zimbabwe the kind of development skills we are looking for, the skills are overpriced, or the skills are unreliable.  For us our focus is not the web development. We want to run our business. We want to interface with our client. We are spending far too much time on web development instead of business development.”

But it’s not just the low programming skills in the country Bunga has to deal with; his startup has challenges on other fronts as well slowing it down, “Look at the local hotel schools doing training for the food and beverage industry. Online marketing is not a subject that is being offered by any of them. In the industry, none of the marketing managers that are in place are using Twitter or Facebook to the level that they should use for business.” As a result Bunga has to look to students on attachment and interns and he trains internally to work in a mainly web based job.


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24 thoughts on “An internet business working backwards: building a web start-up in Zimbabwe

  1. This story is so true and familiar, it could apply to everyone who has tried an online based startup in Zim. Myself, I have been through this and more….and am still struggling!

  2. I am not in the web development field. If I was, I would approach Mr. Bunga, offer to do his development for free, and have him pay when he is satisfied. This would stop him going to India. Have used this approach when introducing spatial systems for an NGO clients. Win some and loose some. Wins finance the losses until you hit break even.

  3. Just a note to Developer above: “It’s great that you are still trying!”

  4. @Chanyani, these days you really don’t have to spend time developing a website. Instead spend time polishing the business side of things. There r thousands of off the shelf websites waiting to be bought and customised (logo, colors & layouts) for virtually any web startup you have in mind. Developing from scratch is a waste of time and money. Visit http://www.geodesicsolutions.com or  www.worksforweb.com for some good leads. 

    1. Quess what? You are still going to end-up spending a lot of time developing and polishing whatever off-the-shelf solution you harvest from the web so much so that you might as well have started from scratch. If you want to save money and time developing a site, its simple, plan the site thoroughly first before before punching away that PHP, C# or Python code. Secondly use frameworks, JQuery,  CakePHP, Zend, Django which abstract much of what you would have had to code.
      Successful sites are unique and require considerable customization and programming to maintain that uniqueness.

      1. @975d4e81e739d9fdb6006fdb91c7c7e1:disqus  the idea is to stay away from PhP and its associated cousins if you are the business OWNER, spend your time marketing and polishing up the business side. If u own a Car Service garage you dont spend time under the bonnet servicing cars, leave that to mechanics, go sell your business to everyone with an ear!
        And a good off the shelf product does not need you to do any PhP, its simple parametrised customisation. Leave PhP to geeks and students. If it can not do that, then find another one. I am talking from experience, having done both off-the-shelf and developing from scratch. If you are not careful, by the time you finish developing from scratch, someone could be already making money with the same idea.

    2. As your client i wouldn’t want something that was pulled of a shelf and re-tweaked. The design you give me should be unique and not just same thing as everybody else has dressed in different colors/layouts

      1. Majoring in the minor is a recipe for failure. Real clients dont worry about whats below the bonnet, as long it delivers what THEY WANT. Landrover used Mercedes benz engines in some of their cars a few years back, tell me you wouldn’t buy a Landrover for that reason?

  5. Thanks @google-0f471b6d226e5d2b0a676227e8ba4b12:disqus , I will never give up. the lessons learnt and experience is so overwhelming and interesting that at times I forget I am trying to run a business and get carried away in the fun side of things. And I am already using the valuable lessons and skills for my latest project somewhere in Southern Africa.

  6. Thanks @google-0f471b6d226e5d2b0a676227e8ba4b12:disqus , I will never give up. the lessons learnt and experience is so overwhelming and interesting that at times I forget I am trying to run a business and get carried away in the fun side of things. And I am already using the valuable lessons and skills for my latest project somewhere in Southern Africa.

  7. Here is a fully working demo for a property sales website – 
    http://demo.realestates.com.bd  the script is designed and supported by http://www.autosscript.com. You can customise this and be in business within 3 days as opposed to 6 months of development. Buy the way I have been through the Indian route and it took us 9 months to get the site signed off…most of the time English was our biggest challenge!

  8. If players in the ICT industry like IAPs do not even have websites, what can we expect of the adoption of online business activity with all its attendant benefits! Sometimes I wonder why Techzim even bother to cover stories about IAPs who do not even have websites! I visited zimazon.co.zw from an article covered here and was quite excited at what I saw at the online store. I promptly made inquiries on 25 April  2012 and was ready to purchase. All I have received since then were 2 auto-responses to the effect that someone would get in touch with me. I resisted phoning them – why setup online shop if you still want to be contacted expensively on a mobile phone!?

    1. apparently zimazon has been sold to someone else, and they are now requiring pre-payments before the orders are made. i have been a long time zimazon user but due to the bad service, extended delivery times and general arrogance recently, i have found alternative people who provide a better service and are cheaper and faster

      1. That is a complete lie. Zimazon service is now much better cheaper and faster. There is no cheaper online company in Zimbabwe. Zimazon will beat any quotation from any company that does specific online imports from America.

  9. This is nice story. Just keep it up sooner and later you will achieve the positive result, Just strive hard, believe and more guts! :D…

  10. Here show the little source to know about the zimbabwe internet matter. Recently hare are backward condition to surf internet services. Zimbabwe make a new strategy for web start up and easy to use the internet facility.

  11. Great innovation from Joe there. It’s true Zimbabwe is still growing as far as internet and technology savvy is concerned. The developers too, hey, I think we just got a bunch of graduates who can’t apply themselves in the most competitive manner.

  12. Well, all hail to the website, the concept and so on. But today when I actually made a reservation – no feedback in form of a “you have booked with number si and so page” or an email or sms or whatever. On calling the restaurant hours later they had no idea and actually stated they had received visitors claiming to book via Eatout.

    Not the best way to encourage Zimbos to use online reservation…

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