Kenfield Griffith — making the invisible visible

Without Limit

with Rachael Barrett

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

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Kenfield Griffith sure knows how to mix business with pleasure. On a short, three-day trip to Kingston he has juggled a tight schedule of meetings with local firms interested in his state-of-the-art M Survey software; connected with his seed investors from Montego Bay-based Alpha Angels — among the first to invest in the business — and enjoyed a leisurely dinner and superb bottle of Rodney Strong Pinot Noir at Fromage Gourmet Market with Ayanna Samuels, his newly appointed, Jamaica-based business development lead.

The past few months have seen the pace pick up for this Montserrat native, who considers himself driven by the vision of solving the problem of communicating with the traditionally "invisible and offline" consumer. The demographic makes up the large majority of the population in emerging market economies.

Griffith’s journey down this particular path began with his PhD at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the United Staes where his preliminary thesis was focused on computer-aided design and manufacturing (CAD/CAM) software, focused on the construction industry in emerging markets.

"I was looking at how you automate that [software] in emerging markets, then I came to Kenya for the first time and realised the problem was, bigger than just having the software, but also understanding who exactly [these houses] were being built for. The problem was bigger than just building the house itself, there are also companies involved with constructing the plumbing etc. One thing was everyone had a mobile phone."

Griffith notes that the root of the issue for companies he consulted with was how to reach a large demographic of the population that wasconsidered to be "invisible". The masses in underdeveloped regions such as West Africa and the Caribbean typically are not easily found in traditional customer service databases. As a result, having a clear understanding of the needs of this community and how best to service them is not as easy for companies to determine.

"Mobile enables you to scale and capture folks from rural areas and regions as well as urban areas — especially in emerging markets where these folks are not connected to the Internet. But through the platform which is using SMS mobile messaging, you can still have a conversation with them and make decisions about the next product to launch or see if your services are working. I’m inspired by voices that think they should be and want to be heard — we need to create a level playing field."

According to the founder, the platform is designed to be as neutral as Google, with an aim of serving both the private and public sector.

"When we developed the platform we initially spoke to the World Bank etc, but we realised that it was not just the public sector but it was the private sector as well having this problem. Everyone was having the same problem of connecting with folks in the most rural areas."

Griffith then goes on to describe how M Survey assists one of its clients, the San Francisco Department of Public Health.

"They need to contact folks who have been incarcerated, and high-risk communities... you can’t track these people simply by going into the neighbourhoods easily, but with the mobile platform it becomes easier to engage with people."

On whether or not he considers his platform as a tool that not only empowers the consumer but also advances national growth from a top-level perspective, Griffith’s response is a resounding yes.

"Yes.. driving policy decisions and economic growth. I’ll give you an example of some of the stuff we’re doing in Africa, which would give you an indication of why we think this is powerful. With this platform, we are looking at folks who are part of the cash economy. Jamaica is [largely] a cash economy as well. Do you know these people’s spending habits, or can you find data on these peoples’ spending habits?"

The answer here is, of course, no.

"If you were to understand these spending habits, people who don’t have access to a credit card or mobile money, you could more effectively design products and services for folks like that. So when you say driving growth I think because you’re tapping into a consumer market you haven’t had opportunity to tap into before, and that consumer market, they have spending power. There’s a huge, informal sector here that goes fairly untapped, and there are many wonderful products and services we can develop for this market — one of which is mobile money."

Griffith alludes to his major investor so far, the Kenyan-founded and now Vodafone-owned Safaricom, a leading telephone provider in East Africa whose M-PESA — a mobile phone-based money transfer, financing and micro-financing service — has gained attention the world over as a forerunner in mobile money transfer technology and shook the formal Kenyan banking system in the process.

Five months after winning seed capital from Alpha Angels, with whom he was connected by executives from The World Bank, Griffith scored a US$1-million strategic investment from Safaricom.

"Coming from the small island of Montserrat, I never knew that I was going to be here, but, I think it’s just the exposure and that life journey of realising that you as an entity can also be a part of the solution.

"I left Montserrat just before high school; traditional US path of getting into trouble and I wanted to go to college — didn’t know what I wanted to do. Ended up getting a two-year degree, then worked, then went for a three-year degree.

"So it wasn’t that this thing was just there waiting for me. It was this path and this journey, I think inherently knowing that the ethnographic researcher in me, and I tend to look at how are people doing things and how can they do things easier to improve the quality of life. That is what drove me on the path and empowered me because I felt I needed to do something, and education was the key. And it just so happened that education led me to the people and the networks I needed to facilitate this journey.

"It wasn’t easy and it still isn’t easy, but I think it’s just a mindset. Surrounding yourself with the folks who also want to be part of the solution is very important."

Griffith’s determination is clear and has seen the company rise impressively in the last few years.

M Survey has collected more than 10 million consumers in the last 12 months alone, and they prove time and time again that the platform receives about three times the response rate compared with pen and paper and Internet survey models.

M Survey ‘s existing clients include Digicel, Harvard, Safaricom, Java House (the Starbucks of Africa), Acumen Fund (a fund that does impact investments throughout emerging markets) and Kenya Commercial Bank.

Griffith cites his wife, also a successful entrepreneur, and one of his first investors, Bob McNeil as sources of solace in his journey. As to where he thinks he is now and where they are headed, his sense of purpose remains clear:

"Even where we are right now, we have so much more to do — but I think inherently we are just driven by the vision of solving this problem. So you’re not really looking at how far along you are, it’s more a focus on how can I solve this problem and not knowing how long it will take to solve this problem.

"And you keep asking yourself that question, but the impetus as to how to solve that problem is not driven by wanting to promote a new technology, but instead the "why" is to solve the problem of access to that consumer that you can’t hear and see."

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