In a world where reality rarely lives up to the hype, a local entrepreneur’s efforts are the exception.
Rhoda D’Wis is on the verge of transforming bus transportation in her native Kenya.
D’Wis, an IT business analyst at Brotherhood Mutual Insurance, designed a ticketing system that will allow the East African country’s transportation system to take a significant leap forward.
The current practice involves trading cash for paper tickets, which are sold only at bus stations. Customers pay for passage when they arrive. The system allows unscrupulous station agents and drivers to jack up ticket prices on busy days and forces some people to postpone trips until a seat opens up.
The online system D’Wis is launching through her startup, DiTara LLC, allows passengers to book trips well in advance, ensuring they have a reserved seat at a reasonable price. Bus lines can plan ahead, too, making sure they have enough buses and drivers to meet fluctuating demand.
This is just the first of several ideas the 43-year-old has for DiTara – but it’s the one closest to her heart. When D’Wis came to the U.S. to attend college in 1998, she vowed that one day she would do something meaningful for Kenya.
Now she’s searching for investors who will help her realize that vision.
D’Wis grew up as one of six children of a Methodist youth organizer father and a fourth-grade teacher mother.
As a high school student, D’Wis joined the computer club.
“I thought it was exciting,” she said of the technology. “It’s always changing. It’s never dull.”
After studying business, accounting and computers in Nairobi, D’Wis searched online for a U.S. college to continue her education. She wanted one that offered computer science and scholarships for international students.
Angola’s Tri-State University, now Trine University, offered the right mix. While enrolled, D’Wis landed an internship at Brotherhood Mutual, where she now works full time.
The bus ticketing brainstorm struck D’Wis during a visit home.
D’Wis wanted to visit her grandmother in a village outside Nairobi. The process of getting a ticket was fraught with uncertainty. She needed to call various companies to get bus times but couldn’t get ticket prices until arriving at the station. She knew there had to be a better way.
“I looked around and everybody had cellphones,” she said. “That was my aha moment.”
Kenyan society has embraced mobile payments far beyond what Americans are used to. Market research showed 86 percent of Kenyans make mobile payments, The Economist reported. Kenya’s population was 40 million in 2009.
M-Pesa’s mobile payment software is used for 31 percent of the country’s $33.6 billion gross domestic product transactions, according to London’s Financial Times.
“I thought I could build something around this,” she said.
D’Wis loves writing computer code.
“I could do this all day,” she said. “It’s too much fun.”
So she got to work completely transforming the experience for customers of East Africa’s estimated $4 billion busing industry.
The booking system can be accessed with an app.
Boarding schools in Kenya are embracing the option, which will allow high school students to travel home more easily during breaks from school, D’Wis said.
About 70 percent of Kenyan high school students attend boarding schools, which are often out of town, she said. D’Wis and her sister, who works at a school, attended a conference for school administrators last year to gauge interest in their bus ticket software.
They had hoped to get three schools interested, but the sisters signed up 67. Boarding schools average 1,000 students each, D’Wis said.
They also met with Kenya’s education director to get some pointers, including how to choose the safest and most reliable bus companies to partner with. And they met with the country’s Ministry of Transportation to learn rules and regulations.
The system D’Wis devised will send an email or voice message to parents after their child has boarded a bus and will send another message after the bus arrives.
“The parents will always know when the child is coming,” D’Wis said.
With the current system, young students can end up stranded for a day or more if the bus they need to take is full or the driver inflates ticket prices beyond what the child can afford to pay.
In addition to the schools, bus companies have embraced the online ticketing concept. DiTara will provide the computers and software needed to participate.
“It’s an affordable solution” for them, D’Wis said.
Huzvaak Limzerwala, senior manager-experience design at Brotherhood Mutual, said D’Wis has a passion to solve problems. It’s a quality the local insurance company values in its analysts, he said.
“Rhoda has always demonstrated the ability to apply logical thinking while analyzing an issue in her quest to provide viable solutions,” he said in a statement.
But establishing the cloud-based system and providing equipment to bus companies takes money.
“It’s a huge undertaking,” she said. “It’s expensive. That’s why we need investors.”
D’Wis is fascinated by the intersection of computers and business. The local entrepreneur launched DiTara to operate in that space. Her sister, who remains in Kenya, is co-founder of the company.
D’Wis found support from Elevate Ventures, a nonprofit in Indianapolis that nurtures new and existing high-growth companies. Assistance can be in the form of advice, money or both.
Robert Clark, an entrepreneur-in-residence with Elevate Ventures, helped D’Wis prepare presentations for potential investors. He also set up some pitch meetings and helped D’Wis apply for a High Potential Community Grant.
D’Wis – who uses the surname “Diwis” on legal documents to avoid apostrophe-related problems – secured an Elevate grant for $25,000. She plans to formally launch the software platform in May or June.
Clark said the company is ready to seek its first round of funding. He expects Elevate will participate. Additional money could come from members of Northeast Indiana Angel Investor Network, a group of potential investors being formed this year by Elevate Ventures.
The organization includes 88 angel investors who will have the opportunity to partner with DiTara and D’Wis. She’s scheduled this month to make one of the first three presentations to the group. Anyone who’s interested can follow up to hear more.
John Sampson, the Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership’s president and CEO, said his organization is playing a supporting role in forming the investor network. He has reviewed the business proposal D’Wis drafted – but hasn’t crunched the numbers as part of a detailed review.
“I think the concept is cool,” he said. “It appears that there’s a significant opportunity there. It really brings home the opportunity of the global market.”
Northeast Indiana officials in recent years have emphasized the need for the region’s employers to look overseas for customers and the need for economic development organizations to nurture entrepreneurship.
“This is exactly the kind of stuff we wanted to see happen in the region,” Sampson said of DiTara.
Clark has worked closely with D’Wis and is impressed by her personal and business potential.
“She’s a really smart lady,” he said. “The huge opportunity is that she’s developed this bus ticket platform for Kenya to start off, but it applies to all Third World countries.”
The business plan calls for buying tickets at a discount and reselling them to travelers.
The sisters see Kenya as merely the entry point to the entire East African market.
Once the ticketing operation gets going, D’Wis wants to look for opportunities related to health care, education and financial services. D’Wis frets that there isn’t enough time to pursue all her ideas. One thing that doesn’t tempt her, however, is the idea of building a big business.
“We just want,” she said, “to be this great little company that transforms people’s lives.”