Innovator Spotlight: Swift Lab

An interview with Geoffrey Nyaga, CTO and Co-Founder of Swift Lab.


Tell us about your innovation. What is the problem you're solving? 

Swift Lab is a tech company based in Nairobi, Kenya that is primarily looking at using autonomous robots, in this case drones, to solve challenges in last-mile delivery of medical supplies in rural Africa. The unique problem we’re trying to solve is the amount of time it takes for medicines to be transported from warehouses to the consumers who need them, especially in remote, hard-to-reach areas. 

We also use the same technology to support medical research. So, for example, we help researchers map malaria outbreak areas, the spread of diseases, and other areas of medical research. Our product focuses on the hardware side where we manufacture drones, but we also have a software component where we help government researchers and medical facilities to plug into for both mapping and also for the medical logistics aspect of it. 

Swift Lab has two verticals: the logistics arm and the data mapping aspect. On the delivery side, we are starting off at the government level. So we signed up with Kenya Posta, which is the national post office body, because they do the last mile delivery of medicines to public hospitals. We’re then looking to work with county governments and then slowly we are rolling into the private space. The primary reason we are starting off with government is because of goodwill, as the nature of our business brings security concerns. On the data collection side, where we are mapping for issues around disease, sanitation and health and are currently working with Stanford University. So, overall, our clients are research institutes, private companies, public organisations, and government bodies. 

What is a recent example of progress? What are you currently celebrating? 

Right now I'm in Kisumu in the western part of Kenya and we are working on a research project with Stanford University and local county researchers to map the spread of Dengue fever, which is a disease spread by mosquitoes. So what we've been doing for the last couple of days is mapping potential breeding sites for mosquitos, including stagnant water, trash bins, etc. We have also done mapping of malaria outbreak areas. We've done urban planning mapping for Nairobi River and affected communities of how that river is contributing to the spread of cholera. 

On the medical delivery side, we are still at the prototype stage. Most of the work we've done is just for demos. We've not gone to the point of revenue generation in medical logistics, but we are going to execute this in Q3 of this year.

"As the Swift Labs team work on designing and building a drone, they are also offering drone services using imported drones. This allows them to gain better understanding of market needs while building a customer pipeline. This is a brilliant strategy for a company that aspires to eventually manufacture drones locally." - Moses Waweru, Senior Program Manager

What are the primary challenges you’re currently facing? 

One of the challenges we’ve faced in developing these large drones has to do with geopolitics. Because of the security challenges Kenya has faced, many government bodies are a bit uneasy with this technology. We’ve had to take a lot of time to establish goodwill with the government in order to build trust. The second challenge is with the uptake of the technology itself. This is something very new to everyone in the space and the medical field is one of those traditional fields where changing the way people do things a bit hard. So we've had a lot of challenges that we have worked to solve through demonstrations and meetings where we’re able to educate stakeholders. 

The third one is on the monetary side. Because Swift Lab is manufacturing our own drones, there is an initial cost that is extremely high. Access to funding as an African startup that is focusing on manufacturing in the field of aviation is a very big challenge. But we are choosing to take on this challenge because engineering for African issues requires African solutions. It might have been easier to partner with a company out of the US or China, but existing solutions are not geared to the African environment (for example, most existing drones require 4G networks). In Africa, once you leave the city there’s no guarantee of high-quality communication networks. Historically, it’s been really difficult to raise money as an African aviation startup, but once we started making prototypes and Villgro came in and a few other champions even at government level, this is a narrative that we’re slowly changing and we’ve seen positive movement. But it has taken around 1.5 years to get to this place where we’re seeing progress. 

Over the course of developing your innovation, what is something you have learned that might help other innovators?

As a company, Swift Lab is in a very unique position because we've worked both on the software side (which has really picked up and have a rapidly growing list of clients) and the manufacturing side. As two technical co-founders, there were many things we were completely unaware of. For example, our balance of product making and market validation was not perfect. So without a lot of validation, we moved forward, only to realise later that we weren’t heading in exactly the right direction. So my advice will be this: It's good as innovators to delegate duties. Make sure that your team is dynamic. If you're a purely technical team, find somebody to balance on the other side (sales, marketing, etc). And if you have a business background, it’s good to have a technical person in your team to drive the product. 

Secondly, the key turning point for us was when we started engineering based on what the clients wanted and where the gaps in the market were. So our product iteration changed to incorporate feedback from potential customers and then continue developing with their input before we spend a lot of money, effort and time to build something that perhaps nobody wants. 

And the third one is of course sales. Sales I think is one of the hardest things to do and one of the most under-appreciated efforts. So my advice is to start thinking about your sales pipeline way ahead of time, even before your product launches, because good products without a good sales foundation will quickly run into issues (not having enough money, no product-market fit) and then you get stuck. 

How has Villgro impacted your growth? 

Villgro has impacted the Swift Lab team in many ways. First of all, they have helped us on the monetary side. They supported us with an initial grant when we were struggling, which helped us build our first prototype. And beyond the money, it gave us confidence because it showed they believed in us. It rubber stamped what we were doing and we really needed that validation. 

The second thing they did was help us create sales pipelines and identify if we have product-market fit. Sometimes as founders we can be blinded by our own products but Villgro came in and in our bi-weekly meetings we looked at our sales, revenue, expenses, etc. 

One of the things I think Villgro does differently from any other accelerator that we've encountered is that we’re not only given a manager but have also had several occasions where the CEO and other C-suite executives took the time to support us. They've helped us shape our organisational structure, guiding us from their own experience on how to establish a well-rounded team. Before Villgro, our taxes were all over the place, we didn’t have a CRM, documentation was disorganised. 

Fourthly, Villgro has helped us spread our message. They took us along to Kenya Innovation Week (KIW) and other medical based innovation programs and functions. Villgro always takes us with them so that as they are speaking or exhibiting, we are there alongside them. This has given us increased visibility. 

Finally, Villgro has shared so much information with us about potential grant opportunities, education courses, sales pitch trainings, and other opportunities to learn. We’ve seen them go out of their way to connect us with these grants and programs and this has been really beneficial to us. 

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