Katie G. Nelson
If you’ve ever been to Nairobi, chances are you’ve gotten lost.
Thanks to a massive population boom in Kenya’s capital, Nairobi has become a city of winding rough roads, veiled bypasses and hidden thoroughfares, most of which remain unmarked.
While many see the absence of physical addresses as a simple annoyance, Timbo Drayson and his team at OkHi argue that mapping homes and assigning addresses is more than just a timesaver.
According to the United Nations, more than 4 billion people around the world lack a formal address, making not only basic navigation difficult, but also barring billions from basic banking services and loan opportunities as well as medical services during emergencies.
“Basically, when you don’t have an address you don’t have access to the same level off services that other people do,” said Drayson, co-founder and CEO of the Nairobi-based startup OkHi.
“OkHi’s mission is to empower those 4 billion people with an address that physically connects them to services; in essence, it includes them,” he said.
Drayson’s app uses a combination of GPS coordinates and an image of the location’s front door or gate to assign a unique address, which is then converted to web address that can accessed via text, email or internet browser.
Google attempted a similar mapping venture in the past, but Drayson said the tech hub’s approach to logging addresses – an endeavor coordinated with the local government – became cumbersome due to complex formalities about numbering plots and defining land boundaries.
“It took (Google) two years to map three neighborhoods, and the whole thing fell apart,” he said. “OkHi did the same in nine neighborhoods and it took three weeks,” Drayson added.
Having a physical address might not seem like a global development necessity, but for the team at OkHi, the simple system of assigning addresses is core to economic and social growth in emerging nations like Kenya.
For example, in Kenya, most major banks require a physical address in order access loan opportunities – a critical detail that many low-income citizens don’t have.
Business logistics are also a nightmare in address-absent cities where many companies are forced to direct drivers to specific locations using complex, non-computable directions like “turn right where the goats graze” Drayson explained.
But for the ex-Google/Youtube employee, the need for formal addresses in Kenya was poignantly clear after shadowing a Kenyan ambulance service.
Hoping to better understand the day-to-day operations of a company bound to finding people in difficult locations, Drayson said it became quickly clear that drivers got lost en route due to to confusing directions or unclear addresses.
“An (ambulance driver) got so lost finding someone’s house that it was too late and the person died,” Drayson said. “That breakdown was purely because the driver got lost.”
That critical need for physical addresses also means OkHi isn’t the only smartphone app that uses geo-mapping and multipoint verification to assign addresses to the unmapped.
There’s Anwani – an app that utilizes user profiles and unique PIN numbers to create addresses, What3Words, which identifies locations using three words and a specific location on a massive grid system and Locname, a web and smartphone app that uses Google Maps or your phone mapping software to set an address.
But while the existence of address mapping apps isn’t new, the development of a tool that accurately – and more importantly – intuitively assigns an address, is.
Megan Iacobini de Fazio, director of operations at YUM Kenya food delivery said her company partnered OkHi to help their drivers navigate the less familiar neighborhoods of Nairobi.
“We have some areas that our riders know like the back of their hand,” she said. “But the problem comes when we have new clients – so that first delivery, there are usually problems,” she said.
While the geo-mapping app seemed like a good solution for drivers who were unfamiliar with Nairobi suburbs, Iacobini de Fazio said several unexpected problems arose.
“One of the problems was (that driver’s) think they know the better route,” she said. “If OkHi gave one set of directions, and (drivers) know there’s a shorter option, they would just switch the app off,” she said.
Another point of concern was privacy, she said. “People at the United Nations don’t want pictures of their gates taken for security reasons.”
While YUM Kenya did cut business ties with OkHi, Iacobini de Fazio said her company still values the idea of an address-mapping app. In fact, YUM is planning to develop their own she said.
“I think it’s a valuable product but it needs to grow still,” she said.
Despite unforeseen hiccups, OkHi is flourishing in Kenya, providing address support to Jumia, one of the largest online retailers on the continent.
OkHi has also received significant financial backing from the tech and development sector including $750,000 in seed funding from a group of Canadian and Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and a $100,000 grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. OkHi, which launched in 2014, has big local backers too.
While Drayson sees the financial appetite for geo-mapping apps in Kenya, he holds to the staunch belief that a formal addressing system isn’t just good business; it’s good development.
“But with an address, life can get better,” Drayson said. “OkHi believes having an address is a human right.”