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Kurt Davis worked for over 20 years in Silicon Valley and Asia, running the tech rat race as a business development specialist. He was on the road to burnout.
Jobs took him to companies like Mitsui & Co., Boku, Asia Sports Mobile Games, and GE Capital. But in 2017, he took a trip to Africa. He thought it would be for a couple of weeks, but he ended up staying for the better part of a year. And he got sucked into the mission of doing good.
Davis began working with various nonprofits to help the talented people he found in Africa and match them up with opportunities. He traveled to numerous companies and came into contact with nonprofits and ventures such as Ghana Mest (funded by Meltwater), Malawi mhub, Funmi’s Kindle Africa, Leap School, Uganda Dance and Solar, Uganda Reaplife, and Zambia Bongohive.
Partway into his trip, he got ill and had to return home to the U.S., settling in Tennessee during the pandemic. He wrote a book about his adventures, Finding Soul: From Silicon Valley to Africa — A travel memoir and personal journey through twenty countries in Africa. He also cofounded a startup, Kakuma Ventures, that helps refugees start businesses.
I talked to him about this personal odyssey and his observations about technology in Africa. He talked about coping with his “traveler’s depression” as he met extremely impoverish people and how he developed empathy and a passion for teaching. He started a nonprofit, Kakuma Ventures, to create jobs for a refugee camp. He also hiked Kilimanjaro. His takeaways tell us something about the human condition. And he’s working on a second book now and a startup on well-being.
Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
Image Credit: Kurt Davis
Kurt Davis: I’ve settled down. I’m in Tennessee. I just started writing. I was building out my travel blog, and I decided I would write about my African experience. Show people what I learned around my time in Africa, things around how the entrepreneurship scene is growing and getting very exciting. There’s a lot of mobile game activity happening in schools and in the streets. Things are picking up over there from a technology perspective, and the entrepreneurs want to do more and more. As well as other things around empathy, the power of travel, looking at the world differently.
VentureBeat: Was there something that made you successful, that gave you enough comfort to consider something like a year off?
Davis: It was more that I was sick of running all the time in business development and sales. I got really tired of it. I’ve always loved to travel. I lived in Asia for 10 years. I lived in London. But I felt that Africa was coming of age. I wanted to take some time for myself to do something I loved to do, which was to see a new part of the world. I had saved up some money working in tech, but I wasn’t by any means — there was no exit from Boku. I didn’t make a lot of money. I just had enough saved up so that I could easily travel through Africa.
VentureBeat: Did you plan on doing this for the full year, or were you just taking a vacation at first?
Davis: I started off because I was going to go with Team for Tech, a Silicon Valley nonprofit. I had some friends working there, and they did a program where they let independent people sign up. They were going just after the 2016 election. I initially thought I would go with them, and then I set up one other group meeting in Nigeria with another Silicon Valley friend who runs a place called Meltwater.org. My buddy there is part of the Sherpa Foundry. He worked with Meltwater in Ghana and Nigeria for two years.
I was thinking I would go there around Thanksgiving and come back right after Christmas. But I just kept going. It was too much fun, too interesting. I ended up being there for nine months.
VentureBeat: Where was the first place you landed?
Davis: I went into South Africa (team4tech.org) and worked in the townships, around Johannesburg. I rented a car, drove through Lesotho and Swaziland, went up to Mozambique. Then I went to West Africa, and from there to East Africa, and then worked my way back down to South Africa again. Finally, I worked my way back up to Ethiopia. I jumped around a bit. As I kept going, I kept finding new projects. There’s a cool project. There’s an entrepreneurial hub. I’ll go there and reach out to them.
Image Credit: Kurt Davis
VentureBeat: Were you ever concerned about personal safety, or just dealing with the environment of poverty in some of these areas?
Davis: I call it traveler’s depression when you’re in these places. We went to some very poor, impoverished places. You just have to learn to — I talk a lot about how I learned about empathy, being in these places and working with the people there. I stopped getting sad as much and started getting more driven to help and do things. It’s hard. In the foreword, I talk about crying in the refugee camp. It’s so hard. How that changes over time, I talk about that in the book.
As far as feeling threatened, though, no, not really. There is still definitely tension between white and Black [people], leftover from apartheid. But once you get into other countries with less of that negative history, they don’t really care. People just say, “What are you doing here? Why are you roaming around?” They’re more curious. In places like Kenya and West Africa, people just want to know what you’re up to. There’s less of that friction. There is negative history around colonialism in all of these countries, except maybe Ethiopia, but it’s not as bad as it was in South Africa.
VentureBeat: Did you have other people to learn from as far as how to go about helping nonprofits?
Davis: Not really. I took my experiences from selling at Boku, doing business development, and I put a 100-page Powerpoint together, which is somewhere on slide share. By the way, I’m writing my second book on business development and sales for entrepreneurs. It’s focused on people outside Silicon Valley, people who want to close deals. Boku ended up succeeding because we closed deals with Apple, iTunes, Xbox, PlayStation, and Spotify. Teaching people how to close deals at that level. The book focuses on how you go from closing $10,000 deals, $100,000 deals, to $10 million deals.
It put the slides together and I would go to places and I’d walk through them. I’d adjust as I go. “Does this apply to what you’re doing? You can use this.” Sometimes I’d learn that what I was talking about didn’t apply where I was because Africa might be different, but still, in Africa, you can sell services to telecom carriers, to media companies. There’s still a lot of the same dynamics.
VentureBeat: Observing tech entrepreneurship there, what was memorable about the companies where a lot of activity was going on?
Davis: The hot spots are Nigeria and Kenya. Nigeria is hopping. Kenya is hopping. They’re more sophisticated, developed economically, things like that. There’s a lot of money flowing in and out of those places. Nigeria is the center of West Africa. You get that whole corridor. Also Ghana. It’s easy to run between Nigeria and Ghana. There’s a lot of smaller countries as well. Once you do West Africa, you can do that. Then in East Africa and Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda … Rwanda is like the Singapore of Africa. It’s organized and clean. Kenya is a hot spot to service East Africa. Better structure, better legal system, things like that. South Africa is the hot spot for the southern Africa region. Startups there, a lot of fintech startups are growing and developing mobile wallets and things like that. They just go up. The creative world really lies in West Africa. Music, art, things like that sit in West Africa.
VentureBeat: Did you run into other people doing the same kind of things you did? Going from Silicon Valley to Africa?
Davis: No, I didn’t meet anyone like me while I was there. I do know that in Meltwater, right after I left, they had a visitor from Facebook. He came and spent a few days out there. They sometimes get visitors. They invite people. A lot of these companies work with the U.S. consulates to help bring people over. BongoHive was sponsored by the U.S. embassy to bring five people over. When I met them, they paid for my flight from South Africa. That was really nice.
Image Credit: Kurt Davis
VentureBeat: Did you ever figure out how much the whole year cost you, just how much savings you had to go through?
Davis: I budgeted maybe $50 a day, and I definitely spent more than that. I talk about this in the book. I wasn’t making any money, charging anybody for what I did. I just did it. You can certainly do it in that amount. The hotels and stuff like that, if you’re not staying at American hotels, you can easily find places for $30-$40. If you want to do it on $50 a day, you totally can. But if you start adding in flights, if you do a safari that costs a few thousand dollars, if you do X, Y, and Z — if I did it on the back of the envelope with all the other things I did, I probably did it on about $20,000, $25,000.
If you were to spend a year and you had $30,000, if you wanted to explore — not all of the continent, but if you had to take some trips, do some long overland travel, $30,000 would do it comfortably. Taking buses as much as possible, getting help with housing as much as possible. A lot of these incubators paid for my housing. But my rough estimate was about $20,000, $25,000. I was pretty strict about how I was spending my money.
VentureBeat: That doesn’t sound as expensive as you might assume. It sounds like it could be doable for a lot of people.
Davis: The important part is that you find the right sponsors and people to help you. I stayed in Ghana for free. Then I just took a bus down the coast and hung out at a hostel for 10 bucks. It wasn’t hard. The hotels I stayed in were usually Chinese hotels. The Chinese have built hotels all around, and a nice one is $30.
VentureBeat: What do you think spurred that urge to do something like this, to go outside the Silicon Valley tech life?
Davis: It’s always been a personal goal of mine to see half the world, to travel to half the world. That was part of it. I’d worked in tech, and I know what it is. It’s just tech. Sell another widget, make another widget, make another game, make another payment system. Maybe there’s another payment system with a bigger idea than yours. But it’s the same thing. I just started to feel that a lot of that was not fulfilling to me. It wasn’t impacting others. It wasn’t helping others.
I’m not going to say — I think technology does help people. Stripe and Google, they’ve helped people, for sure. But I couldn’t find satisfaction in it. I started to realize that I like to be around people. I have a passion for teaching. I thought I would do something different. What I would say was, “Do something that meant nothing.” In our world of Silicon Valley, we’re always trying to do something that means something. We’re trying to impress someone. We’re trying to one-up someone. I didn’t want to do anything that meant anything like that. I wanted to do something that meant something to me.
VentureBeat: It almost sounds more like attacking it as a business problem. This whole region needs help, but a lot of the solution is taking some of the things you learned from the business life and passing it on.
Davis: It’s that simple. What do I know? Of course, I know stuff. I know finance. I know sales. I know technology, how to build and organize a company a little bit. But that’s enough. These people are looking at Silicon Valley with stars in their eyes thinking, “We want to build those companies in Africa. We want the technology. We want to do this for our continent, what those companies have done.” They want to learn and be part of it. They’re no different than any of us.
Look at the game industry. There are a ton of people out there who are going to want to play games, who will start playing games. I came across a few guys who were trying to make — as the Chinese have their own thing, their own characters, to take the same kind of scripts and make their own characters, Africans want to do that as well. There’s certainly a market that could be exciting for a lot of these companies — maybe not today, but at some point.
Image Credit: Kurt Davis
VentureBeat: The successes there, are they more localized tech companies, or are they trying to be global in some way?
Davis: Most of them are localized. A lot of them are replicas. Jumia, the ecommerce company. Delivery services are getting big because of the low cost of labor. Building mobile radio services. Those are popular. But then you have stuff that’s not like anywhere else. All of the mobile farming networks. They’re using mobile phone platforms to share different farming gear, to price different crops at different times because the farmers are so disintegrated. Platforms for small churches are big. A lot of financial services, like mobile wallets.
VentureBeat: It seems like they have an advantage in being mobile-first.
Davis: Yeah, primarily. They have better cell service across Africa than we do in remote parts of the U.S. Even where I am in Tennessee, I got better cell service in Africa than I do in Knoxville.
VentureBeat: Did you see many offices for the big tech companies there?
Davis: I didn’t. I saw a lot of Chinese offices. Chinese manufacturers, handset companies. The Chinese are looking to invest in companies. About that time, Alibaba and Jack Ma did a big showcase out in Rwanda. The Chinese have a massive tech conference they do there every year. Huawei does a lot of the networks. I did see a lot of Chinese companies.
VentureBeat: You don’t see the FANG companies, then? Facebook, Amazon, Netflix, and Google?
Davis: None of them. They should start looking. Apple had some retailers, but they’re just too expensive. They’re selling smartphones for 50 bucks out there. Facebook has a bit of presence in South Africa, I think. I think they have offices. But I don’t know what they do there. Google.org does a lot there.
VentureBeat: I wonder if part of the solution is talking those companies into setting up there. Or do you think it’s more about Africans creating their own companies?
Davis: I certainly think the Googles and Facebooks of the world are looking at it. They’re doing some stuff. But I just don’t know. Can some Africans build their own search engines, their own social networks that compete? I’m sure they can at some point. The one thing that slows the area down is the lack of engineering. I don’t mean to say entirely as a continent, but there’s not a lot of engineers. A lot of the engineering comes out of Zimbabwe, oddly, and that’s a really difficult place. They had the Zimbabwe School of Engineering. But there’s not a lot of engineering prowess in Africa at large. A lot of East African countries outsource that to India.
VentureBeat: What did you think about when you were finishing up and preparing to come back? What made you decide to get back to the U.S.?
Davis: One of the main reasons I left is because I got sick. I couldn’t figure out what was wrong. But that was my fault. I swam in a lake and ended up getting a parasite. I came back and finally got over it. I was going between Tennessee and California. I wanted to go back because I started a little venture firm in a refugee camp, Kakuma Ventures. We’re still working on it, and we’re doing well. We just got some grants. We’re building Wi-Fi networks in refugee camps.
I want to do more. But unless you’re independently wealthy or otherwise have a lot of resources, it’s hard to make big moves. You don’t have to be. I just planted a small seed to get going. The peak of the book is my time in the refugee camp. We started it while we were there, and we kept going. We got into the Miller Center program for entrepreneurship in Santa Clara. We graduated from there and we just raised our first $20,000. Now we’re trying to raise $100,000 to build out the Wi-Fi platform in all of Kakuma. We need about that much to finish it.
I’m still doing that. My plan was to go back out last year, but then all this stuff started happening and obviously I’m not traveling. I went back to the Valley and started looking at jobs, and honestly I just couldn’t get excited about anything, selling stuff. I went back to spend time with my family here and start a new career writing books. I’ll write a second book about business development, and then I’m working on a well-being project. Maybe I’ll do my own thing. We’ll see.
Image Credit: Kurt Davis
VentureBeat: How old are you now?
Davis: I celebrated my 40th birthday in Mozambique.
VentureBeat: What would be some of your biggest takeaways from it all?
Davis: I call the book “Finding Soul,” because one thing I took away is that we’re all the same. We’re just a soul. There’s a part in there that accentuates that thought. If we start to look at each other at the ground level, as a soul, we’ll start to look at each other with a quality of giving each other equal opportunities, not letting your ego drive your actions. Looking at others with equivalence, no matter where they come from. Look at each other with the soul first, and you’ll start to eradicate boundaries of inequality and racism because you’ll focus more on helping others and seeing others in an equal light.
The second was not to take life so seriously. We don’t need all this money. We don’t need all the stuff that the American system throws at us. We need very little to be happy. And don’t be so serious. Have fun. Have fun with other people. Do things that matter to you. Do things that make the world a better place. We don’t need all the stuff that we have. Our consumer society is just overburdened and wasteful.
I don’t know about your opinion, but in my opinion, people in Silicon Valley are really serious. They’re so intense. It’s just not a good culture. That competitive, cutthroat culture is just not healthy, I think, for a lot of people.
VentureBeat: I don’t know of other people who’ve done what you’ve done. There are people who’ve started nonprofits over here to help out in other parts of the world, but not so many other folks who’ve become traveling technology missionaries.
Davis: My take has always been that if you want to know a place, you have to go learn the place. I lived in China in the early 2000s. I lived in Japan twice. I traveled through Indonesia for 45 days when I wanted to learn about Indonesia. I traveled through 10 cities in India. If you want to know places, you have to put your feet down and sit with people who are like you, who haven’t done the same things you do, and just be a local for a while.
Image Credit: Kurt Davis
VentureBeat: It sounds like if people want to help you, to get involved, Kakuma Ventures is an opportunity for that.
Davis: Very much so. We haven’t put up a proper link or anything. We have a GoFundMe. But we’d love to hear from both technology minds and donors. Our vision for this, my partner and I, we want to build Wi-Fi networks. You might say, why Wi-Fi? We can’t solve, say, food problems at the moment. The amount of resources and capital needed to solve basic things like food and water, which is mostly handled by UNHCR, it’s really hard as an independent entrepreneur.
But there’s one thing everyone wants. They want to get online, see what the world is doing and be able to transfer money in and out of their mobile wallets. A good, cheap Wi-Fi network can do that. They also study. There’s a lot of programs for students and scholars. They’ll do online work all through their Wi-Fi. That’s our thing. If we can light up refugee camps with internet access, with efficient download and upload speeds, we can help a lot of people.
VentureBeat: I happened to meet someone named Lual Mayan, who was a refugee in South Sudan and Uganda. He lived 22 years in a refugee camp and then made his way to the U.S. and became a game developer. His mother gave him a $300 laptop that took her maybe three years to save for, and he walked to a computer center every day, a three-hour walk, so he could charge it up. He used that as his way out. He’s set up his own foundation now to bring technology to that particular camp in Uganda.
Davis: There are all these great stories. My partner, I hope he builds something massive here. He’s a genius engineer. He was doing Bitcoin mining on his cell phone. It was crazy. But even the founder of WorldRemit was a refugee. I don’t know if you’re familiar with him. It’s one of the big remittance companies, a billion-dollar company now. There’s a lot of talent. You hear a quote about Africa. “Talent is everywhere, but opportunity is nowhere.”
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