MarketForce lessons: translating public setbacks into fresh starts

MarketForce co-founders Mesongo Sibuti, left, and Tesh Mbaabu.

MarketForce co-founders Mesongo Sibuti, left, and Tesh Mbaabu.

Published Apr 30, 2024


By Andile Masuku

It’s official. RIP, MarketForce.

MarketForce is the Kenyan B2B retail start-up behind the merchant “super app”, RejaReja, which enabled informal traders to directly procure goods, which offered hundreds of SKUs (stock keeping units) from manufacturers and distributors, conduct digital ordering and payment transactions, manage utility bill payments and land business loans.

The Y Combinator-backed venture raised $40 million (R750m) in equal parts debt and equity in its Series A funding round publicised in February 2022, bringing total funds raised since its launch in 2018 to $42.5m.

Public service announcement

In a recent public letter, Tesh Mbaabu, one of the company’s co-founders, announced the end of MarketForce’s gutsy push for “RejaReja to empower one million merchants to harness the power and scale of technology and realise their maximum potential by 2030”, and the shuttering of the company.

Before candidly outlining what led to the venture’s demise, Mbaabu shared some noteworthy achievements made beyond his team’s fortuitous fund-raising coups.

In three years, he says, MarketForce expanded to 21 cities in five countries (Kenya, Nigeria, Uganda, Tanzania and Rwanda), generated more than 800 jobs, served more than 270 000 merchants and facilitated nearly a million orders, totalling $160m in gross transaction volume on RejaReja.

Despite this, by Mbaabu’s admission, the company ultimately succumbed to the dangers of growing too fast, an over-reliance on venture capital and unsustainable unit economics.

“The shift towards profitability in the tech ecosystem serves as a poignant reminder of this lesson – customer dollars should be the focus, with investor funds as supplementary fuel. Our experience with the B2B distribution business illuminated the challenges of razor-thin margins and consistent price wars, leading us to the difficult decision to discontinue RejaReja despite exhaustive efforts to sustain it,” writes Mbaabu.

Shifting the culture

A few months ago, I highlighted the merits of adopting a constructive posture towards failure, expressing the hope that routine open-sourcing of learnings from success and failure à la Tonjé Bakang and Jason Njoku would become a mainstream norm. I’m encouraged to see Mbaabu’s public post-mortem reflections widely shared and ruminated upon.

It has occurred to me that in the global context of entrepreneurial and investment opportunity, if Africa’s tech start-up ecosystem is indeed a product many of us would love to see more widely adopted by discerning customers at home and abroad, then insight-rich journalism and quasi-journalism is critical for delivering the feedback needed to achieve product-market fit and sustainable growth at scale.

And yet, what is it about feedback? It's easy to give but tough to take. To quote a tweet I posted on X as a #NoteToSelf back in 2022: “As someone who deeply values collaboration, I must confess that the craving for gaining (and projecting) a sense of unflappable mastery often supersedes the desire to seek out and receive the feedback I need to keep growing and improving.”

In many African traditions, including my native Ndebele culture, the aversion to a loss of face, the chafing of dignity and the downgrade in status is strong. For many a villager, trying something that might fail (never mind talking about it if it should) is not worth the risk (real or perceived). And so, more often than not, out of respect (and fear), “akukhulunywa”. Things, “they are not spoken”.

Happily, that has not been the case with Mbaabu, as he and his MarketForce co-founder, Mesongo Sibuti, seem intent on sharing their founder experiences openly and channelling everything they’re learning from what must feel, on some level, like humiliating public defeat, into their next “Chpter”.

New beginnings

Indeed, Mbaabu and Sibuti are throwing their entrepreneurial energies behind a social commerce start-up with a deliberately misspelt name (Chpter), co-founded by Mark Kiare and Kevin Kuria in 2021. (Random unsolicited naming suggestion: I would recommend committing fully to the current Gen Z naming fad of ripping out all the vowels and applying all caps to run with “CHPTR”. But I digress.)

Chpter, which is said to be live in Kenya and South Africa, offers businesses a means to enhance their earnings via the rapidly expanding avenue of social media by streamlining interactions, marketing efforts, and payment processing via an AI-driven conversational commerce platform which leverages WhatsApp and Instagram. An on-trend entrepreneurial bid to capture and convert a share of a highly contested space? Check.

Once more, it’s the end of the beginning for Mbaabu and Sibuti. And like many live learners across Africa, I look forward to future personal memos that will keep me abreast of their next entrepreneurial steps.

Andile Masuku is the co-founder and executive producer at African Tech Roundup and head of community at Africa-focused early-stage tech investor Founders Factory Africa. Connect and engage with Andile on X (@MasukuAndile) and via LinkedIn.