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This Is Uncomfortable

In Kenya, increasing interest in data mining

Julia Simon Feb 27, 2013
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It’s about 8 o’clock on a Thursday night and this Nairobi supermarket called Uchumi is packed with evening shoppers. Engineer Dee Kerubo has come to buy toiletries and whatever else catches her eye. “I got a Kit-Kat too,” Kerubo laughs.

At the cash register, she pulls out a bright red plastic card — her Uchumi loyalty card. The cashier swipes it and it makes a loud “BEEP!”

That “BEEP!” is the sound of data, going from Kerubo’s card to a huge computer room in the back of the store.

Uchumi’s information manager, Charles Thuku, explains that “we got our cables over here going all the way to the tills, so as the cashiers are selling we are able to get hold of that information, have it saved in the server.”

With 21 million customers a year, the Uchumi chain makes up about a quarter of Kenya’s supermarket sector. But Thuku thinks Uchumi could be more competitive if it could just dig deeper into customers’ information.

“We interested to know the basket size of a customer,” Thuku says, “their frequency, how often they come in our stores to shop. What are the items they normally get when they come to do the shopping?  So that’s the information that we are quite interested in.”

That’s where data analyst Karibu Nyaggah comes in. Nyaggah runs Caytree Partners, a Kenyan analytics firm he founded last year.

Nyaggah says data analytics can open up consumer information not just in retail, but in the financial sector as well. He says Kenya’s banks especially could use more data.

“For example, every credit card company in the U.S. shares with the credit bureau who their account holders are — everyone knows that you’ve had these set of accounts and how you’ve handled them. In Kenya there’s no such sharing and so when you come into my bank to open an account, you may seem like a perfectly decent guy, but you might also be a really big fraudster,” Nyaggah says.

Nyaggah hopes that if Kenyan banks can have more data transparency and make a credit score system, then they can sort out the credit worthy from the crooks.

“And it’s quite exciting,” he says, “because the net result of that effort is more folks have access to credit, which is a huge enabling factor in growing the economy.”

The problem is data analytics is expensive, and many Kenyan companies aren’t ready to make the investment yet. But luckily for supermarket Uchumi, someone else might be willing to pay. Multinational Unilever has expressed interest in paying Uchumi to have easier access to its customers’ information.

Because even if Kenya’s companies don’t yet see the value of the country’s consumer data, the global marketplace does.

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