Joanna Bichsel: How Ex-Microsoft Engineer is Leading Africa’s Female Tech Revolution
As the explosion of tech hubs deepen in Africa, with staggering success stories recorded and billions of dollars raised in investment rounds, only a handful of women are in the front row and taking part in the power moves in the continent’s tech ecosystem.
With the short supply of female actors, there are even fewer digital solutions tailored to African women’s self-care, which Joanna Bichsel, a former engineer and business leader at Microsoft, believes is an absurdity and she is set on a mission to democratize access for all.
After spending 11 years at Microsoft, Bichsel joined the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation as the Principal Technology Advisor. She eventually left the robust position and headed to Rwanda, where she co-founded Kasha, an eCommerce platform selling health, hygiene and selfcare products primarily for women.
Four years later, Bichsel’s decision to start Kasha is paying off. The brand has pitched its tent in Kenya and is eyeing other East African countries, with about 60 employees on its payroll.
In this interview, she opens up to Business Elites Africa (BEA) about how she’s building a platform that would easily become a haven for African women to shop for their most personal items – from menstrual care to contraceptives – without shame and fear of stigmatization.
Q: You co-founded Kasha for women, why the gender focus?
A: Around the time the idea for Kasha was coming together, there was a lot of talk about women and girls and how “they should be empowered”. There was a lot of talk globally on this topic but when you actually looked at a woman’s day-to-day experience in getting essential products, there were little to no solutions that were truly optimized for women, especially digital solutions and solutions related to products for women’s bodies, their health and selfcare. I don’t think there’s yet a realization that most tech is built by men and for men, and that a woman’s unique experience is often not recognized or catered for. As a woman, I know what it’s like to go into a store or pharmacy to get a regular product for my body that shouldn’t cause any eyes on me, but the reality is that many products for women’s bodies at all life stages are stigmatized. The situation is even worse in small towns, villages and in rural areas where everyone knows each other and the community talks. As a software engineer and someone with a background in building technology solutions, I could see ways we could improve the customer experience for women to get the quality health and self-care products they need and want, confidentially and conveniently.
Q: Focusing on women means limited customer-base. Did you not have difficulty in convincing investors to commit their funds?
A: Women often make up more than 50% of the population and what most people don’t realize is that they are the most influential consumers for health, household and personal care products. They are the decision makers for 80% of household consumer purchases. Women themselves have monthly product needs that vary throughout the course of their lives. The misconception is that a subsegment customer base is limiting but in the case of women, that subsegment customer base purchases for the majority of the total customer base.
ALSO READ: Business Elites Africa – “40 Under-40 African Business Icons” 2020 Edition
When Kasha first started back in 2016, there wasn’t much of a focus or understanding by investors who invest in Africa on the topic of women as influential consumers. There was also limited market research in this area compared to developed markets. I saw the niche as a huge untapped opportunity whereas investors really wanted more proof and data. In emerging markets when you are trying something new, deep industry research is not always easy to get. Thankfully, we did find investors that saw the immense opportunity, that believed in the team, and gave us the start that we needed to grow the company.
Read the rest of the interview in the latest edition of our magazine here: Find it on pages 22&23.
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