Gumzo founder Jay Shapiro on building “Africa’s Zoom” in response to the pandemic


Two weeks ago, Gumzo didn’t exist. The Kenyan-based video conferencing startup only launched on May 14 but it is rapidly taking on global platforms like Zoom, Facetime, and Microsoft Team.  With over 1000 registered users and more than 5000 meetings per day in less than two weeks, it’s safe to say Gumzo is taking the video conferencing industry in Africa by storm.

In an exclusive interview with Ledger Africa, Gumzo founder and CEO Jay Shapiro talks about the motivation behind creating Gumzo, competing with Zoom, and making donations to the COVID-19 response fund.

Since the pandemic hit, video-calling apps have so engrained in our lives as people seek safer ways to communicate and keep in touch. Zoom, for instance, has seen an explosion in users during the coronavirus pandemic, as lockdowns are imposed in many countries. Zoom is now being used by millions of people for work, online learning, and leisure.

Problems with Zoom

The popularity of Zoom and other video-calling apps have not stopped Jay Shapiro and his team at Usiku Games from creating Gumzo, the first video conferencing platform made in Africa.

“There are some real problems with tools like Zoom that we thought were challenges for the Kenyan market and across Africa as a whole”, he told us.

He adds that “Zoom servers are in China and Silicon Valley”, which means that video calls in Africa “are going half way around the planet to California and back again.” As a result, a normal Zoom meeting is compressed and gated by the software, which dampens the sound and video quality.

Collaboration in real-time is also difficult, since the video feed lags slightly depending on the speed of each individual internet connection. Even though Zoom offers a free plan for public use and paid version with more advanced features, its paid plan starts at $15 per month per host. Not only is this amount expensive but it might also not be suitable for the majority of Africans who generally prefer pre-paid or pay-as-you-go (PayGo) pricing models.

“When you look at Safaricom, Airtel, Zuku, KPLC, all of them. 93% of people’s subscriptions in Africa are pre-paid plans not post-paid. People tend to take byte-size pay for what they are going to use,” Shapiro said.

Africa has “huge” market potential

Gumzo, which in Swahili means chatting, is free for users to attend meetings, with only meeting hosts required to pay Ksh.100 ($1) per week, which roughly translates to $4 per month. The company is also tapping into the blossoming mobile payments sector by allowing people to pay via Mpesa.

Hosting meetings on Gumzo will costs only $1 per week

Asked whether Gumzo can effectively compete in Africa with Zoom and other global platforms, Shapiro says, “Absolutely. [Zoom] are entirely focused on the North American and European markets. They are not even looking at Africa. They have no interest in Africa.”

He says that there is a “huge market” for video conferencing in Africa given that more than 350 million internet-connected smartphones can be found across the continent today. Africa also has a young and vibrant population with a growing interest in digital technologies like video conferencing.

“We can come through and offer a better service at a lower price.”

Unlike other video chat apps, Gumzo is web-based. This means that their calls happen in the browser. This eliminates the hassle of downloading an app, or configuring extensions to use the platform. It is also easy to set up a meeting through a simple link sent through text or email.

Gumzo video conferencing platform is web-based meaning calls can be made easily from a mobile phone or desktop browser

Enabling “social family connections”

The inspiration behind Gumzo, according to Shapiro, relates to the necessity for quick and practical solutions to coronavirus problems in Africa. By leveraging their in-game video chat tool for Usiku Games, they built a robust video-calling platform that can be used more widely to tackle the pandemic.

Their video conferencing platform will also enable African countries to retain the fees in local economies, compared to foreign companies that take it away from the continent.

 “We realised that we can repurpose the [in-game video conferencing tool] and build it into a proper total video conferencing system that is made in Africa for Africa to be an alternative to the Zoom’s of the world.”

Shapiro emphasizes that their platform is “more of a social family connection tool” given that it connects people with their family, friends and loved ones. It is specifically targeted to ordinary users looking to socialise and keep in touch but there are features for businesses and professionals as well.  

For these reasons, Gumzo can help students, particularly those in rural areas to participate in online learning while small and medium-sized businesses can use the platform to drive value across various operations.

Gumzo will be offering the platform free of charge to all public school teachers in Kenya for use in their virtual classrooms, tuitions and family through the end of the year.

Gumzo’s privacy and security measures

However, concerns have been raised about the use of video conferencing platforms for online learning and school activities. For example, Zoom has been criticised for a range of data security and privacy issues, including sending users’ data to Facebook, wrongly claiming the app had end-to-end encryption, and allowing meeting hosts to track participants.

“Zoombombing”, where uninvited guests crash meetings, have led several organisations, schools, and governments to stop using Zoom.

One vulnerability allowed an attacker to remove attendees from meetings, spoof messages from users, and hijack shared screens. Shapiro says security lapses such as these will not be possible with Gumzo.

“We believe that we’ve built Gumzo to be much secure than what Zoom is. Every account that comes in to Gumzo must register and verify a real phone number and from that we get your real name and your location.

The solution utilises phone number verification to identify users and their location. Unless someone has trusted account, they can join a Gumzo meeting. Meeting hosts can also review the live video, name and phone number of each attendee before allowing them in to the room.

Gumzo also employs end-to-end encryption mechanisms to protect calls against unauthorised tapping or hacking. This is critical if the platform is to be used for high-level or sensitive meetings such as home-based learning and parliamentary sessions.

Read Also: How blockchain apps for contact tracing work.

Future expansion and funding plans

Shapiro sees a promising future for Gumzo and he doesn’t shy away from talking about the prospect of seeking additional funding in future “in order to do branding campaigns across different countries” and hire more support staff and engineers.

Gumzo currently has at least 20 developers working on the platform and according to Shapiro, the majority of these are Kenyans. He says that their goal is to provide employment opportunities for young people across Africa while at the same time making positive impact in the society.

Shapiro also talked about Gumzo’s commitment to supporting the Kenyan government and other non-profit organisations to tackle the coronavirus pandemic.  

“The Ksh 100 that we collect every week from customers, 50% of that we are giving back to Covid response NGOs in Kenya”, he says, adding that they are already working with organisations such as Mombasa Red Cross, Pwani Youth Network, Team Pankaj, among others.

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About the author

Vincent Olago

Vincent Olago

Vincent Olago is the Managing Editor of Ledger Africa and has been active in the blockchain space for three years now. He's passionate about entrepreneurship and the potential of disruptive blockchain technologies to reshape our world. He supports startups to tackle blockchain challenges, address strategic problems and optimize growth.