Written by Doug O’Neill
Long before Manu Kabahizi become a digital entrepreneur, long before he studied at the University of Cape Town in South Africa and at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, he was smitten with computers.
“As a young boy growing up in Rwanda, I loved taking things apart and figuring out how they worked,” says Kabahizi. That childhood passion led to studies in computer science in South Africa, and eventually evolved into another passion: a keen interest in technology with social impact.
“No doubt some of my interest was influenced by my social reality,” says Kabahizi. “As a young black man in Africa I was aware of poverty and inequality. My interest in technology that effects social change was reinforced when I did an internship with the National Democratic institute at the Parliament in South Africa during a time of intense reform. As a junior computer technician, I played a small role supporting the introduction of new technology in a government that was becoming more democratic, more transparent and open to the world.”
During his studies at the University of British Columbia in 2006, Kabahizi further explored the ideas of transparency, as well as the use of data mining for social impact. Upon returning to Africa, he became a partner at AXIS, a software development company based in Rwanda: “That’s when I started to explore global supply chains from the bottom up.”
It’s the intricacies of the global supply chain that figure into Kabahizi’s role as co-founder/chief technology officer at the Toronto-based start-up Ulula, a software and analytics platform that equips businesses with tools to monitor human rights risks of workers around the world. The software Kabahizi oversees gives clients a clear picture of the working conditions in the factories, mines and agricultural enterprises where they source their raw materials and final products. “Not only does our platform allow clients visibility into working conditions in detail and at scale – a transparency that’s vital in the global supply chain,” he explains, “but it also strengthens business performance and worker satisfaction through data-driven analytics.”
As Kabahizi’s co-founder Antoine Heuty explains: “There is a rise in regulations and increasing consumer demand for greater insight into the conditions under which people labour to create the products we consume every day. Our platform helps to create ethical supply chains and effectively monitor for labor abuses.”
How it works: a company that’s sourcing goods from a supplier (be it a factory, farm or mine) in another country, or on another continent, typically sends an inspector once each year. “This doesn’t always result in an accurate assessment of conditions in that workplace,” says Kabahizi. “Improper working conditions can be cleaned up in time for the the visit and workers can be coached to answer the inspector in a way that’s favourable to the employer.”
With the Ulula platform, employees provide anonymous feedback online – on a continuous basis – answering specific questions such as “Have you ever seen underage workers?” or “Do you know of any employee abuse?” All answers are anonymous. “It’s the aggregate data that provides a true picture – and makes for greater transparency, ultimately confirming for clients if they’re sourcing goods from an ethical source.”
“Toronto has been an excellent base for us to grow,” says Kabahizi. “There’s a robust start-up ecosystem here: We’ve been part of DMZ and the Social Ventures Zone at Ryerson, and while raising capital we received lots of support from Mars. We also have strong a partnership with IBM through its Innovation Space.” He also credits socially-conscious investors such as Good+Well and Humanity United.
Ulula currently has team of twelve, all of whom wear multiple hats. While each member of the team has a slightly different skill set, there is one common denominator, says Kabahizi: “Passion for change. A commitment to developing technology that has social impact is fundamental for all of us.” For Ulula, it’s a workplace philosophy that truly works.
Photo Credit: Doug O’Neill