Up&Ap: Michael Asola on building the SILK mobile device brand


He’s been in the industry for over a decade, during which time he’s worked for various mobile phone vendors in US and China. When he finally came back to Kenya, he was fortunate to work in CBS’ reality TV show ‘Survivor Africa’ which was being shot in Kenya, taking charge of major communication systems that were used during the shoot. When the CBS project ended, he came back home. Together with his other colleagues, they are now focused on Kenya’s first locally designed smartphone model, SILK. Here’s the story of Michael Asola, the COO at Synergy Innovations Kenya Limited…

Q: Who is Michael Asola?

MA: I’m  a business savvy – techpreneur with over 14-years of experience in the new media and hardware industry with focus on, telecoms, finance, insurance, security, investments , entertainment, web and other digital engagements. I have unique insight that marries technology with the market place.  My cardinal goal is to cut my teeth in places where eagles fly. As the COO and lead designer of SILK, Kenya’s first smartphone, my role is to implement the strategic goals and objectives of this project and the ones dovetailing with it in the wider digital scope and brings home the technological discussions of IoT on SILK Brand. I’m a chief networker, starting with the weak to the strong and vice versa, I believe in working with like-minded people and giving others a chance to make their lives better by working with me to re-create their imaginations as we seek out new business and partnerships that continue to grow well beyond into the future.

(TOP: Michael Asola displays a sample SILK Patriot 55 smartphone).

Q: Before you joined (or teamed with your other partners to set up) Synergy Innovations Kenya, where were you working?

MA: I have worked and consulted for many organizations, in Kenya and other parts of the world. I worked with PCD, an American company that designs and assembles smartphones in China for distribution in Europe, America and Latin America. Then there’s Airtyme Communications, a company that acted as the daily technical interface to multiple manufacturers, alleviating the need for the service provider to devote too much of their valuable resources to this process, they also distributed phone products in India and Russia. I later worked with Cellon Communications in China, a company whose main activity was to assemble phones for world’s leading brands. My last stint was with Antel Communications, where I was in charge of the Africa market.

Q: At what point in your professional life did you decide to work in the IT industry? What were your key motivations?

MA: I studied ICT, Electrical & Electronics Engineering but the turning point of my career started when CBS came to film ‘Survivor Africa’, a reality TV show. I took charge of major communication systems that were used there, spanning from 2-way radio systems and satellite phone. The 90-day event opened the world for me, I was never the same again. I was destined to accompany the team again to South Pacific to set up their communications infrastructure…then the worst happened, there was a terrorist attack in the US, this poured more thirst to my heart…to do something spectacular that by the time it is all over, the world shall have acknowledged that there’s Kenya in the digital communication market place.

Q: Kenya already has several high-end and entry-level mobile device brands. Why do you believe the market can accommodate another brand, and a locally designed model at that?

MA: In most cases, the market does not tell innovators what to bring into the market, there cannot be a full-stop without Kenya having its own brand in the world of phones. My burning desire is to help realize this dream. We are good as a country in many things including software engineering, you will hear stories of how Kenyans occupy headlines in the globe for all the good reasons, we have the best brains and SILK is coming to make use of these resources so that Africa’s industrial revolution can start from Kenya, one person or a group of a few individuals must put their neck on the line. When they talk about their brands of electronics, Kenya will talk of SILK and this is something we are confident of stamping regardless of how bully the market can be, we have our sleeves rolled.

In most cases, the market does not tell innovators what to bring into the market, there cannot be a full-stop without Kenya having its own brand in the world of phones.

Q: In terms of features and capabilities / performance, how does the SILK Patriot 55 compare with other models in the same price range?

MA: Our flagship model – SILK Patriot 55 – is good and actually better than most of the competing brands. We promised to give quality and the matching performance and we delivered. We did not give a “Mercedes Benz “with an engine of a “Tuk-tuk” and a full tank of fuel….that means SILK Patriot 55 is a quality and high-end device running on the world’s leading processor Qualcomm. Smartphone connoisseurs know what this means.

Q: From your experience in the industry, what are some of the challenges which can be addressed through better policies and regulations from the government? Are you engaging with the relevant bodies to work out a solution to the same?

MA: Quality is something that is very important to be looked into, the citizens lose money on low-cost devices that they keep buying year in year out. For  example, if one goes for price (Kshs 7,000 because it is cheap) for a an example of what we give , they will spend almost 5 times in a year, this ends up becoming very expensive for a country, it simply means we are losing Kshs 28,000 a year as a country to sub-standard smartphones. Just  do the math to know how much this is if 1 million people bought these low quality devices. There are other hosts of challenges and the government is quite supportive to us and being a Kenyan brand that is looking forward to be assembling in Kenya by 2017, we are positive that they will be solved. This notwithstanding, the country is getting ‘SILKed’ in a big way.

We promised to give quality and the matching performance and we delivered. We did not give a “Mercedes Benz “with an engine of a “Tuk-tuk” and a full tank of fuel

Q: It’s months now since you unveiled your inaugural smartphone brand – SILK Patriot 55 – to the market. What can we expect going forward, which other models and when do you plan to have them in the market?

MA: We are currently working on 3 models, a tablet and SILK Laptop will be hitting the market before the end of 2016. These will be game changers. With our R&D, IT and Datacenter being put in place, you can as well rest assured that the future of SILK is really SILKY and unstoppable.

Q: In your opinion, how can Kenyan IT entrepreneurs operate to ensure that their products and solutions remain competitive against those from global vendors and brands?

MA: One of the biggest challenges of Kenyan entrepreneurs is making it big real quick, this is not possible. Like a baby, any company must take the normal steps of growth, and not progress like ‘Simon Makonde’. There are other things that if you do not do or if they do not happen to your company at the startup stage, they will have to catch up with you and that is when you find a company getting into a mid-life crisis. We have to give IT industry a bit of time but again do things the right way, ensure you have the right partners, not bulldog partners. What I mean by time is not forever, the industry is very dynamic and if you fold your hands on your chest, it will hit you like a vagabond.

Q: In your professional life, who do you look up to for motivation and lessons in terms of entrepreneurship?

MA: I’m an avid reader of the Bible, there are key lessons and inspirations you can only get from this book. I also believe in Kaizen and the 5S theory: Sort, Set, Shine, Standardize and Sustain. And from time to time, I pick books that not only give success stories, but have the real life story of how great men and women managed to wriggle out of these challenges and still be able to give the world a smile.

Q: Your parting shot

MA: Icons are admired but it is the iconoclasts who shake up the world, turn it inside out and bring the real change. We have to stop consuming and start producing.