Digital marketplace serves the bereaved
Like many other children who either lose their grandparents while very young, or those whose grandparents died before they were born, John Nyongesa’s son was curious to know what kind of man his late grandfather was.
Growing up, he would often ask his father about his grandfather, but because most of the old man’s photos, records and memoirs were either lost or misplaced due to the passage of time, Nyongesa could only rely on his memory to explain to his son what his grandfather had been like.
This inspired him to create a personalised memorial website that would store his father’s handwritten biography and pictures, enabling any member of the family to access memories of their late grandfather at their convenience.
Nyongesa shared his work with some of his friends for feedback, and the response he got made him realise that this was something many families were missing. In 2018, therefore, he opened up the platform to the public. For two years, Safiri Salama served as a platform where bereaved individuals could share stories, tributes, photos, music and videos celebrating the lives of relatives or friends who had passed away.
While going through the feedback he received from site visitors, again, Nyongesa realised that many people were asking questions about where they could get certain funeral-related services. It occurred to him that despite wide internet coverage in the country, there was limited information about funeral service providers online, a factor that inspired him some more.
“While Kenya, with a population of 55 million, leads Africa in internet penetration, smart phone access, e-commerce implosion, multiple fintechs, and ravenous consumption of online news, the end-of-life industry is largely untouched by the benefits of this tech revolution. You can buy a toothpick online but can’t track a coffin seller,” notes Nyongesa.
He adds that because people also do not ordinarily encourage the contemplation of death or any discussion about their own or their loved ones’ death, some unscrupulous funeral service providers have used this gap to their advantage to exploit uninformed families when they are in their most fragile emotional states.
“When grief and urgent decision making are paired, grieving families do not conduct proper research before buying. Additionally, the funeral industry hardly publishes their prices. Advertising in the sector is mostly limited to word of mouth and the reputation of the owner of the company, making it difficult to differentiate services between competitors. In this state of flux, bereaved families are hugely disadvantaged and end up pressure buying, rushed into making decisions at a moment’s notice,” adds Nyongesa.
And so in 2021, Nyongesa rolled out the Redbook, a digital market place on the Safiri Salama website, that connects verified service providers in the grief industry with families. He teamed up with Steve Lelei, an actuarial scientist, to help him manage the financials of the platform, and Edith Orwako, who has a background in management, to help in running some of the firm’s operations.
The three managed to raise some Sh12.4million from an angel investor to finish developing the prototype. The Safiri Salama team vetted a number of funeral service providers and conducted some background research to ensure they were all credible, before listing them on the platform.
“Funeral services vendors also struggle with online presence which is now critical for any consumer business. For vendors unfamiliar or without an online presence, we also offered to provide mini websites within the Redbook via subscription, to showcase products, pricing and stock availability.”
Funeral service providers
Fast forward to 2023, the Redbook currently features around 50 categories of both direct and indirect funeral service providers. These include funeral homes, flower and coffin dealers, event service providers such as caterers, tent dealers and sound personnel, funeral cover providers, legal services providers (Estate Administration, Wills, Trust Registration), transportation including air freight, hearses and car hire, as well as counselling and palliative care providers.
The Redbook currently serves users in Nairobi, but Nyongesa and his team are seeking additional funding to be able to finance marketing campaigns to other parts of the country as well.
They also plan to complete the Redbook advertising/priority listing module, hire technical, marketing and customer service teams, as well as improve their analytics module. They also plan to conduct sensitisation campaigns aimed at changing the perception of people about the grief industry, noting that it is an industry like any other.
“Kenya’s fast-growing funeral industry has resulted in expanded services, new trends and a multiplication of vendors. From private funeral homes, industrial coffin makers, insurance, lawyers, event planners, transportation fleets, the end-of-life industry in Kenya is now a huge system with thousands of players and companies. Conservative estimates place the industry worth at Sh56 billion per year,” says the businessman.