Commencement Spotlight: Luke Kyohere, MSTC
Somewhere in Africa a rural farmer who has never seen the inside of a bank and who routinely wrestles with weeklong power outages is using his mobile phone to track crucial financial, agricultural, and weather information. He is running his business and connecting to the world with the swipe of his thumb, despite operating from a locale that is most definitely off the grid.
Call it the advantage of lagging, says Luke Kyohere.
Kyohere — who was born and raised in Uganda — helped create some of the mobile technology that is upending the way Africa does business. He is graduating from the Texas Master of Science in Technology Commercialization program (MSTC) this May.
He says that by lagging behind more developed parts of the world in technology adoption, Africa has been able to take strategic shortcuts, skipping inefficient systems tested and deemed wanting or now obsolete by wealthier regions.
For instance, a World Bank report on mobile usage in Africa states that, “In the year 2000 there were fewer than 10 million fixed-line phones across Africa.” But by 2012, the continent had accumulated nearly 650 million mobile subscriptions, more than in the United States or the European Union. “In some African countries, more people have access to a mobile phone than to clean water, a bank account, or even electricity,” says the report.
That lays the foundation for powerful growth on many fronts in Africa, says Kyohere. “Technology is an enabler — it helps make solutions possible.”
And the land of possibility is where the soft-spoken, deliberate Kyohere comes to life.
Intending to follow in his father’s footsteps, Kyohere’s childhood plan was to become a doctor. “It seemed to be the most pertinent profession for Uganda, which was still rejuvenating after a prolonged civil war,” he says.
But it was technology that captured his imagination. At age 10 he was reading about virtual neural networks, teaching himself computer programming, and scouring the stories of Roald Dahl and H.G. Wells for fantastical ideas that could become reality. When a website he created won money for his school, he realized he didn’t have to be a doctor to improve people’s lives.
“I got the sense of wanting to do something important,” Kyohere says. “I wanted to invent, to build things.”
He worked as a software engineer in high school and college, all the while tinkering with side projects, creating software, and selling to other businesses. Tools Kyohere built then are still being used to manage internet domain registration in Uganda and Rwanda. In 2004, his entrepreneurial DNA took over and he quit his day job to run his own consultancy firm. One of his early clients was the development organization the Grameen Foundation, where he worked on mobile technology to help farmers run their businesses. He later joined Grameen full time while continuing consulting on the side.
Meanwhile he had been developing an idea for a mobile service company he named Beyonic to help NGOs pay employees and beneficiaries in different parts of the world. Kyohere knew he had the technology chops, but thought the idea was bigger than his business skills. When he learned about the one-year MSTC program and decided it hit the "sweet spot between business, technology, and entrepreneurship," he left Africa for Austin, on a mission to sharpen his idea and acquire the business acumen to do his new company justice.
Kyohere says the program has been an accelerated version of the real world, forcing him to make decisions quickly. He has already rewritten his business model multiple times and is now raising money and hiring a team, including several MSTC classmates. (Beyonic recently finished 2nd in the Global Venture Labs Investment Competition hosted at McCombs.) He says the program has taught him finance, accounting, intellectual property, international business, regulations, market validation, and more.
In reshaping his business, Kyohere now sees an even grander future for it, looking beyond Uganda, beyond Africa to connect to the whole world, which he thinks puts his homeland in a powerful position to attract good growth. The scope of what may come next — for Kyohere, for technology, for Africa — is enormous, and that’s just the way this inventor with his head in the clouds likes it.
Says Kyohere, “The idea of dreams is that they should be unattainable.”
MSTC at a Glance
- Class of 2013 Graduates: 72
- Current Ranking: 5th in Eduniversal's worldwide ranking for project and engineering management (2012-13) and 9th worldwide for entrepreneurship (2011-12).
- Did You Know? Companies represented by the Class of 2013 include Apple, Capital One, Deloitte, GSD&M, Parsons, the U.S. Army, and the U.S. Peace Corps.