Saad Syed, CEO of Chenosis, part of Africa's MTN Group, shares his distinct approach to API monetization.
MTN Chenosis: from API marketplace to developer accelerator platform
“What we’re trying to do is help developers in Africa get great apps out as quickly and as at low cost as possible.” This ambition – expressed by Saad Syed, the CEO of Chenosis, a start-up business owned by Africa’s MTN Group – reveals an approach to API monetization that is very different from other operators.
Chenosis was launched more than two years ago, but the business has largely been in stealth mode since then. Getting it up and running in such a large operator group with 19 operating companies has also been a challenge.
However, the recruitment of Syed in March 2022 – a commercial business leader with direct recent experience working for Google APIs platform Apigee – signals a ramp up in terms of commercial strategy. Indeed, 2023 will be the year when Chenosis properly opens for business in its first five markets: South Africa, Nigeria, Uganda, Rwanda and Ghana.
When MTN announced Chenosis in August 2020 it represented a bold move from an operator that until then had been focused on delivering mobile and, more recently, broadband connectivity to consumers and businesses across Africa. However, MTN already had a mobile payments business called MTN Mobile Money (MoMo) and a messaging and value-added services platform, Ayoba. It was also expanding rapidly in the B2B market. From the outset Chenosis has been granted considerable autonomy. “Chenosis is a separate brand and entity, and will have an arms-length relationship with MTN so that it remains open to all mobile network operators, fintech startups, payment service providers, mobile wallet operators, financial service providers, and more,” Charles Molapisi, the then MTN Group Chief Technology and Information Officer, and now CEO of MTN South Africa, said at the launch in August 2020.
Chenosis’ early positioning was as an API marketplace selling MTN APIs and others from third parties. “The Chenosis Marketplace allows businesses and developers to publish their APIs so that other developers can discover and consume them,” the company stated at launch. “The marketplace also provides the tools for publishers to monetize and promote their APIs, by creating subscription plans and product bundles that developers and businesses can purchase.”
While MTN is “just one publisher” on the Chenosis marketplace, according to Syed, it represents a starting point in terms of generating business for the organization. “In the short term we’re going to leverage the MTN API catalog, which has readymade use cases, and get out there and monetize them,” he says.
An early target will be the aggregator community which has grown up in recent years to leverage the CPaaS business model. In the short term their interest lies in communications services APIs (principally voice and SMS), but “I could foresee a time where these aggregators are also consuming third-party APIs as well,” says Syed.
To expand beyond the existing aggregator opportunity Chenosis is seeking to create new use cases. “With that same set of APIs, we are trying to figure out what the additional segments are that we can go to for alternative outcomes,” continues Syed.
This will necessarily involve experimentation, and likely with more failures than successes. “We’re an agile start-up, so we’re going to iterate and experiment and do all that kind of stuff that start-ups are expected to do as they innovate and disrupt,” Syed says.
He sees huge potential in growing the pool of APIs within MTN. “One of the concepts that I have is everything is an API because, ultimately, that’s where you want to get to,” he explains. “If you look at [Jeff] Bezos and his famous edict of APIs [at Amazon], you know that everything that you build, every business process, has to be consumable by someone else. And if you don’t, you’ll be fired.”
Exposing APIs in this way can generate direct or indirect revenue or benefits such as an improved customer experience, but Syed recognizes that cultural change across the business is needed “to get people to start speaking the basic language [of APIs]”.
Syed’s vision for Chenosis goes way beyond a marketplace for MTN APIs, however. Indeed, rather than positioning the business as an API marketplace, Chenosis sees itself as a developer accelerator platform focused more on outcomes than products.
Nevertheless, APIs will sit at the front and center of Chenosis’ value proposition. The company sees itself as a marketplace and an aggregator of a range of APIs with the intention of ingesting them from different publishers and combining them to provide different outcomes. This means understanding what APIs can be used for and where their value lies.
For the time being, Chenosis is in exploration mode. “Because we’re in start-up phase right now we’re having those conversations with everybody. We’re looking for MVPs [minimum viable products], and we’re looking for cool use cases. And then we are collaborating with our partners to help them scale across Africa, and perhaps beyond as we launch.”
Examples of APIs that Chenosis is working on include a facial recognition interface that is already available on the API marketplace. Chenosis has done an MVP with a student housing association which is interested in using the API to let students into the building during out-of-office hours. Another example is a signature verification API.
However, the two main segments that Chenosis is targeting today are voice and SMS aggregators and the financial services community. Aggregators include companies such as Twilio and Infobip to which Chenosis hopes to sell other APIs and tools beyond traditional telecoms connectivity.
On the financial services side Chenosis is already engaged with banks on specific APIs they can use to mitigate fraud. Chenosis will either serve them directly or use CPaaS aggregators that can supply a wider range of APIs.
One broad category that Chenosis is also looking at is open banking – the idea of allowing a third-party organization to see an individual’s banking and financial services data rather than that person having to fill in separate forms each time they want to engage with a new financial services company.
“There’s growing interest and momentum in applying something similar [to the open banking approaches in Europe and North America] in some of the big economies in Africa,” says Syed. “And we’ve had some really interesting conversations with the banks about the role of Chenosis becoming an aggregator within that domain.”
Beyond APIs, Chenosis is looking to help improve the developer experience. This means providing a range of cloud-native capabilities at low cost to African developers. “There’s a whole bunch of other tools that you need to build something [beyond APIs].” These sit in five categories:
Chenosis is currently having conversations with different platform providers to co-create propositions that fit into these categories. It is then evaluating them by asking: what real problems the solution or service or platform is trying to resolve; what the market opportunity looks like for Africa; who are the likely customers of these platform features; and what are the commercial models around them.
Which business model?
Chenosis views APIs as products for which it needs to understand the value and market potential. “We need to be asking a whole range of questions about APIs,” says Syed. “For example, if you’re building this then what is the problem you’re trying to fix? Who’s going to consume it? How many people are going to consume it? What are they willing to pay?” Answers to these questions then shape the business and pricing models that Chenosis adopts.
“API pricing is one of the interesting elements of this market,” says Syed. “It is so volatile and so nebulous. How do you come up with a price?”
This commercialization of the API opportunity also involves building a sales and marketing strategy. “The thing that I learned in API business is, ‘if you build it and they will come’ does not work,” says Syed. “So, what you have to do is treat it as a product, which delivers intrinsic value. That’s why we are more focused on outcomes and use cases.”
Building the business
Chenosis started to gain momentum at the end of 2022 with the arrival of a senior management team. Priorities have included:
Chenosis is, essentially, a start-up business even though it will lean on its parent company, particularly when it comes to back-end processes – finance, HR and technology.
“We are determined to be a startup, so we are very cost conscious,” says Syed. “As such we have taken a decision to outsource much of what we do. As we start to scale and ramp up revenue, I see us in-sourcing more and more.” This outsourcing approach applies to both people and technology.
“We’re basically hiring graduates for other functions and roles outside of the core leadership team,” says Syed. “That’s not as a graduate initiative; it’s how we’re going to build the company. And that also helps us address diversity objectives. In 12 months’ time I would expect 75% to 80% of the people we employ to have come through this graduate intake.”
Chenosis’ technology strategy is equally modest. “We’re not really planning to build anything,” says Ken Kayser, Chenosis’ Platform Lead “So we’re planning to work with almost a reseller model, leveraging third party-platforms and white-labeling. That gives us skin in the game and quick access to the market rather than adopting a typical build process and hoping that you get adoption.”
This interview is an extract from our report Establishing links: Platform models in the Open API economy, which you can download for free to find out more.