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Need for a level playing field for justice entrepreneurs in Kenya

With Morgan Gikonyo

April, 2024

Morgan Gikonyo is from lush green tea estates in the western highlands of Kenya. While training to become a lawyer at the University of Nairobi, he founded both Wakili Mkononi and Ask Wakili1. Wakili Mkononi was a platform that hosted educational videos on the everyday legal problems of people and Ask Wakili connected people to verified lawyers who provide legal assistance at an affordable fee.

The majority of Kenyans actively seek legal information and advice to resolve disputes, as indicated by a nationwide legal needs survey in Kenya. Those who did not seek advice said they didn’t know who to ask for help or could not afford legal advice (HiiL 2017). Such an unmet demand for legal information can be filled by platforms like Wakili Mkononi and Ask Wakili.

Yet, as Morgan would discover, the road to democratising legal information in Kenya is fraught with challenges. Opposition from lawyers and the bar association and difficulties in monetising the platform are two primary ones. People-centred justice supports entrepreneurs like Morgan who want to make justice accessible and affordable for everyday people. They are tapping into latent demand for legal services which contains opportunities for existing legal professionals and new ones. Morgan’s journey highlights the need for support from the formal justice system so that visionary and talented justice entrepreneurs can thrive.


"Wakili Mkononi means lawyer at the palm of your hands in Swahili", explains Morgan

“The idea of launching Wakili Mkononi can be traced back to the time when I was interning in a court during law school. There, I came across many unrepresented Kenyans who did not understand the charges levelled against them. They also struggled to navigate court procedures and defend themselves. It did not matter whether they were literate or illiterate. It made me wonder whether people in my social network who did not have a background in legal studies understood the law”, reflects Morgan on the inspiration behind his startup.

To find out whether his friends and family can tackle legal problems, Morgan conducted a survey. He asked questions about common legal problems such as how to respond to a court traffic fine, employment dispute or succession issue. His survey findings revealed that most people in his network did not know how to resolve everyday legal problems.

In a landscape where legal literacy is reserved for a select few, he identified another glaring problem — the inherent complexity of legal language. Books on laws are filled with legalese. They were written by lawyers, for lawyers. Morgan saw this as an opportunity to demystify the law. His solution? Creating lively and entertaining videos that simplified intricate legal jargon into clear, easy-to-digest information. 

Forming a team

Morgan realised that he would need the support of professionals with expertise in diverse fields to launch the startup. Being a socially active student, he participated in a variety of extra-curricular activities, giving him a vast social network of individuals with a variety of skills. To form a team, he tapped into these connections and hand-picked individuals who could lead the finance, law and communications departments of the start-up. He had also befriended some of these individuals over the years. 

"Given that I was bootstrapping the startup and was still a student, I could not afford to give my teammates a salary comparable to what they earned in their existing jobs. But I was keen on making sure that my teammates felt valued. I decided to make each of my teammates equity partners or co-owners in the startup", explains Morgan articulately

“Admittedly, that brought another set of problems because now my teammates would shoulder part of the risk. That reduced the pool of people who were interested in partnering in this venture. Thankfully I connected with like-minded people who aspired to do something innovative and socially responsible. And that’s what we bonded over as we began setting up this startup”, he shares.

“This spirit of wanting to break barriers and working for the betterment of society also influenced the overall working culture of the team. Each member took ownership of their responsibilities and followed the rules set by the team. As we saw the business giving returns incrementally, it strengthened our decision to continue working together”, concludes Morgan.

Building the product in response to the needs of users

Morgan and his team began by creating entertaining and educational videos on resolving a spectrum of legal problems including divorce, debt collection, employment disputes, and traffic accidents among others. They shared them with the public via social media channels. To amplify the reach of the videos, they partnered with a popular video streaming service called Viusasa which showcased local audio and video content from Kenya. Users could view the videos in exchange for a modest subscription fee of around 2 to 6 dollars. 

Slowly, the content reached the homes of a large number of Kenyans and resonated with their life experiences. People began craving more legal information and guidance on their legal problems prompting an influx of inquiries via the startup’s Facebook account. Encouraged by the burgeoning demand, Morgan and his team built a web-based application where a network of lawyers would provide legal assistance. 

Morgan observed the many steps that fall in between a viewer watching the content on Viusasa, then moving to the startup’s Facebook account and/or switching to the app where they could connect with lawyers. To make a smooth pathway for clients, Morgan and his team launched a USSD platform called Ask Wakili which means “ask the lawyer” in Swahili language.

Users could directly send in their questions by text message via the USSD platform. They would receive tailored responses from vetted and specialised lawyers within 24 hours. In exchange for the legal assistance, clients paid an affordable fee of around 5 to 10 dollars. Thus, the startup evolved organically as it responded to the needs of its clients. 

Joining HiiL’s Justice Accelerator Programme

Morgan was in his final year of law school when Wakili Mkononi was launched. When he told his friends about the launch of the startup, one of them spotted HiiL’s Justice Accelerator poster that beckoned aspiring changemakers to step forward on the college campus. Energised by the prospect of learning from seasoned professionals about scaling a justice-tech startup, Morgan seized the opportunity and swiftly applied for the programme.

"It felt like a crazy idea at that time — what I was trying to do — transforming how legal information is accessed by ordinary people. I was passionate about democratising legal information", shares Morgan as he looks back at his journey

Learnings at HiiL’s Justice Accelerator Programme

In 2018, Morgan and his team participated in HiiL’s Justice Accelerator programme, which provides coaching and funding for emerging entrepreneurs tackling justice problems. The startup was just a few months old when they joined the Accelerator programme. Given that the team had joined the programme just a few months after the startup’s inception, they hadn’t thoroughly evaluated the revenue model or profitability of the business. 

"Through HiiL’s coaching sessions, my team and I reflected on business operations, identified the customer segment, defined the startup's value proposition, and developed cost and revenue models. Most significantly, working on the Lean Business Canvas with the HiiL team prompted us to analyse the potential for commercialising the services of the startup. Until now, only the finance lead had understood the limitations of the business model's sustainability such as low willingness among users to pay for online legal services. But as we dived deeper into revenues and returns on investments, the rest of us also recognised the red flags in the business model. Unfortunately, it became a prophecy of our startup’s fate", says Morgan reflectively

Challenges of operating the business

Yet, the team was hopeful about the success of the startup. In fact, the Kenyan Bar Association invited Morgan and his team to showcase Ask Wakili at their Annual Legal Aid Week. At that time, lawyers saw the platform as a promising avenue to attract clients. But the support of lawyers and that of the bar association was short-lived. Soon after the customer base of Ask Wakili began expanding, some lawyers grew apprehensive about losing clients due to the competitive prices offered by the platform. They reported the activities of the startup to the Bar Association, known as the Law Society of Kenya.

The latter sent Morgan and his team two non-compliance notices. They found a problem with the fact that the startup was marketing legal services along with the price, using digital platforms and most importantly, they found a problem with the price determined by the team. Without established regulations governing the provision of legal services on digital platforms, the bar association instructed Morgan and his team to cease operations. To support their arguments, the bar association cited the example of LegalZoom in the USA which was also asked to close shop for similar reasons. At the same time, the lawyers who were on Ask Wakili’s network were also facing threats from their counterparts.

Remarking on the state of the justice system, Morgan says, "Bar associations in most African countries are the gatekeepers of provision of legal services. They have restrictive laws on marketing and pricing of legal services which clips the wings of innovators like me who want to democratise the law."

Parallely, the startup was experiencing financial problems. Although HiiL’s Justice Accelerator gave the team a runway of a few months, the co-founders had invested a significant amount of capital in setting up the USSD platform. Plus, the monthly cost of operating the platform and the cost of creating content was high. On the other hand, customers were not used to paying a moderate sum of money for justice-tech services. As a result, the startup was not making enough revenue to sustain operations. To make matters worse, the team also could not operationalise their business plan due to restrictions laid out by the bar association.

“With savings and capital drying up and a regulator who does not allow us to generate income, it was clear that the startup could not operate in the long run. So the team disbanded and the startup closed shop”, recounts Morgan dismally.

Advise for upcoming justice-tech entrepreneurs

After the startup operations closed, Morgan worked in several marketing positions before joining HiiL’s East Africa Hub as a Programme Coordinator in 2023. At the Hub, he scouts eligible startups and manages operations. Being an entrepreneur and now a programme coordinator with the oversight of several entrepreneurs who join HiiL’s cohort every year, we asked Morgan what advice he has for justice-tech startups. 

“Try having a Board of Advisors because they are experienced professionals from diverse backgrounds whose expertise the startup can benefit from. The Advisory Board can help in filling in knowledge gaps among team members or if the startup cannot afford to hire experienced professionals, they will lend a hand because they believe in your vision and see your passion. The board can also advise on proper governance structures”, he shares.

"When hiring people, try recruiting those who believe in your mission and vision and are motivated to work towards it”, Morgan adds

Against the backdrop of nationwide legal needs surveys revealing a palpable demand for accessible legal information and advice in Kenya, Morgan’s vision to democratise legal information was timely and creative. His efforts to cater to people’s needs led him to tap into a latent demand for legal services which contained opportunities for existing legal professionals and new ones.

People-centred justice supports entrepreneurs like Morgan who want to make justice accessible and affordable for everyday people and in doing so, also create new opportunities for legal professionals. As we reflect on Morgan’s story, we are reminded of the need for support from the formal justice system which can create an ecosystem conducive to the growth of such visionary and talented justice entrepreneurs.


HiiL (2017). Justice needs and satisfaction in Kenya: Legal problems in daily life. 


This story was written by Manasi Nikam after interviewing Morgan Gikonyo on February 20, 2024.

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