An Interview with the Founders of Afari Inc.
For the next 7 weeks, Siblini will be sitting down with 7 different young creatives—artists, technologists and entrepreneurs—to discuss how and why they pursue their passions. This week, we had the pleasure of speaking with Avthar Sewrathan, Felix Madutsa, and Richard Adjei, the founders of Afari Inc, a social network with several unique features. (In case you missed it: last week, we spoke with Matthew Barouch of the alt-rock band, Above the Sun.)
How did your partnership form?
AS: Felix, Richard and I all share a common background. Being from Zimbabwe, Ghana and South Africa respectively, our upbringing and experiences in the developing world made us curious about how we could use technology to empower people, particularly in our home country. During our first three years of undergrad at Princeton, we had a few ideas but none of them felt compelling enough for us to warrant sacrificing (what felt like) our never-ending coursework. We initially considered doing Afari as a side project while we all pursued full time jobs, but after we placed first out of 300 teams in the USA and France at the 2018 TigerLaunch startup competition, we gained the confidence to drop our jobs at large software companies and work on Afari full-time.
What inspired you to start Afari?
Afari came about after taking a risk to put our idea out there even though it wasn’t fully formed. In early December of 2017, Princeton University held the 2017 Princeton Pitch competition—students have 90 seconds to pitch their company ideas to a group of judges. All the other participants had slide decks with numbers about market size and revenue. We had no numbers and no stats. All we had was a vision—that of data ownership and privacy—and an impact we wanted to make on people around the world. We wanted to provide people with a censorship-resistant social media platform. Through some luck and experience in persuasion and pitching, we ended up placing first in the competition. That night, we decided to apply for an accelerator geared towards student startups, which would provide us with the time and resources to pursue our ideas the summer after we graduated.
This experience highlights the power of having a vision and articulating a tangible impact that you want to have on the world. While others focus on the details, this vision is what will guide you and convince other people to help you on your journey.
Can you give us a high-level overview of what Afari is and the technology behind it?
Afari is similar to Facebook and Twitter, in that we support posting statuses, pictures, links and videos, but we give people more privacy and control over what data is collected about them and who can access that data.
In technical terms, Afari is decentralized, which is just a fancy word that means two things: first, that no single party owns your data, as it’s kept in storage places that you, the user, owns. This is important because it means that you need to consent explicitly to your data being accessed by other people. This makes Afari an alternative to people who are dissatisfied with the data abuse by companies, like that which took place by Facebook in the Cambridge Analytic Scandal, where over 50 million people's data was shared without their consent. That took place because all your data is stored on Facebook’s servers and they ultimately control who accesses it.
Secondly, “decentralized” means that no party has political control over the platform. Essentially, this says that we, as the network creators, cannot arbitrarily take down your posts or stop them from reaching your followers on the network. The political decentralization point is important, as it means that everyone’s voice gets a chance to be part of the marketplace of ideas and we, as the network creators, don’t have the ability to arbitrarily censor someone’s opinions. We also see this aspect of Afari as an antidote to the platform censorship and curbing of free speech by Twitter, where accounts are closed arbitrarily and rules about speech are non-uniformly applied.
Finally, Afari is based on blockchain technology. A blockchain is a public ledger of transactions. This ledger is special because it allows you to trust events that the ledger describes without having to trust any individual party involved in making those transactions. This is different to the way we have to trust that a central bank gets things right when process transactions for US Dollars. Furthermore, we use a blockchain infrastructure platform called Blockstack, which that links every account on Afari to an address in the Bitcoin blockchain, as well as linking that address to a route to your public storage location. It is this blockchain-based identity and distributed storage system allows us to get the increased privacy and censorship-resistant properties we mentioned above.
We also plan to use our own cryptocurrency for payments on Afari. A cryptocurrency is a digital currency like Bitcoin that uses cryptography, a special branch of mathematics and computer science, in order to ensure the validity of payments, rather than a central authority like a bank. We will use this Afari cryptocurrency to reward digital content creators for creating quality content, as we feel that people like meme-makers, artists, vloggers, Instagram bloggers, amateur sports pundits, and people commenting on politics and the like, should be able to monetize their content that other people enjoy.
Where does the name Afari come from?
This is a really funny story—we were up at around 2am trying to think of names for the product a few days before a big student startup competition called TigerLaunch. The project was initially called BlockTweet, named in part for denoting a blockchain-based Twitter, but just thinking that name screams copyright issues, so we decided to re-name it.
So it was around 2am and Richard was debugging some feature and Felix and I were generating possible names—we probably wrote down over 200 possible names for our product like broadcast, grapes, lighthouse, swish, and many other strange ones. Finally, we asked ourselves, “What would this look like if it were easy?”. We thought back to primary school and when our teachers used to pair us into team for a class exercise. If two people, say Jabu and Mike, were paired together, their team name would be “Team JM." So for kicks, we thought, what if we used the letters of our names, A for Avthar, F for Felix, and R for Richard as the base for the product name, and then added some vowels in between to make it more catchy. You probably see where this is going—we tried names like afrio, afura, afere and eventually settled on Afari, because it reminded us of Africa, our home continent.
Who are your creativity role models?
AS: I love this question—for me, creativity is a natural human state. Everyone is creative when they’re a child, but we somehow lose access to it along the way. Creative role models help me remove the impediments that stop me from being creative and help to create the conditions to tap into my natural imagination.
There are two people that come to mind—first, Josh Waitzkin. Waitzkin is a polymath, a former World Chess champion, a Tai Chi Push Hands world champion, a Black Belt in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, and now an advisor to the world's most advanced financial professionals. Waitzkin taught me that creativity is about seeking thematic interconnectedness between seeming desperate and unrelated fields or concepts. For me, this is how all innovation comes about—you start with an existing industry and find an intersection with a completely unrelated industry. Waitzkin inspired one of my goals in life, that of unobstructed self-expression—focusing on how to remove the blockers to my moments of finest performance and being.
Second, Brene Brown, who is a TED speaker, researcher and world renowned author, is a tremendous source of inspiration for me. Brene focuses on vulnerability and shame, two emotions which can block us from living a creative, emboldened life.
FM: I generally strive to have several tools in my repertoire to use for my advantage. In addition to giving me different approaches and techniques to apply in problem-solving and/or self-expression, this helps me become more well-rounded and avoid mental traps of the form of “bringing a knife to a gunfight.” As such I have a lot of role models whose influence in my creative self depends on the flow of the day, general mood of the environment, and the task at hand.
Recently, I have found myself in situations where I had to tell my story and articulate how it influences my worldview, desires and vision of the world. To effortlessly and unapologetically express myself, Kendrick Lamar has been the major source of inspiration. Kendrick has a great ability of telling his stories and bringing listeners into his world through very calculated and well-placed words and lines. He breaks down complex ideas and his personal feelings in ways that not only shows his sense of purpose but also displays the gravity of the themes in his music.
RA: I see creativity as the ability to think and create in non-conventional manners. Whenever I come across of any piece of work that is conceived and created radically differently from the way I would have gone about creating it, I am typically left in awe of the creator’s creativity.
That being said, I find most of my creativity role models to be fantasy writers such as C.S. Lewis, J.K. Tolkien, and George R.R. Martin. I am intrigued and inspired by their ability to craft and create entertaining universes with several intricate and intertwined plot-lines and still manage to keep elements of the stories hidden until they decide to reveal it to their readers.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to start his/her/their own company?
The best advice we can give is this: There’s no one way to start a company. Everyone has their own path to whatever their chosen career is and you have to trust that you will succeed eventually, even if things look rough presently. In the end, everyone gets where they need to go.
In general, we’d say that you should try to figure out how you can use your unique skills and talents to make other people’s lives better. What you enjoy and what interests you can guide you to find the things you’re good at. Make note of the activities where you lose track of time!
On a more practical note, we’d say to learn from the people in the industry you admire and who are world class at what they do—the internet is your best friend. Find people you can model and follow their best practices in areas like networking, attracting other people to join your team, raising money, and building something you love. We’ve found podcasts, books, and YouTube videos of interviews with our favorite founders and investors are very helpful. We also try to continually seek out like-minded people who will challenge and inspire you to become the best you can be.
Where do you see Afari in 5 years?
In short, we want Afari to be known as a place for digital content production and viewing. We would also like to be known as a company that treats its customers with the most respect with it comes to their data and privacy.
Afari seeks to help people have greater privacy around their social data and more censorship resistance in their communications. In the long-term, we want to reward people for creating quality content that other people love. To that end, we plan to have our digital currency and rewards program up and running so that anyone, no matter if they’re a pro meme-maker or just getting started, can make money from their content on social media.
If you’re interested in learning more about Afari, visit our website and sign up for our waitlist to be the first to know when we release. You can also find Afari on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube.
— Interview conducted by Ashlyn Lackey. Edited for clarity & length by Ashlyn Lackey & Kat Neis.