Lori Systems is launching a service with the Kenyan government for last-mile haulage from railroads

For Lori Systems chief executive and co-founder Josh Sandler, deals like the one between his company and the Kenyan government to solve last-mile solutions around the national railroad are about far more than just logistics.

Sandler, whose family battled apartheid in South Africa as social workers, township doctors and (more dangerously) as financiers for the Spear of the Nation (the armed wing of the African National Congress), looks at logistics as an economic cornerstone for building more stable and democratic societies in sub-Saharan Africa.

His parents had immigrated to the U.S. in 1990 when Sandler was still a young child to escape the violence that accompanied the negotiations to dissolve South Africa’s apartheid state. Sandler’s father had worked as a doctor in township hospitals, while his mother was a social worker who was setting up a support network for abused children.

A lot of the family was getting arrested and the country was breaking up and people feared a civil war and my dad got a fellowship in America and moved to Florida,” Sandler says. 

But South Africa remained the touchstone for Sandler’s family life and he would often return to visit those activist relatives who remained to help shepherd the country through its early years as a democracy. It was during one visit to the country — when Sandler was working in a refugee camp — that the need for better economic solutions to the region’s problems became clear.

In the aftermath of the economic collapse of Zimbabwe and the long-simmering civil war in the Congo in 2008, refugees from the region were flooding into South Africa — and it triggered a response in the country’s citizens. Xenophobic violence resulted in rioting, looting and the murder of immigrants at camps — and Sandler had gone to volunteer at the shelters that were caring for these refugees.

“I had been debating between investment banking and the peace corps and went with investment banking because there needs to be a macroeconomic solution for this,” Sandler said. “Finding the core challenges from a macro perspective and preventing this from occurring by establishing strong systems and an economy that can prevent… all of these crises.”

So Sandler studied development economics. His work focused on supply chains — specifically working with the Kenyan government to analyze what went into the dramatic cost increases that are attendant with the sale of every good and service in the country. “When you buy a mango on a farm, it’s half a penny and then in the supermarket it’s 80 cents,” said Sandler.

From Kenya, Sandler moved to study Nigeria and worked on problems with supply chain management in pharmaceuticals. “I did a lot of trips and treks back to the continent and what I kept seeing is challenges in the supply chain — part of it is middlemen and part of it is haulage.” Sandler said. “That’s a big issue that’s due to a lack of flexibility and coordination in the system.”

After seeing the elegance of the marketplace model that Uber had set up for ride-hailing and given the penetration of smart and feature phones in Africa, Sandler thought he could do something to create a marketplace for the trucking industry.

“Before, providers were managing individual trucking companies with a difficult marketplace and no transparency,” says Sandler. “By driving that through our system and having more pricing visibility we’re able to bring down the cost of bringing bulk grains to Uganda by 17.3 percent.”

Lori Systems first launched in Kenya and started working with a network of trucking companies. Around that time the company also came to the attention of TechCrunch.

Yes, Lori Systems has been on a TechCrunch stage before — as competitors (and eventual winners) of our inaugural TechCrunch Battlefield competition in Nairobi.

Since appearing on stage at our Nairobi event, Lori has grown quickly. The company counts 70 employees on staff — up from 20 — and now has 70 cargo operators responsible for a network of 2,500 trucks using its service.

The staffing changes at Lori include some big new executive hires, including Andrew Musoke, who has come on board as director of commercial products, and a former director of Maersk, Mehul Bhaat, who will be running operations in East Africa for Lori, Sandler says.

Lori has also expanded internationally — working with fleets in Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda and South Africa while also increasing the types of cargo that its fleet operators are transporting. “We went from just doing grain and fertilizer to now we do all freight bulk,” says Sandler.

Not everything about the TechCrunch experience was positive for Sandler and the company. After their victory, Lori, and Sandler, were subjected to criticism from some African press. “There were really bizarre implications with the underlying tone being white male privilege,” says Sandler. “It’s an important conversation to have around white male privilege… [but] it was coming out on a very personal level on a gossip column.”

The accusations aside, Sandler said the victory in the Startup Battlefield Africa competition validated the company with potential new hires.

As for the opportunity, Sandler says there’s $180 billion in hauling income across the African continent, and very little of it has been optimized with software. Ultimately, if Lori succeeds it will mean lower prices and increased spending power for consumers across Africa.

“If you’re earning a dollar a day and 40 percent or 60 percent is going to logistics that could be going somewhere else, that’s a problem,” Sandler said. It’s exactly the problem that Lori is setting out to solve.