At UTU we believe in a more human-friendly internet. We are pioneering digital models of trust built around human beings and how we naturally trust. UTU’s vision is to become the trust infrastructure of the entire internet, replacing anonymous star ratings, reviews, and scores as the de facto trust mechanisms of our digital lives. We do this in service of our mission to protect data and privacy as we bridge the gap between how we trust in the real world, and how we are asked to trust online. UTU is Kiswahili for “Humanity.” It reminds us of our home in Kenya and for whom we build this project.
The Early Years
Let me introduce myself. I’m Jason Eisen, UTU’s CEO. Back in late 2012, I had been working at a consulting firm in Washington, DC for nearly seven years and was ready for a change. I had been working in East Africa for them since 2010 and had both fallen in love with the energy and dynamism of Nairobi and was inspired by the young tech scene that was developing here. I also experienced all manner of taxi woes in my times in Nairobi (you wouldn’t believe some of the stories if I told you) and learned that many of my soon to be fellow Nairobians had similar experiences. An early adopter of mobility tech in DC, I couldn’t stop thinking about the disconnect between mobility in the two cities. That was it. Three months later, I was on a plane to Nairobi to found MARAMOJA Transport, at the time, the first taxi app on the continent.
I spent a year or so hustling street corners meeting taxi drivers, and chatting with everyone I could about taxis. Everyone said the same thing:
Why would I use your app? I have my guy!
Conceiving a Trust Engine for Mobility
I realized there was an assumption baked into every other mobility app in existence that was not true for Nairobi, and as it turns out for much of the world. What was the assumption?
That a taxi is not a person…but a commodity. That people just want the closest driver — end of story.
And while that may have been true enough in San Francisco, London, and New York where the early apps were built, it was most certainly not true in Kenya. Everyone’s phonebook looked something like this:
Everyone had (and has) a few drivers that they trust. If they don’t get the ride, they ask a friend to send their driver. Everything was based on trust.
So we decided to build this app, digitizing the current practices to remove inefficiencies rather than trying to force a new model on people. We became obsessed with Trust but didn’t know how to build it when in walked Dr. Bastian with his background at the intersections of distributed AI, multi-agent systems, and mobility tech. The puzzle was complete and our mission was clear, to build a trust powered taxi app that reflected real world trust rather than some cheap digital proxies. We started by giving users choice about their drivers and making simple recommendations about trusted taxis based on overlap between drivers in our system and those saved in users’ phone books. Then we incorporated the favorite drivers of users’ friends — see a visualization of our social graph.
Our early efforts in this area showed the overwhelming power of bringing better trust to the market with all the key metrics moving in the right direction based on our “Trust Engine” as we started to call it. Soon folks would begin reaching out to us from around the continent to tell us that that’s how trust and taxis worked in their countries and could they use our tech. Today MARAMOJA is thriving despite battling the giants of the industry under the leadership Ronald Mahondo and poised to become Africa’s most trusted mobility app.
Trust Infrastructure for the Digital Economy
It wasn’t long after this that we had two major realizations about what we were building.
1. A trust engine wasn’t sufficient — we needed to build trust infrastructure.
2. We couldn’t just build for mobility, we had to build for folks’ digital lives.
Trust, as we came to learn may be delivered through a recommendation but it is built from the ground up with excellent feedback and tremendous intelligence to show people the most helpful and relevant information from the right people, rather than simply overwhelming them with large numbers of anonymous, aggregated, and averaged feedback. This marked our transition to thinking more broadly about trust and the comprehensive suite of trust infrastructure services that we should provide, including the liberation of people’s data back to their control to serve their interests, transparency in how we work, and endpoints that would let our service integrate with all the platforms and marketplaces that we use.
It was around this time that people started reaching out to us from all over the world, dating apps in Canada, HR tech in Hong Kong, Gig Platforms and eCommerces in Europe, lending Apps across Africa and SE Asia, and too many more. They all said the same thing:
We have a problem with trust. We read about your system, can you help us?
The mission had changed, we were building trust infrastructure for everyone.
In 2018, the company was transformed yet again. Tak Lo invited UTU to join the Z03 Cohort of Zeroth AI (the first African company to do so) in Hong Kong. We met incredible folks like Rodolfo Rosini who pushed us to think about UTU for financial services (you were right Rodolfo) and the incredible teams at Animoca, Artesian, and DeepCore (SoftBank Group’s Subsidiary focused on early stage AI) who believed in our huge vision and joined the UTU family. One of the Zeroth Partners, Sherman Lee, of Raven Protocol, quickly became our Crypto Yoda as I insist on calling him. Sherman believed in UTU’s mission but challenged us to decentralize it. This resonated with us deeply having already been thinking about how to maximize transparency and user privacy — yet too often people heard what we were working on and thought of dystopic end-games like Black Mirror’s Nose Dive and emerging government-led social credit scoring systems. These were precisely the futures we wanted to avoid.
Over three intense weeks together we worked out a framework that would become the foundations of UTU protocol. The next month we were off to Sofia, Bulgaria for Æternity Ventures Starfleet 1 Accelerator where we met Luka Sučić, Nikola Stojanow, Yanislav Malahov who helped us refine the model further, solving for the remaining obstacles.
We also met Rus Newton of CoinShares who in addition to becoming our stalwart backer, helped us harden our protocol design and challenged us to ensure we were creating a token with real value and purpose. We already had two core principles, but through this process, a third principle was born:
- Trust must be delivered as infrastructure, not as a product. This meant APIs, Oracles, SDKs — not just a review community.
- Trust must be evaluated dynamically and presented descriptively — there is no universal scorecard for trust and we won’t turn a person into just a number.
- Trust must be decentralized and can be tokenized to flip the economics of digital trust from rewarding the manipulation of trust to rewarding the building of trust and creation of good outcomes.
UTU has been deployed in mobility and financial services markets and is being developed with anchor partners across nearly every sector of the digital economy and spanning dozens of countries on 6 continents. We are passionate about trust and data privacy in all it’s forms and have contributed to the COVID response through the development of a Privacy-Preserving Contact Tracing system that has been endorsed as Top 100 by the African Development Bank.
We currently have a team of 40 between MARAMOJA and UTU at our HQ in Nairobi and an R&D collaboration with the Agents, Interactions, and Complexity Group at the University of Southampton in the UK as well as the newly established UKRI Trusted Autonomous Systems Hub.
UTU and our subsidiaries have been featured variously in international media, including Pitchbook, NPR, TechCrunch, Analytics India, Aithority, Disrupt Africa, How We Made it in Africa, and others. We won the 2019 East Africa Regional Championship of the Pegasus Tech Ventures Startup World Cup and have been named a 2020 Hello Tomorrow Deep Tech Pioneer.