One-on-One with Daniel Okalany, the Co-creator of the Matatu Game App

Daniel (on the left) with the Kola Studios Team

Have you played some hearts and diamonds, or some flowers and spades? Matatu is a popular card game in East Africa. This game has its digital companion of the same name.

Matatu, the app was developed by two Makerere University students in 2011. It went on to grow into one of the most popular game apps in the app store and out of the simple game came an App Development Studio called Kola Studios.

We recently had a chat with Daniel Okalany, one of the creators of the app and we bring you the talk in its entirety.

RH: Hello Daniel thanks for accepting to talk to us.

You’re welcome, happy to talk to you.

RH: When playing Matatu, I personally prefer the “Classic mode” (I find the “Joker mode” unfair ;-)), which one is your favourite? Also, tell us: are there benefits of playing Matatu let’s say for a student?

That’s surprising, a lot more people prefer the “Joker Mode”. I personally prefer it too, you earn more points from it, the game goes on longer and the nervousness of being played the joker is fun.

I think playing Matatu is a good time filler for a student since it’s not a brainless game, you get to think and strategize.

RH: I have personally played Matatu the game app on Android and its fun (and addictive, I confess!). Can you tell us how the story behind creating Matatu came up?

We built Matatu back in 2011 as a submission for the Google’s Sub-Saharan developer challenge. We knew the card game was really popular in physical form and thought digitizing it would be something people would want, gladly, we were right!

We made it to the finals of the competition and almost a year later it was a full time commitment.

RH: You started up while in school; please tell us what challenges you faced along the way and how you had to juggle school and running a start-up.

It was an interesting experience, learnt a lot along the way. Not as challenging as you may be thinking since we had class and exams but we used our free time to polish the app and build more apps.

RH: There is always a saying among the creatives that: “don’t do it for the money, do it because you love it.” What do you think about that statement, how true is it?

I sort of agree, it doesn’t work sometimes but when you’re passionate about something chances are you’ll be great at it, genuine interest and zeal helps. The ideal situation is to do something you love and make money while doing. We all need money that’s for sure.

Matatu “Classic Mode” interface.

RH: We know that Matatu crossed the 200,000 downloads mark recently, tell us what has kept you and your team inspired to carry the game ahead?

The Matatu players are by far our biggest inspiration to keep on going. We get about 400 new players per day, and then we have repeat players whose passion for the game never burns out. 

RH: We know that start-ups don’t survive for long in Uganda; actually almost all of them don’t live to see their first birthday. How have you kept your team intact and the vision growing for over five years?

It’s tough; there are certain rules you have to put like “no working from home” because working separately drives the team apart. We try to find people with complementary skills who enjoy and believe in the company’s vision.

RH: Let’s talk about school. We have a number of universities today, and the amount of graduates churned out every year is startling, yet the unemployment figures are even more startling in a scaring way. What do you think is the problem?

Uganda’s economy is just not doing well, a problem too big to discuss in even 5 sentences.

RH: What do you think should be done about the unemployment problem, both at national level and at a personal level, with today’s student in mind?

I prefer to see this on the students’ side and not the government, there’s no policy I’d suggest that is supposed to magically solve this. Right now things are tough, students have to be proactive and be even tougher.

RH: Matatu is not the only app you have developed; tell us about the other apps on your radar and why our readers should play them as well. Do you do anything else at Kola Studios besides game development?

We have 7 other games Karata, Zword, Tapt, Spar, Keiko, Mosquito Rush and Last Card. Readers should go try them because have different game play that may appeal to them. Besides game development, we also do some consultancy work where we develop apps for other people.

RH: Lastly, is there anything you would like us to know that we didn’t ask?

No, I think I’ve said it all.

RH: Thanks for your time man; we look forward to greater things at Kola Studios.

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