From Selling Flip-Flops to Raking Millions in Revenue – Even War Couldn’t Break His Entrepreneurial Spirit

Nzekwe Henry November 15

Here’s the thing about humble beginnings; they are not some sort of wriggle room for the justification of mediocrity, or an excuse to settle for less. If anything, they are only a reflection of the starting point; they do not ultimately define the future of any individual.

Humble beginnings are just what they are; the beginning, the starting point — no more, no less. Not the end. And in between the beginning and the end, every individual has a choice to make between sitting on the fence and sulking over everything that is not right or taking that leap. The end is largely a function of that choice.

It’s easy to lament poor background and blame it all on the lack of opportunities for never really hitting the heights, and perhaps even justifiably so. But it does pay to view the scenario from a different perspective. Privations and hardship are undoubtedly tricky spots to get caught up in, and it’s easy to align with the popular view which attributes those to an impoverished life.

But doing a one-eighty can also reflect privations and hardship in a different light. They can also be viewed as an indication of the type of effort that would need to be put in to improve the situation, as well as a suggestion that life accomplishments have as much do with the ability to keep the prize within sight in spite of the fog as it does the decision to attempt any venture in the first place. And sometimes, it’s all about perspective. Some individuals epitomise, embody and personify this view more than others, and Fomba Trawally; one of the wealthiest men in Liberia is one of such individuals.

Having suffered untold tragedy with the demise of both his parents at an early stage in his life, the Liberian businessman had to do a number of odd jobs and petty trades to get by on a daily. At some point, he even resorted to walking considerable distances, wheelbarrow in front, selling bathroom slippers in different neighbourhoods in various parts of Monrovia.

And as if that was not difficult enough, he was also affected by the war that ravaged parts of Liberia in 1989. Rocked by the violent unrest, Fomba Trawally and family had to flee their home country and stay away for up to three years. When the violence died down, and the war came to an end, he made the return to his homeland. Upon his return, Fomba decided to start a small business even though all he could lay claim to by way of personal funds was a meagre USD 200. Fast-forward several years down the line, and the former wheelbarrow hawker now runs a company whose value is believed to run into millions of dollars.

But how could he have pulled off such a remarkable feat from such a disadvantaged position? Perhaps taking a trip down memory lane to how it all began, could reveal some answers.

Fomba Trawally, Source: BBC

Fomba Trawally was born in 1971 to poor parents in Liberia. He completed his elementary education at Voinjama Public School where he had first enrolled in 1975. He also joined Kataka Training School for his secondary education in 1981.

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Kumba Beindu, Fomba’s mother, is said to have toiled day and night to fend for her children in the absence of her late husband. Getting them fed was hard work enough, let alone putting them through school. But somehow, she managed both, even though it required back-breaking work more often than not. She sold pepper and other farm produce, and it was from this small business that Fomba’s mother met the needs of her children.

Now, young Fomba was going through life one day at a time despite the privations with the future offering the only glimmer of hope, and then things took a turn for the worse. Kumba Beindu, the single surviving parent and the sole beacon of hope for Fomba and his siblings, passed on sometime in the 1980s and everything pretty much went downhill from there.

It was a very difficult time for Fomba, and his siblings as the demise of the sole breadwinner of the family left behind a huge void to fill. Before the tragedy, Fomba had had high hopes of going all the way to college, but those hopes were dashed with the death of his mother. Being the eldest in the family, Fomba had to step up to the plate and handle the baton that had been shoved into his unprepared hands at a tender age. To fend for siblings who now looked up to him, Fomba quit school and took to selling bathroom flip-flops in a wheelbarrow. He trekked several miles through various neighbourhoods in Monrovia, marketing and selling his wares. Daily income was small, but it was enough to take care of his siblings.

But that was not all he had to deal with.  Just when it looked like things were beginning to attain some semblance of stability, Fomba and his siblings soon found themselves fleeing their home country for The Gambia when war broke out in Liberia in 1989. They lived as refugees for three years before returning to Liberia when some semblance of peace resurfaced in 1992. During his time as a refugee in The Gambia, Fomba still busied himself doing odd jobs and petty trading.

Having returned to Liberia with around USD 25 in personal savings, Fomba opted to make a foray into business. And his choice of business can be said to have been a clever one. It appears Fomba’s brief spells in business both home and abroad had worked him into some kind of aptitude. Back in Liberia, Fomba Trawally identified a market opportunity which turned out a diamond in the rough.

It was the aftermath of the Liberian civil war, and the country was in a rebuilding process. The war had left a lot of ruins in its wake, and many people had had virtually nothing by way of personal belongings. There was an urgent need for footwear in the capital city, Monrovia, as a good number of people were trudging the streets barefoot. Fomba decided to start importing cheap slippers and shoes which he would sell to the many people that were beset by the situation. But with USD 25.00 in his pocket, that was never going to happen.

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He began to source for funds, but in a country that was just beginning to recover from the ravages of war, it was going to be anything but easy. He did get some luck when a friend of his lent him the sum of USD 120.00 in addition to his savings, but that was still a long way off from what was required. But he decided to get started regardless.

Now armed with around USD 145.00, he established his business which he named Kumba Beindu and Sons as a tribute to his late mother in 1992. Within one year, the company had grown significantly to amass a value of around USD 3 K, which was quite a staggering sum at the time. The business expanded to include cosmetics, toiletries, and plastics as part of its products.

Gradually, the business gathered steam, and by 2005, it had become a very popular name in Liberia. An astute businessman, it wasn’t long before he diversified his trade and established three retail stores selling imported items like paper and cosmetics in Liberia. This was made possible by the networks he built in countries like China, U.S., Turkey, and Cote d’Ivoire, from where he imported those items. But he wasn’t going to rest on his oars as his next move proved he was anything but done.

In 2010, Fomba Trawally launched his next project which essentially saw him switch from importer to manufacturer. Fomba established National Toiletries Incorporated, which is considered Liberia’s first paper and toiletry products manufacturing factory. The company became fully operational in 2013, and it produces four different kinds of products: baby diapers, paper towels, napkins, and toilet paper.

In a conversation with CNN, Fomba revealed that National Toiletries Incorporated supplies products to over 1,500 businesses in Liberia. It is also known to have spread its tentacles abroad with exports to neighbouring countries like Sierra Leone, Ivory Coast, and Guinea. Revenue in excess of USD 600 K is said to be grossed by the company on a yearly basis.

But it would be wrong to think all of it is coming easy. Running a manufacturing business in Liberia — a country yet recovering from a civil war that left an estimated 250,000 people dead and destroyed much of its infrastructure and economy — is not without its challenges. In the CNN interview, Fomba cited power as a major concern.
“Number one, we don’t have the power or energy in our country at this time — we’re running on a generator,” said Trawally. “You tell anyone that I’m running a factory as big as this only on a generator, they’ll tell you that you are crazy,” he added. Unreliable power and the shortage of infrastructure, coupled with high energy costs and a lack of skilled labour, are all major problems for entrepreneurs doing business in Liberia.
Fomba Trawally, who currently serves as CEO of National Toiletries Incorporated, was recently honoured with the 2018 top African International award at the 9th edition of the Africa Economy Builders, based in Abidjan, Ivory Coast. Mr Trawally, widely considered one of the outstanding entrepreneurs of Liberia, was honoured in recognition of his immense contribution to Liberia’s economic growth.

Fambo Trawally (2nd from right) at the 9th Edition of Africa Economy Builders; Source: LiberianObserver

In another interview with BBC, Fomba Trawally reiterated that young entrepreneurs do not always need a lot of capital to start with. “It doesn’t cost you USD 1 Mn to start a business,” he said.

“My advice to my other friends around the world is that you should be encouraged and believe that you can do everything with the little you have. My mother started with five or 10 US cents which is nothing today.”

The remarkable feat pulled by Fomba Trawally is made all the more impressive by the fact that it is coming from a country whose population hovers around just 4 million people. Throw that in with the idea that all his accomplishments have been achieved in spite poor upbringing and the numerous rutabagas life hauled his way and it becomes evident how much of an impact can be made by just about anyone even in the face of militating challenges.

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Features Image Courtesy: CNN

Egypt’s Nawah Scientific Gets USD 1 Mn Funding Boost From Endure Capital

Nzekwe Henry December 10

Egyptian research startup, Nawah Scientific, has secured an investment worth USD 1 Mn in a pre-Series A round led by Endure Capital, with 500 Startups, Averroes Ventures, Egypt Ventures, and angel investor, Dr. A. Abdelhamid, also joining the funding round. This is the first time the startup is raising external investment.

Nawah Scientific is a Cairo-based startup that appears to be carving a niche for itself in the area of scientific research. The startup which was founded in 2015 by Dr. Omar Sakr; a PhD holder in the field of Pharmaceutical Sciences, boasts a collection of advanced equipment that is suited to the research and development needs of both natural and medical sciences.

Nawah Scientific helps scientists and universities who do not have access to sophisticated equipment and facilities carry out critical research tests that would be otherwise improbable or too much to ask.

The startup goes about this by receiving experiment requests via its online platform. Through a courier, the test samples are moved under prime conditions from the address of the client that made the request to premises of the startup.

A team of competent in-house scientists then take the reins from that point onwards as the required tests are carried out and the test results are relayed to the client via the startup’s online platform. Through this simple but effective mode of operation, Nawah Scientific is able to cater for the needs of researchers as it affords scientists access to top-notch research facilities, whilst fostering scientific research in both Egypt and beyond.

Having been established barely three years prior, Nawah Scientific claims to have offered its services to clients within and outside Egypt. So far, the startup claims to have analyzed as many as 15,000 samples from 32 universities. But the services of the startup do not stop at scientists and academia as it also carries out complicated research projects and simple analysis for chemical and pharmaceutical companies.

Commenting on the development, Dr. Omar Sakr, Founder and CEO of Nawah Scientific, tethered his motivation for establishing the startup to the need to make access to cutting-edge research and high-tech equipment more available.

He also noted that a lot of time that should otherwise be put into meaningful work is spent by scientists shuttling between cities and universities to have their samples tested. And in the process, yielding unreliable research projects that are shallow at best. According to the CEO, this has put a strain on the trust between industry and academia resulting in a poor ‘research-to-product’ conversion rate. He, however, believes that the startup is now better poised to fix these problems.

With the latest development, Nawah Scientific has now become one of the first life sciences startups in the MENA region that has achieved success in raising significant investment. Since its inception, the startup has posted an impressive year-on-year growth and this can be thought to have gone some way towards attracting and closing the investment deal. And this bodes well for other science-based startups in the region as the company appears to have broken the proverbial glass ceiling.

Speaking with regards to the investment, Tarek Fahim, Managing Partner of Endure Capital, opined that biotech startups share a lot in common with software startups before AWS and rapid development tools. He also stressed the importance of infrastructure players who can push boundaries to the growth and sustainability of biotech enterprises, stating that they can help “lower cost for starting and increase the speed of prototyping.”

Egypt Ventures; a VC that was launched recently by Egypt’s Ministry of Investment, is believed to be the biggest investor in this round. Hema Ali, Managing Director of the newly launched VC, expressed the company’s excitement at being part of the startup’s journey as it looks to scale its offerings and expand into new markets.

It was this time last year when Nawah Scientific clinched the grand prize in the pitch competition at the 2017 RiseUp Summit. Having emerged winners of the competition, the startup roped in a USD 50 K cash prize.

Now, barely a year on from that night of blitz, the startup appears to be holding its own quite well, and the latest investment worth USD 1 Mn (which is quite substantial given that the startup is raising external capital for the first time) is a testament that Nawah Scientific is on the right track, as this connotes investor confidence.

Plans related to expanding the startup’s services and growing its marketing activities outside of Egypt are expected to get most of the attention with the latest capital injection.

 

 

Feature image CourtesyNawah Scientific

Egyptian Healthtech Startup Vezeeta Raises Investment From IFC

Nzekwe Henry December 10

Egyptian healthtech startup, Vezeeta, has secured an undisclosed amount of investment from World Bank Group’s International Finance Corporation (IFC). This development sees Vezeeta become the first Egyptian technology company to bag a direct investment from the IFC.

Vezeeta is one of the leading healthtech startups in the MENA region and the latest investment from IFC into the Cairo-based company follows a previous announcement which saw the startup close a Series-C round worth USD 12 Mn. That round was led by STV; a Saudi-based investment firm.

Vezeeta was launched in 2012 by Amir Barsoum. The startup makes it possible for patients to search, compare, book, and consult with doctors in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Lebanon. Vezeeta also assists medical personnel with practice management solutions that help in better management of medical appointments and patient data.

Up to 2 million appointments are believed to be facilitated by the platform on a yearly basis, and that’s according to the startup. More so, Vezeeta claims to have over 10,000 healthcare providers signed on to the platform, providing services to at least 2.5 million patients in the region.

With regards to the development, Amir Barsoum, Founder and CEO of Vezeeta, offered that the investment from a “global power” like the IFC will help accelerate the growth of the startup, as well as buoy its plans of building a formidable global network.

Chief Executive Officer of the IFC, Philippe Le Houerou, also commented on the development expressing his confidence in the ability of Vezeeta to drive innovation in the MENA region. The CEO also expressed delight at the prospect of African entrepreneurs harnessing their creativity and drive with the power of novel technologies to address some of the continent’s most pressing problems.

Vezeeta’s Chief Technology Officer, Adel Khalil, also rendered his voice in support of the development reiterating its importance in helping the startup keep up with its mandate of empowering millions of patients in the region, and making sure patients and healthcare providers are seamlessly connected by leveraging data and new products in healthcare.

Mohammad Elmougi echoed, Vezeeta’s VP North Africa, echoed the thoughts of the CTO when he hinted at the commitment of the startup to pulling down all accessibility barriers and improving the quality of healthcare experienced by patients in the region through the elimination of all the bottlenecks that currently bedevil quality healthcare service accessibility.

While this is undoubtedly the IFC’s very first direct investment in an Egyptian technology venture, it would, however, not be the first this investment arm of the World Bank Group is throwing about its financial weight in the MENA region. Over the course of the past few years,  the IFC is known to have made funding commitments worth over USD 100 Mn in startups, venture funds, and accelerators across the Middle East and North Africa, including such Egyptian ventures as Flat6Labs and Algebra Ventures.

 

Feature image courtesyMENAbytes

Ugandan Startup Swipe2pay Swipes Away USD 40K At BRIDGE East Africa Startup Pitch

Kevin Gachiri December 10

Swipe2pay, a Ugandan startup was picked as the winner of BRIDGE East Africa Startup pitch and secured USD 40K at Weetracker’s first flagship conference event held at Crowne Plaza on 7th December in Nairobi. The announcement was made by Takuma Terakubo the CEO of Leapfrog Ventures whose joint partnership with Weetracker made the event possible. Leapfrog Ventures will add Swipe2pay to its roster of startups, it is funding in East Africa. Other startups that took part in the pitch included Yusudi, Talklift, Zumi and Asilimia.

The Selection of Swipe2pay came as a surprise considering that each of the 5 startups had delivered convincing pitches in front of the panel that comprised Japanese investors on tour in Africa, some for the first time. Solomon Kitumba, CEO Swipe2pay, had come from pitching at #slush18 in Helsinki arriving in time to make his pitch as the last participant for the day. Swipe2pay makes it possible for informal businesses that accept cash from customers to be able to accept digital payments as well as credit card transactions. The startup which was founded in 2017, is already integrated with Visa and Mastercard.

In an interview with Weetracker, Solomon intimated that “We are already active in Uganda with a majority of our customers coming from Mbarara and Jinja. We have built a regular customer base of 550 regular users on our  platform with transactions sometimes growing upto 3,500 per day when we get very busy.”

According to their website, the solution they provide to customers also includes their provision of daily, weekly and monthly reports. The fintech startup has integration with Kenya’s MPESA making it possible for them to venture into the local Kenyan market as well.

Solomon is assisted by a team of six who play different roles in driving the business forward and the funding they have received will go into product development as well as strengthening its talent pool which would be necessary for looking at how the product can be polished, refined or extend its features. Having grown in rural Uganda, Solomon had observed how informal market traders mostly women fail to access finance since they don’t keep records or any form of payments they receive from clients.  This makes it difficult to get credit reference. The need to accept funds from clients who wish to pay by cards also means that they usually turn away clients from this customer segment. Swipe2pay, therefore, helps in attracting more customers.  It is this discovery that made Solomon devise a method of bringing a better solution to these informal traders.

Weetracker’s BRIDGE East Africa, held in Kenya drew a substantial crowd of investors from Japan as well as attendance of local investors, venture capitalists and seasoned entrepreneurs. The event hosted startup pitches that were held in between the panel discussions and fireside chats with selected guests. Leapfrog Ventures announced at the event that it is looking at making 200 investments in Africa in the coming 3 years.

What You Should Know About Google Hangouts’ Rumored Shutdown

Andrew Christian December 9

Sources familiar with the tech giant’s product’s internal roadmap have reported that 2019 will be the last year for Google Hangouts, as the company plans to shut it down by the year 2020. The development, to nearly no one’s surprise, is a reiteration which accompanies the company’s apparent decision to hold off on further developments on the app more than a year ago.

Google had previously announced its pivot for the Hangouts brand for enterprise use scenarios with Hangout Chat and Hangout Meet, so it has been telling for a while that the consumer app would soon cease to exist. With the abandonment of Google Hangouts concerning development and its presumed final extinction, many entrepreneurs have begun charting a course away from the app, even though it will remain a prominent official chat option in Gmail on the web – continuing on the Google Play Store even now. In line with recent reviews, the app has shown signs of ageing which are evident in its display of bugs and performance glitches.

Hangout as a brand will remain with G Suite’s Hangout Chat and Hangouts Meet, with the former tailored for Slack app-comparable team communication and the latter as a video meetings platform. In the same line, Google Voice calling, which was initially independent and then integrated into Hangouts, was restored to its own redesigned app earlier this year.

Worthy of interest is that in spite of its inevitable axing, Hangouts was one of the few apps to receive early support for Android Auto’s new MMS and RCS functionality, alongside Whatsapp and Android Messages.

Nonetheless, Google’s Scott Johnson has chimed in on this development and denied any decision being made about the timeline of legacy Hangouts’ shutdown. He did confirm that users of consumer Hangouts will somehow be upgraded to Hangouts Chat and Hangouts Meet, both of which have been presented as enterprise-focused products that fill different needs. Scott also confirmed rather explicitly that Hangouts Classic, which is the subject of this development, will eventually be “shutting down’. Meanwhile, there are sources which corroborate the initial report, informing that decisions have been made for the depreciation of legacy Hangouts.

Most of us consider the Chat and Meet to be more business-focused products, and these plans make the situation seem as though they could have more of a consumer-facing component in the future. For entrepreneurs who have continued to use Hangouts, and who are now coming to rely on Slack or Discord style at-mentions, having such features in Hangouts may be somewhat snazzy. If the rumour of Hangouts’ death or transition are true or have been exaggerated, it wouldn’t matter so much if the new upgrades come with those new features.

Meanwhile, another source reports that Google provided an update on its current efforts, and now focuses moving towards a simpler communication experience. Starting on the consumer front, Google has “decided to stop supporting Allo to focus on Messages.” In April this year, Google only noted that it was “holding off investment” on Allo, but the tech giant confirmed that the service is about to get the sunset. Allo will be available until March 2019, with the service continuing to work until then; disregarding today’s downtime. Google has furnished us with details on how users can export existing conversation history from the app.

Google Hangouts, for as long as it has been in use, hasn’t disappointed entrepreneurs, as it can be a great asset to a company of any size – even more ideal for smaller businesses and startups. The app allows you to connect with employees easily, business colleagues and clients via calls and video chat making it seamless for those who travel or work from home. Hangouts also afford companies the flexibility of connection form virtually any smart device. Users can also, during chats, share files via Google Drive, stream live broadcast, participate in webinars and hold staff meetings amongst many more.

As customers will be able to review your business as an accessible one that cares about customer satisfaction, using Google Hangouts is a marketing strategy with all the makings of greatness. With weekly/monthly question and answer sessions, customer chats and feedback reception, you can not only appeal to customers but receive immediate interactions that can help you develop a more robust marketing strategy. Taylor Swift hosted a Google+ Hangout to announce her new album, and with the medium, she was able to reach fans from all over the world – making her song hit number one right after its release.

This goes to say that Hangouts is a great way to make business announcements such as funding rounds, product launches, expansion or any other news that customers may be interested in. The app is also useful in holding online staff meetings, and conference calls with important clients even while you are in transit.

We are yet to find out the actual features that will come with the storied Hangouts Chat and Hangouts Meet as replacements to the authority-building, customer-gathering, engaging, and collaborative Google Hangouts. 2020 is more than a year from now, so while Sundar Pichai and his team of techies decide the fate of this G Suite member, we still have no less than 12 months to enjoy the existing chat room app.

Nigeria’s Logistics Startup Kobo360 Raises USD 6 Mn From World Bank’s IFC

Andrew Christian December 7

Nigeria’s Uber-like trucking logistics startup Kobo360 has raised USD 6 Mn in its second investment round this year. The equity financing which was gained from World Bank ’s sister organization IFC, will help the company upgrade its e-logistics platform and spread its tentacles to Ghana, Togo and Ivory Coast.

This recent investment for Kobo360, which also involved efforts from other platforms such as TLom Capital and Y Combinator, will be used by the startup to become more than just a transit app. The founder, Obi Ozor, told Techcrunch that the company broke into the logistics market as an app that connects truckers and companies with freight needs, but now looks to build a global logistics operating system and become a full-fledged platform.

While bridging the gap between truckers, producers and distributors, Kobo360 is now chomping at bit to build the platform that will offer supply chain management tools for enterprise customers. In a statement, Ozor revealed that large firms are now demanding for movement, tracking and sales-related specific features, which is why the startup is looking to leverage two options – integrate other services such as SAP into Kobo or building the solutions directly into the e-logistics platform.

With this new investment round, the startup will sally forth with the said upgrade by developing its API and opening it up to for the use to large enterprise customers. With the intent for clients to use Kobo360’s dashboard for everything from moving goods, tracking, sales and accounting, the platform wishes to tackle the challenges faced by its customers.

It is also reported that the company will forge a more physical Nigerian presence in order to serve its customers better. Concerned about truck movements and monitoring, helping operation’s collect proof of delivery and accessing trucker owners more closely for inspection and training purposes, Kobo360 is poised to launch 100 hubs before the end of 2019, according to its founder.

The startup, remaining “aggressively” focused on reducing logistics friction for large enterprises and SMEs alike, alongside connecting new markets and unlock better community wellbeing, will add more warehousing capabilities to support its reverse logistics business. By matching trucks with return freight after they drop their loads, Kobo360 will bring down prices and eliminate the return-empty challenge facing its customers.

In a statement, the IFC enthused that the company currently has over 5000 trucks empanelled on its platform, from more than 600 small fleet owners, serving some of the largest enterprises in Nigeria. Kobo360 told Techcrunch in January that it is looking to add 20,000 trucks to its platform and latch on to the expansion which is now made possible by its USD 6 Mn raise. According to the founder, the expansion, which is scheduled to take off in 2019, will be with existing customers – one in the port operations business, another in FMCG and the last in agriculture.

As a matter of strategic priority, the funding, which was announced by both parties on the eve of the opening of the IFC’s Next 100 African Startups Initiative, will be used by the startup to also expand programs and services for its driver members. Along this line, Ozor remarked that neglecting drivers would crumble the company to a pile of issues while iterating that the same loophole hinders ride-hailing companies from becoming trillion-dollar enterprises.

Because owning trucks may be too cumbersome to handle, Ozor opines that the best scalable model is to aggregate trucks, while handling more volume at cheaper prices to leverage the startup’s asset-free digital platform and business model to outpace traditional long-haul 3PL providers in Nigeria.

According to a Weetracker report, Kobo360 raised USD 1.2 Mn in June this year from U.S venture capital firm Western Technology Investment and became a Y-Combinator cohort, while receiving USD 120 K equity investment from the seed fund. The logistics startup, which has served 900 businesses, aggregated a fleet of 8000 drivers and moved 155 million kilograms, is welcoming IFC’s regional head for Africa, Wale Ayeni and TLcom’s senior partner Omobola Johnson to take seats at its board.

Kobo360 also offers training and programs on insurance, discount petrol and vehicle financing to its drivers. The startup has also created an HMO for drivers, alongside an incentive-based program to afford education, which is monikered as KoboCare. The company’s top clients include Honeywell, Dangote, Unilever, Olam and DHL.

 

Featured Image Courtesy: Macktrucks

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