Husband and wife John and Natalie White are co-founders of Birda, an app they say will revolutionise birdwatching across South Africa.
John hails from Durban in the garden province of KwaZulu-Natal, the son of a British father and Afrikaans mother, and has spent a childhood and more in the bush. His passion is wildlife, and it is one wife Natalie, who is originally from the UK but moved to Cape Town in 2011, shares.
Together, they have launched Birda, which aims to promote the enjoyment and appreciation of birdwatching as a means of connecting people with nature.
“We believe that people need to experience the natural world before they fight to protect it. We believe that nature is for everyone, and we know that spending time connecting with it makes people happier and healthier. Whether you’re a seasoned birdwatcher or just starting out, we want everyone to feel included and welcomed,” John told Disrupt Africa.
Birda turns the discovery and exploration of bird life and the outdoors into a game by using challenges, leaderboards and fun badges. This helps people enjoy, and get the most out of their birding journey. Users can do things like find out what birds people near them have seen and where, create and curate their own bird lists to keep track of all their sightings, use the species guide to help identify birds, or ask the community for help identifying a bird.
“Birda is proud to share all the sightings data its users generate with the Global Biodiversity Information Facility, an international network and data infrastructure aimed at providing open access to data about all types of life on Earth. Scientists can then use this data to understand more about the world’s bird species and their habitats,” said Natalie.
After running a generalist wildlife community in Southern Africa, the pair recognised that it was the birdwatchers that were the most active and engaged users.
“It was at this point that we decided to focus on a birdwatching-specific platform. Birdwatchers are fragmented across numerous, disparate platforms which tend to only offer specific functionality, like bird identification or logging of sightings,” John said. “There was nothing that combined all these features together in one app and that offered a social element too. We also felt quite strongly that it was time for a new era of birdwatching – one that was more focused on changing the typical birder stereotype and providing a fun and welcoming space where everyone, no matter their experience, could feel part of a community.”
Common interest, vertical communities and friend discovery are also the fastest-growing categories in the social app ecosystem.
“Similar to how Strava has mobilised a large community of users around sport, we wanted to do the same for birdwatching. Birda therefore offers features and functionality that are very specific to our niche. We have all the benefits of a standard social network but we also have a stack of useful features that birdwatchers depend on,” said Natalie.
For example, an integrated field guide, ability to log sightings, automatic generation of life lists, challenges, badges, maps to find where to go birding, and more.
“It is the marriage of the social and niche specific features and functionality that has given rise to the massive growth in niche social networks,” Natalie said.
Birda was self-funded from 2017, with the aim of creating a minimum viable product in the form of a web app. In 2019, it raised a small seed round, which it used to develop the first version of its mobile app. In 2020, armed with a decent minimum viable product and a growing global community of users, it closed its first significant seed round of GBP1 million (US$1.2 million) from a European-based family office.
“It was shortly after this that we met our co-founder Dom Barker who helped to bring our vision to life. Dom retired our MVP and started developing Birda based on a modern and scalable tech stack,” said John.
“In 2022 we raised an additional GBP1.2 million (US$1.45 million) from our existing investor with the aim of scaling up and supporting our rapidly growing community.”
This mix of expertise and funding has resulted in swift growth.
“We are seeing extremely encouraging growth – 30 per cent month-on-month – with a global community who are highly engaged. We have been really encouraged by feedback from the community and this has given us confidence that we are on the right track,” said Natalie.
The app is available globally, and Birda is still at the pre-revenue stage as it focuses on growing its community.
“We are however going to start monetising the platform later this year,” John said. “We have a variety of revenue streams in the pipeline.”
One of those is “premiumisation”.
“We are working on adding premium features to Birda. The features will be focused on power users so the vast majority of the app will remain free,” he said.
The other is advertising.
“We are offering advertising for brands in the birdwatching space. These ads are in the form of subtle industry-specific notices or ads in the feed, sponsored challenges and sponsored badges. They will be highly relevant to the audience – only birding products or services – and seamlessly integrate with the experience to make them as subtle as possible,” said Natalie.