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Posts Tagged ‘African Techpreneurs’

pix1In 2008, following post-election violence in Kenya, a group of young techies in Nairobi created Ushahidi, a data-mapping platform to collate and locate reports of unrest sent in by the public via text message, e-mail and social media. Ushahidi, which means ‘testimony’ in Swahili, has become the world’s default platform for mapping crises, disasters and political upheaval. As at September of 2016, Ushahidi, which is free to download, had seen over 90,000 deployments, reaching a population of over 20million across the globe.

Digital technology is transforming how we live our lives and sub-Saharan Africa has been an interesting theatre for this revolution. While its adoption has varied greatly between countries, reflecting the peculiar needs of the people, it is, regardless of the country, transforming economic activity, evolving new platforms and opportunities for delivering new products and services to Africans while also breaking down the barriers that has long held the continent back.

A number of underlying drivers are responsible for laying the groundwork for the ongoing technological revolution. The first of these is the emergence of Africa’s new ‘Consumer Class’ with access to income that is truly disposable. The second driver is Africa’s demographic and urbanisation boom. By 2050, Africa will account for almost 24% of the world’s population while Africa’s rate of urbanisation has risen from just 11.2% in 1950 to an estimated 38% in 2015, creating more than 50 African cities with a population of over 1 million. This rate is forecast to rise to 50% by 2030. The third driver is the ubiquity of mobile phones in Africa. Back in 2000, barely 1% of Africans had a mobile phone; by 2016 this proportion had risen to over 80%.

Together these growth drivers have made sub-Saharan African ripe for disruption with a number of digital services making a huge impact in the development sector. Fintech (financial technology) leads the charge, blazing a trail across the continent as its boosts financial inclusion and challenges banking models. So successful has the launch of mobile banking been that over half of the world’s mobile money deployments are in sub-Saharan Africa, with an estimated 223 million registered accounts and 84 million active accounts.  The poster child of African fintech is M-PESA, Kenya’s mobile money platform. The mobile payments network created by M-PESA has transformed Kenya’s economy – bringing millions of Kenyans into the financial system – and laid the groundwork for a wave of innovation in financial services, extending credit to Africans who were previously unbanked.

Similarly, digital technology has had a huge impact in Agriculture, providing channels to disseminate information to farmers about their crops and livestock. Apps have led the way, with numerous services providing live price data, marketing information, training and community services. Leading examples include Cocoa Link (developed by the World Cocoa Foundation for cocoa farmers in Ghana), Esoko (the so-called ‘Facebook for farmers’, providing farming and marketing information in a dozen African countries) and i-cow (providing husbandry tips for Kenyan dairy farmers). In addition, there is the example of the innovative use, by the Nigerian government, of cell phones as an e-wallet to change the way farmers get fertilisers and other farming inputs. This was hugely successful in helping to remove middlemen, reduce corruption in the sector and increase productivity.

One new technology could address the difficulty of delivering goods to African locations that are remote or poorly served by roads: drones. The use of drones to deliver small to medium-sized packages is being piloted in a number of countries in Africa. Rwanda is experimenting with using drones to deliver urgent medical supplies to mountain communities – a trip that could take 2-3 days on a motorbike can be accomplished by a drone in a few hours. If successfully implemented this new technology could be a breakthrough for the retail sector as well as for health and agriculture extension services, enabling the rapid and efficient sending of high-value or urgent items to otherwise inaccessible locations.

In health, Peek, the portable eye examination kit that lets users carry out eye exams by taking high quality retinal images with their mobile phone, and Cardiopad, a tablet computer designed to test for heart problems in remote Cameroonian communities which lack cardiologists, demonstrate how with relatively simple technology local health worker can carry out medical examinations and get remote diagnosis of the results quickly and cheaply. In addition, Sproxil and M-pedigree, both SMS based technologies, have been successfully used in combating counterfeit drugs and other unwholesome products.

Technologies are also being developed that use mobile call-data records (CDRs) to map outbreaks of diseases and identify where treatment centres should be built. A pioneer in this space is the Swedish non-profit organisation, Flowminder. Using anonymised voice and text data from 150,000 mobile phones in Senegal, the company created detailed maps of population movement during the recent Ebola outbreak, helping inform decisions on where to target help.

These success stories and prospects have not been without challenges. Chief among these is regulation from government. The disruptive effect of digital technology often brings it in conflict with traditional systems with some governments putting regulatory provisions in place to ‘restrain’ it. This is reason why for example Mobile money has not been as successful in Nigeria despite the mobile phone penetration. Next is the power situation on the continent. Without reliable power, developers are unable to work and end users are unable also access these services. There is also a skills gap with only very few programmers, a host of them self-taught, working in mostly independently funded creation hubs to develop applications. Digital technology is not a common feature of formal school curricula on the continent. In addition, with funding coming mainly from venture capitalists, focus has been more on services that have commercial value and not necessarily those with developmental impact on poor communities.

These challenges notwithstanding, the opportunity for digitally enabling development on the continent is huge.

This piece was shortlisted for the Haller Prize for Development Journalism, 2016.

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techpoint-750x400A little over a decade ago, a young Nigerian spending time in a cyber café’s was presumed to be a “yahoo boy”, an internet scam artist. Indeed, there was a joke then of how if you were yet to receive a scam e-mail from Nigeria, you may not own an email account at all. Today, however, the situation is markedly different. Every young Nigerian you see with a laptop, most likely with an internet modem dangling from it, is easily a startup, a potential billion dollar business.

And this is the story all across Africa, a continent that was as recently as ten years ago described by The Economist as hopeless but which today, is experiencing a revolution led by her youths who are maximizing the power of the internet and mobile phones to inspire a new kind of hope, creating new streams of income that is pulling millions out of poverty and announcing clearly to the world that Africans can also do it.

The transformation has been phenomenal. Today, over 600 million Africans have mobile phones. From almost nonexistent broadband capacity, the continent today has in excess of 40 terabytes of capacity delivered by undersea cables berthed on her shores. These twin services, mobile phones and broadband Internet have caused a rapid transformation, positioning the continent as the fastest growing region on earth for the telecoms industry. With this, has come recognition among African governments and people that an opportunity exists to leap the development gap through the implementation of technological solutions to some of the challenges facing the continent.

Young African techies have seized on this opportunity and are daily churning out new apps and launching new startups that are changing how the rest of the world views the continent. The excitement is palpable. Codeathons, hackathons, portathons, developer booth camps which were strange words a few years ago are now normal parlance, presenting platforms for the expression of creativity and innovation across African cities, from Lagos to Nairobi to Johannesburg,

In June of 2014, Nigerian developer Editi Effiong and his team at Anakle created a buzz that reverberated across the globe, a lot of it pure hilarity, through their Brideprice app. This web app which the developer in an interview said was a joke perhaps in reaction to some groups who were critical of the apps portrayal of the African woman, used popular jokes and stereotypes common among various Nigerian cultures in calculating the bride price of users. The idea according to Effiong was to create a wildly engaging app and generate viral conversation to show it can be done.

And indeed we are doing it. The bride price app, the ingenuity and creativity of it, tells the story of what is APPening in the African technology and startup space. And it is by no means a joking matter. Not with the amount of venture capitalist funding chasing after these efforts. Worthy examples are the likes of Jobberman.com a leading job website on the continent, recognized by Forbes as “West Africa’s most popular job search engine and aggregator.” The company is backed by a NY based venture capital firm and has grown rapidly to over 9 million monthly unique users, with more than 50 Million monthly page views.

In 2007 following post-election violence in Kenya a group of young techies in Nairobi created Ushahidi, a data-mapping platform to collate and locate reports of unrest sent in by the public via text message, e mail and social media. Ushahidi which means testimony in Swahili has become the world’s default platform for mapping crises, disasters and political upheaval. As at May of 2011, Ushahidi, which is free to download, had been used 14,000 times in 128 countries to map everything from the earthquake in Haiti to the 2012 tsunami in Japan and the Arab Spring.

A discussion on how Africa is shaping technology globally will not be complete without mentioning its marked influence in mobile banking. Kenyan operator Safaricom became the first-ever telecom company to create a mass mobile-banking service, setting industry standards now being replicated across the globe with its M Pesa service.

To develop these apps however the developers require creative spaces and incubation hubs. Nigeria for example has seen the rise of such spaces in recent years. Popular among them is the Co-Creation Hub, a multi-functional and multipurpose incubation space for tech enthusiasts, social entrepreneurs, and hackers to co-create new solutions to social problems. The center has among its partners such companies as Google, Microsoft, MTN, and Samsung and has successfully incubated viable and thriving Start-ups as BudgIT, and Efiko, among others.

Also in Lagos is the recently launched Leadpath Nigeria $1.5 million accelerator fund and startup workspace focused on startups doing business in software applications, mobile applications, electronic payments and big data. It had three startups, Simer, Afriqbuy and Enreach in its portfolio at launch in February.

Perhaps most inspiring is the interest by Government to support such initiatives. The Nigerian Government has for example, announced a $15million dollars venture fund dedicated to high potential ICT businesses which will be sourced from the National Information Development Agency (NITDA) and the private sector. NITDA has also since set up the iDEA Hub in Lagos, to accelerate the development of the software industry in Nigeria by nurturing and helping Nigerian software businesses. The intention of the Government is that the Hub will assist ‘techpreneurs’ build software skills, solutions and businesses critical to their success thereby creating wealth and employment opportunities for Nigerians.

These developments have not been without challenges. For example, power remains a problem. More so, the lack of relevant skill sets and entrepreneurial competence which is not a usual feature in the formal school curriculum impacts on the speed with which these startups scale and become profitable. These challenges notwithstanding, it can be said without doubt that it will not be long before the rest of the world will look to Africa for solutions of the future.

This piece was originally written in 2014 for an online Magazine

Photo credit: Techpoint.ng

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