Thanks to pioneering business leaders and investors such as Mzi Khumalo, Tony Elumelu and Strive Masiyiwa, who have spent decades supporting entrepreneurs, there is a tech boom going on right now in Sub-Saharan Africa.
This new upsurge gives us the chance to look again at the many things we can learn from entrepreneurs in Africa, including how to lift our vision and see new possibilities to create inspirational change using tech.
Tech is not just about making life simpler
For most people in the west, tech is integrated into our daily lives; it has matured to the point where most applications’ primary purpose is to make life quicker, more comfortable and simpler.
Consumer applications such as social media and e-commerce platforms are the norm and businesses take it mainly for granted that there will be some form of tech solution for almost every operational issue including collaboration, accounting, project management and everything in between. We are conditioned to look for a tech solution first.
In Africa, things are incredibly different, and so are its entrepreneurs. Tech in Africa is built on a much bigger vision, and designed, often, to solve challenges that may well have global ramifications in the future. Seventy per cent of the world’s poorest people live in Sub-Saharan Africa. To put this in even greater context, according to the recent 2019 UN Multidimensional Poverty Index, in some African countries including Chad, Niger and Ethiopia 90% of children under ten years old are considered to be ‘multi-dimensionally poor’.
Even people whose situations are not as dire, if they live in rural communities they can often lack reliable, consistent access to the basics such as energy, clean water, banking and healthcare, not to mention internet connections. This is the backdrop that drives many entrepreneurs to search for practical tech-driven solutions.
Access to the internet
Much has been written about mobile banking and fintech in both the West and in Africa. Kenya-based M-Pesa, for example, has transformed the lives of many by giving them access to a bank account for the first time, and more fintechs are being founded in Africa by the day. However, these technologies rely on people having access to the network and tech entrepreneurs are creating innovative solutions to tackle this specific issue.
Internet access is a big problem and varies wildly across Africa. According to the World Bank, more than half of South Africans use the internet, but in Central Africa, only around 10% have internet access. This has a significant knock-on effect when it comes to poverty rates and access to services.
One startup based in Nairobi, BRCK, is driven by the mission to connect people to the internet in Africa. BRCK currently has close to 3,000 Wi-Fi hotspots in Kenya and Rwanda covering a radius of up to 100 miles each. They are now working on extending this by piloting a low cost, solar-powered data-only 4G network which, if successful, will provide access to many thousands more people.
Access to the basics of life
Another issue in Africa is access to the basics, and it’s a challenge on a colossal scale. For example, according to the World Economic Forum, more than 60% of Africans do not have access to electricity. One startup, Skynotch Energy, is a social enterprise whose aim is to support universal access to sustainable energy in Kenya. It is engaged in developing a range of tech-driven projects that use solar, wind and hydropower.
Even food production can be a struggle in a country where an estimated 80% of all farms operate at subsistence levels. However, it is an area that is increasingly being supported by tech. There is a wide range of agtech startups in Africa right now, all doing incredible work. These include Zenvus who have developed a comprehensive platform for farmers to keep track of production, sell their produce, access funding and insurance products and much else besides.
Healthcare is another area that is benefiting from tech advances. Vula, for example, is an app-based startup founded by Dr William Mapham, who was driven to find a solution for health workers when he worked in rural Swaziland. Health workers found it almost impossible to get specialist advice or refer patients. Now branching out across Africa, this free-to-use app also gives users the chance to learn and upskill.
African tech startups can help western entrepreneurs reassess their mission, look at their products in new ways, and inspire them to think on a much bigger scale. Next time you find yourself lacking inspiration, go and take a look at what African entrepreneurs are up to today.