The new Facebook will come out of Africa! Ok, no. Maybe?
I read a piece somewhere on why the next Facebook or Google may not come from Africa and it provoked a reaction. Commentators, enthusiasts and the likes are quick to point out that Africa is becoming the beautiful bride and many believe it will not be long before we see a real big startup in the mould, and with the revenue potentials, of the Groupons and Googles.
While I certainly look forward to that I dare suggest what Africa, and indeed Kenyan and Nigerian entrepreneurs can do to speed up the coming of the ‘next Facebook’ which will most probably kickstart the real exploitation of hidden potentials.
Tackling Africa’s Biggest Challenges
Africa is a huge market! Foreign investors say that the reason more focus is gradually being placed on Africa is many European and US markets are getting filled and extremely more competitive. Indeed Africa represents the last frontier. Startups spring up seeking to imitate western business models, and while I do not have any issues with that I think bigger opportunities lie in looking inwards and exploring the possible solutions to the several challenges facing the African continent – creating an original African business model. The Dealdeys imitating Groupon, Inye taking after Ipad and so on are all viable models with the potential to do very well in the market. But I long for innovative startups taking on the bulk of the continent’s problems listed below.
The stats say it all, thus instead of wholly imitating western startup models entrepreneurs in Africa will do well to work at developing highly effective, groundbreaking models to tackle these African dark spots; poverty, poor or total lack of education, health, piracy (books, music, movie), funding, transportation/travel, politics & leadership and more.
What Big Business Ideas and Solutions Can Come Through?
From Africa’s most daring problems can emerge great businesses that will change the continent’s outlook in the tech world for ever — Mpesa is proof. Personally, I have toyed with a few ideas along with some colleagues on models that can come up to become major empowerment and income drivers for many of the continent’s middle and low level workers. One thing I have noticed, especially in the case of Nigeria, is that the major challenge to creating a tech based mass empowerment startup is usually the payment and infrastructure angle. A few African countries like Kenya and South Africa may have the leg up on Nigeria in this aspect. Ideas need to be developed on ways to empower the average skilled worker and break the limit that says a skilled graphic artist in Abeokuta can only earn money from work he does in his locality. The intricacies involved in this can be daunting but surely not insurmountable. Other ideas that can eradicate poverty can be evolved from agriculture, skills training, and small scale business models. My aim in this article as stated earlier is to stimulate ideas not to proffer them, as I like to think imagination is a big component of solving our problems in Africa.
Poor Education/Outright Ignorance
While it may be clear that governments are not able to build enough schools and provide enough quality learning tools developers and entrepreneurs can begin to look at ways to bridge the gap and develop educational ideas that extend beyond or even defy classroom walls. Mobile technologies will be very vital in this as Africa benefits greatly from an increasing penetration of mobile internet across the continent. Intuitive learning and collaborative educational tools will help break a new generation of Africans unshackled from ignorance.
Access to quality healthcare and health information remains a major issue in many African countries. While infrastructure remain a top hindrance to having functional healthcare it is my believe that the high level of mobile phone penetration in the continent can be exploited in making timely health information available to the rural dwellers and the large percentage of the population who cannot readily access health information. Technologies to make health information very accessible can be crucial in preventing ill health.
Startups can work on ideas for tools and apps that check and report on important body health parameters such as blood pressure, stress levels, etc. There will also be great opportunities for apps that give access to a wide range of health information. Already health focused startups like MedAfrica (access and use of health information), HealthQ (infrastructure and tools for creating products and technologies for the wellness and fitness industry) are involved along few others in coming with ideas and technologies to improve health in Africa. 2013 will be an interesting year to watch what evolves in the industry
That piracy promotes and causes lower standards of living in Africa is but saying the obvious. I have personal experiences on how creative entrepreneurs most times cannot make a living from their talents. Writers barely are able to feed. Musicians, actors, producers and other creative elements constantly get ripped off their intellectual property. While we can borrow a leaf from the western world it still behoves us to find our own solutions to piracy in Africa. Maybe something is being done from the film and music angle, but the publishing aspect needs urgent attention. Publishing in Africa still has a long way to go. Ideas anyone?
The very lopsided structure of our funding and business financing model which currently favours only the very rich (who do not always need the money by the way) is a major reason for high levels of unemployment. Most financial and funding institutions are not doing enough to cultivate a new breed of entrepreneurs and employers. Crowd sourced funding initiatives with a strong local flavor and model will help get needed funds in the hands of people who have those little ideas that can create little sustainable businesses. While the bulk of media attention goes to those big startups that land funding in the millions there are many thousands of potential ideas that when given access to funds will form the lower bedrock of our entrepreneurial society. Perhaps venture capitalists should look into this and create more avenues for aspiring entrepreneurs to get funding.
Players like Wakanow are doing something appreciative in the travel industry but there are opportunities for incredibly disruptive ideas. Transportation is in almost chaotic situation in many African cities and while governments will need to do major infrastructural works to build quality transportation systems entrepreneurs can kickstart the change with unique models for the travel and transportation sector.
The people may be realizing ever so gradually that they are responsible for whatever government they get. People centred ideas for participatory governance, effective monitoring and awareness, information access will help entrench the good governance which, come to think of it, is the bedrock of what the continent needs to finally awake from its long slumber and proceed to shove out usurpers of its place in the world business arena.
We need more ideas like the budgIt startup in Nigeria which provide more information and access to people about the fiscal planning in the country. There is also Ushaidi in Kenya, a non-profit tech company that specializes in developing free and open source software for information collection, visualization and interactive mapping.
With the rise of indigenous trained founders and innovators who understand these challenges Nigeria and the rest of the continent faces, we can hope for more ideas focusing on pulling Africa out its perennial shell of ignorance.