CEO speak: Meeting employee and customer techspectations
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Technology development in Africa is exploding but which home-grown and international companies are leading the charge in innovation?
With smartphones in Africa more prevalent than bank accounts, it’s no surprise the continent has seen a huge amount of technology innovation over the past 12 months.
Despite the African tech scene demonstrating huge growth, it still takes a lot to stand out as an innovator, says Marcello Schermer, regional manager for Africa at Seedstars World.
“Innovators are companies that solve African problems with African solutions and go beyond copying ideas from abroad.
“The most successful startups on the continent will be the ones that can solve a local problem with global relevance in a unique and innovative way and then scale their solution to different parts of the world where the same problem exists,” says Schermer.
We take a look at four of the most successful home-grown and international technology innovators in Africa today that are doing just that.
British company Tappago’s taxi hiring service has been ported over to Africa, with its services set to launch in Nigeria, Kenya and Uganda, helping locals travel more easily using local taxis.
The company’s secretary Daniel Williams explains that African consumers are demanding a taxi service that is safe, with transparent fixed fares, but is also convenient. Taking notice of these local needs is essential when launching a successful business, he says, because the market is so different compared to the UK, for example.
“Your business must solve a problem and if it’s not clear on how your business solves your customer’s problem then you need to go back to the drawing table,” he says.
It’s also crucial to be aware of what you are doing differently to your competitors and leverage local low-cost marketing tools, such as social media, fliers, local radio and press nights.
For more companies to realise the opportunity, the government must help by providing affordable office spaces and financial incentives, or other bonuses to encourage them to launch their company in the continent.
Last September, it was announced WhereIsMyTransport had raised 12m Rand (US$813,620) in its latest round of funding and was actually oversubscribed when it came to finding investors, showing there’s a real buzz about making transport more accessible to the nation.
On the most basic level, WhereIsMyTransport helps commuters find the best transport system to use but it’s much more than that. By connecting cities with a whole range of application programming interfaces (APIs), developers can integrate into their own solutions to make travel around Africa easier and safer, as well as more sustainable and efficient.
The company has proven so successful in its native South Africa it has now opened up an office in London, demonstrating it’s not just European and American companies taking their tech to Africa, but African companies realising an opportunity outside their native country too.
“We’ve very proud to be a company that was born and raised in Africa, and our commitment to building solutions that serve developing cities remains unchanged,” says cofounder Devin de Vries.
As Schermer says, “WhereIsMyTransport is reinventing the ways an urban public transport should work.”
Companies such as Andela and Jobberman are opening up high-skilled job opportunities to a number of people who wouldn’t have had that opportunity before, Schermer explains.
Rather than helping developers get jobs like a regular recruitment product, Nigerian startup Andela identifies the top untapped talent in Africa, sifting through hundreds of thousands of applicants and then integrates that talent into an employer’s team.
It also trains people to become developers, greatly increasing their chances of being employed and being in the top five per cent of Nigerian earners.
It might be that the top developer for a job works on the other side of the country but that doesn’t matter because Andela will ensure it’s as if they’re working from the next desk in the office, fostering a culture of remote working and ensuring everyone has an equal opportunity, however remote they may be.
4. Illuminum Greenhouses
Technologies that can help local businesses thrive, while also benefiting the environment, are another growing trend across the continent.
Kenyan startup Illuminum Greenhouses is giving farmers access to more efficient irrigation by smartly using sensors that trigger the irrigation system. Using sensors to detect the water levels in the ground means crops won’t be over-watered or dried out and as a result, yield will increase, losses will be reduced and farming becomes a more sustainable business.
The future of the African tech scene
Although the future’s bright for the African technology economy, the market needs to see some changes before it can continue growing. Specifically, governments need to make it as easy as possible to set up their companies, while continuing to be innovative.
“Setting up and running a company is still fairly complicated, costly and full of red tape, especially in Kenya and Nigeria,” Schermer explains. “A few countries like Rwanda are paving the way by allowing people to register businesses in just a few hours but the big ones are not there yet.”
Getting funding is also a challenge, although as foreign companies start realising the potential of Africa as an investment opportunity, things will begin to look more favourable.
“Foreign investors in many cases don’t know how to invest in places they don’t know, and are therefore a bit more cautious when doing investments,” Schermer says. “This can easily be solved by showing them the immense opportunity that exists across the continent.”
However, exchange rate fluctuations and foreign exchange controls in Nigeria, plus the political insecurity and IP laws in South Africa, may prove to be another barrier for tech companies introducing their products and services in Africa.
“These are elements that scare investors off because it makes investing harder and reduces their potential profits,” says Schermer. “What we are seeing today though is that the ones who are willing to overcome these challenges are the ones that will benefit in incredible ways.”