Digital developments are happening at such a remarkable pace in Africa that it is sometimes difficult to keep up. Sena Kpodo reports from Accra, one of the continent’s most advanced tech centres, on African tech’s potential for impact at the base of the socio-economic pyramid.
In January, Ghana became the fifth country and the fourth in Africa to receive access to the Internet.org application. The app is a Facebook-led initiative that aims to bring affordable mobile Internet services to areas of the world where data costs can be prohibitive to sections of the population. Users can access data-light versions of a select number of websites at no data cost. The Ghanaian version of the app initially launched with 17 available services including Facebook, Wikipedia, GhanaWeb, Ebola Information, SuperSport, Jobberman and BabyCenter & MAMA.
Facebook has also recently launched a specific Africa division to serve the now 100 million active users on the continent – 80% of whom access the social network via mobile phone. Africa’s digital transformation has rapidly moved up the global agenda, shifting the way in which the continent sees and is seen, hears and is heard of, and speaks and is spoken about.
Ghana is one of the continent’s leaders in technological adaptation and entrepreneurship. Things are moving fast on the country’s tech scene, and global recognition and investment is arriving. In 2013, Ghanaian start-up Dropifi, an online tool that helps businesses manage customer feedback, became the first company from Africa to join the 500 Startups programme in California’s Silicon Valley – the tech world’s Mecca.
An essential ingredient to Ghana’s emerging success on the global tech scene is the ecosystem that allows entrepreneurs and tech workers to learn from each other. One nexus point bringing innovators together is HubAccra.
The tech hub was founded in 2013 when the Unreasonable Institute, an American entrepreneurship facilitator, brought 11 high-impact entrepreneurs to Ghana. William Senyo, a Ghanaian entrepreneur and CEO of SliceBiz, a micro-investment platform for early-stage African companies, wanted to impress the visitors. He explains, “We had to show Accra’s ecosystem in a way that would get them interested.” In three days, Senyo and his fellow co-founders rented space and were ready to host.
Once the guests left, the hub remained. It differentiated itself by not just being a place for “techies” but a space for innovators of various kinds prioritising either social impact or profit. Senyo explains that they wanted to create a “constant location” for the “great creatives and entrepreneurs doing great things in all corners of the city.”
So far, one of the biggest successes is a partnership with the US Broadcasting Board of Governors, a US-funded media agency. Together, they have recently launched the Digital Innovations Lab, set up to create new technologies that bring together new and traditional media to increase accessibility at the base of the pyramid – the poorest and largest socio-economic group –across West Africa.
In addition, the hub has recently partnered with WordPress, Facebook, and internet.org to host Hack for Big Choices, the biggest hackathon in West Africa to date.
Base of the pyramid
Tech is a huge growth sector in Africa and one which the continent’s savvy youth can take advantage of. But it is the possibility for impact at the base of the pyramid that gets many of Ghana’s tech innovators up in the morning. As Senyo explains, innovations at the base of the pyramid provide the “real opportunity for leapfrogging”, and can have the largest impact.
A prominent Ghanaian example of such uses of tech is mPedigree. The service, created by entrepreneur Bright Simmons, uses SMS-based verification technology to check whether drugs are counterfeit. It has been so successful that not only is it being applied around the world, most notably in India, which has traditionally had a big problem with fake medicines, but also in other sectors, most recently textiles.
Tech innovations are being formulated to open up government data to citizens and design empowering financial systems.
Senyo explains, “Because a lot of people exist in the informal economies, their access to credit is almost non-existent but we have to be able to quantify their revenue in a way that allows us to build trust networks, that allows us to advance them some credit, so financial companies can make bets on people with significantly lowered risk profiles.
“For people in informal economies, even having an e-wallet to pay electricity bills, water, has a lot of potential. There are a lot of data implications from which we can begin to do proper economic analysis – we’ll have actual hard data. For me, the opportunity for Africa exists in the power to transition the base of the pyramid into the mainstream. I’ve seen a real improvement and real growth. Without e-banking, for example, Accra’s traffic would probably be double what it is today. Five years ago every banking transaction had to be done by physically walking into the bank. Today, I do almost everything either by phone or online. That’s a real breakthrough for us; financial technology has changed how we work.”
International interest, African action
Global businesses are taking an active interest in and having an immediate impact on the rapid growth of the online consumer in Africa. For example, Ghana’s largest classified advertising site, Tonaton, was launched just two years ago and already lives up to its slogan of being “Ghana’s largest marketplace”.
Tonaton, which means “buy and sell” in Twi, was an almost instant hit. The website, created and developed by a Swedish investment company but managed on the ground by Ghanaian staff, is already one of the country’s most visited websites, and is currently ranked 25th by Alexa.com. Tonaton is an example of an emerging framework – an international template (in this case Craigslist) with foreign investment, transformed by local inputs and design. The Africa Internet Group – a partnership between South African MTN, German Rocket Internet, and Swedish Millicom – has taken this model to 26 countries in Africa. The group has developed eight consumer internet services that have international equivalents but are tailored to the African market.
While these new businesses are bringing useful services to African consumers, this shouldn’t be the end of the story. As Senyo argues, “What should be more exciting is how many Africans are and should be in that space creating ‘uniquely African experiences’, looking at the nuances of African culture and trying to make sure people are comfortable, rather than slapping generic models on Africans and expecting them to try to adapt to them.
“This is where I want a lot more people to support basic insights that help start-ups build some really unique things – there has to be some real sociological research into some of the African lifestyle choices which inform start-ups [and] on how to build uniquely African brands, brands that speak to the customer at the level they understand. We have to create uniquely African products that fit our lifestyles – this is the kind of company that comes out of HubAccra”.
When these companies emerge from HubAccra and other hubs around the continent, they will transform many lives and industries. But those in the vanguard of this movement already see this transformation taking place. Senyo feels Africa’s rise “on a daily basis”. The future is bright, bold and African. As Senyo explains, “it looks a lot like the early days of the Silicon Valley revolution, but this one is uniquely African.”
Photography courtesy of Michael Newlove-Mensah