20 Innovative Trends Taking Africa to the World Stage
A Loan in 48 Hours –
Money is Like Muck: No Use Save it be Spread
In 1997, Ghana’s Unique Trust Financial Services commenced business under very humble circumstances with a few thousand dollars. It began its incredible rise to the echelons of Ghanaian corporate titans when it launched its trademark promise to process a loan within 48 hours for prospective customers. This was a seminal move in the industry since prior to that time, business borrowers were treated like dirt by the mainstream banks. Corruption, bureaucracy, long delays, and a lack of bank officers interested in the rough and tumble of the real marketplace made finance a headache for medium-sized business. Across Africa, a new trend of “meso-finance” has emerged to cater for entrepreneurs in fast-turnover business. The growing availability of capital, even if it is still expensive, is largely to account for the fast growth of the so-called economic middle class, which many believe will become a social, cultural, and political middle class, transforming Africa as a consequence.
A Country’s Financial
Even the most optimistic observers of Africa’s technology potential marvel at the sheer scale and impact of M-Pesa. By some estimates, more than 11% of Kenya’s GDP is made up of transactions powered by M-Pesa. M-Pesa represents a vast new opportunity for the continent: fast, secure, culturally accessible transactions.
An Operating System for Emerging Supply Chains
mPedigree started as a social enterprise in Ghana with a simple idea: protect consumers from poisonous medicines made to look like the real stuff by letting them check the status of the medicine with a free text message. Today, it has partnered with several international organisations and corporations to deliver an electronic resource platform for managing the distribution networks of not just pharmaceutical companies but also electrical, agro-chemical, and beauty care companies. In addition to hardening the supply chain against fakes, it also empowers regulators to weed out unregistered and uncertified products. Solutions like mPedigree can help transform Africa’s supply and logistics chains, which need a major overhaul to be able to deliver quality, affordable and available fast-moving consumer goods and other commodities.
Moo is for Modular,
Outreach, & Oversight
A Kenyan dairy farmer with support from a UK-based foundation launched this gazillion cool-factor app for other dairy farmers to be able to track each cow’s progress. Vaccination, nutrition, pathology, and a host of cattle rearing milestones and indices can be tracked using the simple multi-phone interface and SMS messages. While illiteracy and lack of extension services make info-based programmes difficult to scale and transform agriculture, the improved record-keeping and the ability to tie that in with better monitoring could give Africa’s broken extension services a new facelift, and arrest the alarming decline in agronomic and agricultural productivity on the continent. Also of note in this dimension are mAgric services such as Esoko, mFarm, and the Nigerian government’s mobile phone powered fertiliser subsidy programme.
A Nose for Danger, the Smell of Opportunity
Apopo is an intriguing programme to protect people from anti-personal landmines by training giant African land rats to help ferret people across mined terrain. Apopo also trains rats to assist in second-line screening for tuberculosis. Apopo has been very active in Mozambique, where it has been instrumental in helping clear land mines from provinces scarred by that country’s past civil war. In 1998, Apopo began the lengthy process of R&D in Tanzania that has led to it becoming a leader in rodent-based detection technology. The key moral in the Apopo story is the need to consider African terrain-compatible systems for some of the continent’s most pressing challenges. Techniques that blend well with local environments stand a better chance of integrating more effectively with local populations and responding to local challenges.
Dignified Mobile Toilets Sanity into Sanitation
Sanitation is a major problem across the developing world, but for population-booming Africa it is a crisis time-bomb that needs urgent defusing lest it explodes. Many health systems thinkers have warned of the dangers of focussing on curative rather than preventive care in Africa but the donor-dependent health sector continues to ignore this hard reality. Isaac Durojaiye’s (may he rest in peace) idea of mobile toilet wagons transitioned from supporting outdoor events to helping communities more effectively manage human waste. DMT is a lasting testament to the need to refocus on basics.
LUXURY BRANDS – Our Luxury Heritage:
As Africans increase their income, the tendency has been for huge amounts of money to flow out of the continent for the importation of luxury goods, many of which contribute little to the cultural vitality of the continent. But new brands are emerging in Africa to blend this new-found taste for luxury labels with greater social and cultural awareness. Three such brands are:
Magatte Wade’s exquisite fragrance business follows up on her previous successful, Adina World Beverages which makes exotic drinks rich with the heritage of her native Senegal.
Swaady Martin-Leke’s (read her opinion on luxury brands in Africa on page 102) flamboyant teas are branded as precious and carry a seal of African earthiness.
Worthy of more than note is Bethlehem Tilahun Alemu’s soleRebels’ shoe label. And there is also a bevy of other hand-crafted footwear brands on the continent, such as Deegbe’s Heal the World.
A Start-Up’s Start-upper
It is a trite insight that YOUTH is Africa’s future. Given the current stage and strength of the African economy however, it is unlikely that without a greater than average rate of entrepreneurship, African youth can develop their capacity, skills, and talents, and be able to contribute meaningfully to the continent’s growth. That is why hubs are emerging all across Africa to support incubation. Kenya’s famous iHub, Lagos’ ccHub, and Botswana’s innovation centre are all clear examples of this trend. The truth though is that hubs have been limited in their capacity to spur growth since so few trainees/participants receive the range of support, especially finance, needed to transition from the idea stage to the tough growth phase of the business lifecycle. Ghana’s Edem Senyo and his co-founder, Heather Cochran, want to change all that by making everybody a potential angel investor and mentor of an African business. The young duo’s idea is to offer the masses, especially those in the professional classes, investment products based on an SME mutual fund concept designed to fuel youth entrepreneurship. Intriguingly, SliceBiz, the name of the business, is itself also a start-up run by youth.
From Africa for the World
In many ways, Ushahidi needs little introduction. Few African concepts have received as much attention. The idea originated from a need to track the aftermath of Kenya’s 2007 post-election violence. The cloud application developed by a group of leading Kenyan technologists from around the world has since gone on to be implemented in many countries globally and has demonstrated the universal applicability of African technology concepts.
An African Tablet for Africa
African innovators have bought into the tablet concept with vigour. Whether it is Nigeria’s Encipher, Congo-Brazzaville’s VMK, Ghana’s rLG and Kludjeson, or even more daringly, Cameroon’s cardiopad, which aims to offer a cardiograph (ECG) service on the go, Africans are investing considerable entrepreneurial and intellectual resources into devising a portable computer system that can serve Africa’s users. The new global supply chain has changed previous notions of manufacturing. Africa doesn’t need to line up all its ducks in a row before entering high-value manufacturing, and these tablet visionaries are working hard to prove that.
Community Networking Radio
Radio has become the lifeblood of the African media and information industry. But community radio has come to mean something even richer than the case elsewhere. Radio stations are not merely hyperlocal in their coverage, but some of them are also hyper-emergent, which simply means that they become what the people want them to become. Lagos’ Traffic Radio has built an entire structure, complete with a content strategy, around the city’s notorious traffic jams. Ghana’s Blakk Rasta has become one of the country’s leading broadcasters by focussing solely on the listening needs of taxi drivers, and in Nigeria, Imo State’s Nnaemeka Ikegwuonu (left) has built a radio station for farmers run by farmers. Radio can become the mobilisation tool in Africa that post-independence mass education programmes failed to become.
A better way to harness African entertainment
Iroko TV is making it possible for Africans to discover gems of entertainment on their own continent. How else could Mozambican housewives discover that they love Nigeria’s tragic epics on Youtube? Africans have longed for unification for a long time, but efforts such as these stand a better chance at helping Africans discover more about what they share than all the grand speeches in Addis Ababa.
Azonto & the memefication of African Gesture
If you go onto Youtube and find American soldiers in Baghdad doing some batty dance moves then rush downstairs for your favourite or least favourite copy of Noam Chomsky. There is nothing geopolitical about this… or maybe there is. A Ghanaian dance phenomenon is slowly taking the world by storm.
African rhythm has long been viewed as exceptionally moving, but Africa has so far failed to grasp onto that as one way of changing perceptions about the continent, by getting ordinary non-Africans to develop a sentimental bond with the place minus all the hyperbole, melodrama and tragicomedy.
If the rest of the world can dance with Africa, they can do business more heartily with it.
Social Games for the Masses
Remarkably, an African video games industry has yet to emerge, despite all the rich material lying about. Companies like Leti Games are however working hard to create grassroots gaming initiatives as a way to harness youthful energy and even the urban landscape to get communities engaging positively with each other.
No one will deny that merely by wiring up Africa, the telecom industry has been an amazing force for transformation. And though there have been fears that the rise of data and the decline of voice communications will cripple the telcos, they have proved adept at becoming the main purveyors of data services too.
Yet, there is evidence that we have
embarked on a trend of diminishing returns. The telcos know that the time has come to power new shifts in the African economy. It is good that the SME sector is where they are now directing their energies, launching cloud-based services to boost productivity in this all-important segment of the African economy. MTN Nigeria has launched XAAS, a software as a service product to power micro-finance operators in the vast country. Safaricom has been aggressively promoting its Zidisha Biashara package for small businesses. The telcos are tenacious, and they have deep pockets. They can turbo-charge the SME arena across the continent if they seize on the right strategy.
Distributed Infrastructure & Embedded Renewables (DInER)
Infrastructure is often a multiplex affair: one layer rests on top of another. That has often been the bane of infrastructure development in Africa, legacy weaknesses seep into new developments. New thinking is emerging though that seeks to reduce this rigidity by limiting the emphasis on centralised infrastructure.
A good example is the use of renewable or modular energy systems (such as hydrogen cells) to power Africa’s cellular towers. Telecom operators have seen themselves turned into fuel dealers as an erratic electricity supply from the grid in many African countries has compelled a reliance on diesel generators. If this modular thinking gains ground more widely, we can expect to see more pre-fabricated housing, mini-grids, suburban water dispensing bulk-points etc. Simply put, problems will be scaled down to the right level for solutions.
The Joy of Sharing
Herman Chinery Hesse was an early denouncer of software “packages” sold to African businesses by giant multinationals. Millions of dollars leave Africa in consulting and training fees for these badly customised “solutions”. Herman has been investing significant resources to shift enterprise solutions to a more communal footing. Using cloud, social engineering, and systems thinking, he hopes to pioneer a new way of looking at such solutions, more as social utilities blended within a cultural medium rather than as technical interventions.
His Hei Julor product is thus not just a product but a community initiative in a box. Patrons team up with neighbours to fight robbers and burglars aided by mobile-based, mass alert and alarm systems and mobile security patrols.
What may have first been seen as a major detractor from the emergence of complex services in Africa is turning out to be quite the opposite.
Due to weak credit systems, companies including power utilities and mobile telco operators introduced pre-paid billing in which customers ‘pay forward’ rather than
These systems have grown so elegant, that several innovators are now working on turning them into credit reference systems.
At the heart of all these innovations is a belief in Africa’s ability (a whole continent) to contribute exceptional value to the world. I applaud you for bringing so many of them together in one place to spark other ideas.