Tech in Africa Is Taking Off
By Kate Bartlett
From unicorns aiming for world domination to small township startups looking to make a difference in women’s lives, Africa is replete with innovators. It has the youngest population of any continent in the world, with about 60% of Africans under the age of 25. Add to that the fact that smartphone penetration is rising as countries become increasingly connected, and you have a surefire recipe for creativity.
Now, the big guns are moving in. Jack Dorsey, whose company, Twitter, is setting up shop in Ghana, believes “Africa will define the future.” Alibaba co-founder Jack Ma estimates that African entrepreneurs will drive the next digital revolution. In today’s Daily Dose, we’ll introduce you to some of the most fascinating movers and shakers the continent has to offer. Get ready for some Afri-nnovation!
This fintech company is Africa’s latest breakthrough unicorn, having been valued at more than $1 billion in March. Based in Nigeria, it’s a digital payments service that was listed as one of TIME magazine’s 100 Most Influential Companies for 2021. When the pandemic hit and African governments imposed lockdowns, the app helped keep businesses afloat, according to Flutterwave CEO Olugbenga Agbool, an MIT graduate and former Google employee. There’s a dire need for companies such as Flutterwave, particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa, where many people don’t have bank accounts. As of May, the company said it had processed more than 140 million transactions since its founding in 2016, amounting to $6 billion. And now the firm is eyeing intercontinental expansion, having recently appointed Silicon Valley veteran Jimmy Ku as head of the company’s U.S. growth department.
This Kenyan artificial intelligence-solutions company was the only African firm to make TIME’s 2021 influential companies list besides Flutterwave. The platform was founded by 39-year-old Sara Menker, who was born in Ethiopia during the famine of the 1980s. That background inspired her to establish a startup that tackles both food insecurity and climate change. The firm, which now has offices in New York as well as Nairobi, works with governments, food companies like Unilever and Yum! and banks like BNP Paribas, providing analysis and forecasts. “At Gro Intelligence, we use data to enable our customers to resolve the tension between ecological preservation and economic growth,” Menker tells OZY. In January, Menker’s company raised $85 million, taking it close to unicorn status and making Menker, a former Wall Street commodities trader, one of the few Black women heading a startup of this magnitude.
Iyinoluwa Aboyeji has been involved in just about every major unicorn to come out of Africa after becoming “hooked on tech” having watched The Social Network. Before he founded Future Africa in 2015, which funds and mentors innovators across the continent, Nigerian entrepreneur Aboyeji was at Flutterwave. And before that? He co-founded his first startup, Andela. Now headquartered in the U.S., Andela has offices in Nigeria, Kenya, Rwanda and Uganda, where it works to combat America’s tech worker shortage by training African software developers and placing them with U.S. firms remotely. This effort to train more people in tech will also help bridge what the World Economic Forum says is a huge digital divide. Andela, which won early seed money from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, boasts a huge network of freelancers that serves about 200 firms.
the misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers
This Zimbabwean billionaire built the telecoms giant Econet and led Africa’s digital transformation. Not one to shy away from controversy and often characterized as a maverick, Masiyiwa is his country’s first billionaire and also one of the richest Black people in the world. A trustee of the National Geographic Society, he’s famed for ending Zimbabwe’s state monopoly on telecoms and for engaging in a prolonged court battle with the regime of then-President Robert Mugabe, after which Masiyiwa left the country. Econet telecoms subsidiary Liquid Intelligent Technologies stands as the continent’s largest fiber optics operator, running cables all the way from Cape Town to Cairo. Masiyiwa has recently turned his hand to philanthropy and serves as the African Union Special Envoy for COVID-19.
This University of Cape Town professor grew up poor in a Zambian township. Despite living without electricity and studying by the light of a kerosene lamp at night, he made it to the University of Cambridge, where he studied chemistry. These days, Chibale is based in South Africa’s Cape Town, where he’s set up H3D, the first drug discovery platform of its kind in Africa. It’s “developing tools that will allow us to develop medicines that improve outcomes in African patients,” he tells OZY, adding that a broad lack of Black people taking part in clinical trials — not only on the continent but worldwide — can lead to the development of potentially toxic drugs for certain demographics and to subpar health care in general. Africa is home to over 15% of the world’s population, he notes, but only 2% of clinical trials happen on the continent. Chibale was the only Africa-based scientist recently included in the biotech publication Timmerman Report’s Juneteenth list of Black leaders in the industry and was also on Fortune’s World’s 50 Greatest Leaders list in 2018.
Xaviera Nguefo Kowo
At only 18, this Cameroonian programmer is certainly one to watch. Kowo has already had considerable success despite her age, with her latest invention addressing an all-too-common problem in Cameroon’s major cities: trash. Her waste treatment robot won a top prize this year at the Margaret Junior Awards, which promotes digital skills for girls and women. The robot on wheels not only picks up trash on the street, but also transports it to a garbage can, recycling center or waste disposal site in record time. The money from the prize will allow the teen to continue to develop her work.
LifeBank is a blood and oxygen delivery company that was founded by Nigerian entrepreneur and proud mom Giwa-Tubosun. She started her business in 2016 after undergoing her own emergency C-section and learning that many pregnant women die of postpartum hemorrhage simply due to a lack of blood available for transfusions. Her home country has one of the highest rates of maternal mortality in the world. Now, LifeBank employs motorcyclists who use mapping apps to navigate Lagos’ notorious traffic to deliver life-saving transfusions to hospitals. LifeBank has even partnered with Google Nigeria, and thanks to its work, a blood delivery that once took three hours now can be completed in 45 minutes. Just last month, LifeBank launched AirCo, which produces medical oxygen, a lack of which has also posed a major challenge to Nigeria’s health care system due to COVID-19. Giwa-Tubosun is the recipient of numerous awards including an Africa Netpreneur Prize and the Global Citizen Prize.
from boda bodas to outer space
Much of the innovation coming out of Africa is a consequence of the need to fill gaps left by governments and states. It can take the form of fintech, drones that deliver life-saving medicines and blood to regions plagued by poor roads and infrastructure, or, in the case of Gozem, providing a way to get around rapidly growing cities that are suffering due to a shortage of reliable transport. Gozem was launched in the West African country of Togo by a group of entrepreneurs including co-founder Emeka Ajene. The app for hailing motorbikes, known in the region as boda bodas, soon hopes to become a “super app.” It’s already spread across francophone Africa and continues to expand, having added food delivery and other services to its repertoire, much like Uber.
Truck It All
Obi Ozor started young. At just 14, the Nigerian entrepreneur began his first pay-phone business at school, charging classmates a fee to borrow his Nokia 3310. This early foray into business and tech set the precedent for the rest of his life. In 2016, Ozor founded Kobo360, a logistics company that raised $37 million in its series A funding round, and which aspires to organize Nigeria’s chaotic trucking business more efficiently. The former banker left JPMorgan Chase in the U.S. to return to Africa, where he figured he could contribute to the growth of the continent — rather than the pockets of a bank’s shareholders. Ozor credits his ambitious mother with helping him on his path to helming a company that’s been dubbed the “Uber of trucking.” Kobo360 now has 260 enterprises and some 17,000 trucks on its platform, making it one of the continent’s largest supply-chain providers.
Hailing from Cape Town’s Mitchells Plain, an area notorious for gangsters, drugs and violent crime, Joanie Fredericks is a feminist tour de force and a firm believer that if you want something done right, you have to do it yourself. “I’m a survivor of sexual violence, and one of these incidents took place on public transport,” she tells OZY. Twenty-five years on, South Africa’s minibuses and taxis remain dangerous places for women. Police recorded more than 42,000 rapes in the country from April 2019 to March 2020. Fredericks decided that “if somebody is going to do something about this, it has to be me,” so she set up Ladies Own Transport, an all-female taxi service. It’s proved so popular that this year it expanded to provide driving lessons for women. Fredericks is a rare kind of entrepreneur. “I couldn’t be damned about money,” she says. “My vision is to work toward the safe transportation of women.”
The Final Frontier
The new space race is heating up and spurring competition not seen since the Cold War. China, Russia and the U.S. are all major players, of course, as are private companies such as SpaceX, Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin. But they aren’t alone. Twelve African nations currently boast space programs, and the African Union is soon to launch its own continental space program. African countries have also launched more than 40 satellites and plan to launch another 80 by 2024. Even the honeymooners’ island of Mauritius recently put a satellite into orbit, joining bigger players like Egypt and Nigeria. The Foundation for Space Development in South Africa is developing a project called Africa2Moon. Still, with many other areas in dire need of government spending, most Africa-based investment in space programs is minor, totaling about $500 million last year compared to NASA’s $23 billion.
- Kate Bartlett