African Tech Forum London: An Afternoon Steeped in Africa
My interest in the African technology landscape meant that the African Tech Forum London, organized by the African Technology Business Network (whose meetups I’ve had the pleasure of attending in the past), was an event not to be missed a couple of weeks ago. I made it to the second half of the event, and was not at all disappointed.
The panel on the funding landscape for African tech focussed on the need for more investors to put money into the region, instead of focusing just on pitching skills. In recent times, a number of international investors and funds have put their money where their mouth is – for example, in June the Chan-Zuckerberg initiative led a $24 million funding round in Andela, which is training the next generation of African technologists. There are people on then ground in London building a pipeline of Africa-focussed investors as well, such as panelist Sean Obedih’s New Gen Angels. As with investing in any new market, the panel advised that European investors need African partners if they want to make impact in the continent. An interesting comment on the change in investing patterns over the last few years stuck with me: for a continent like Africa, it used to be all about aid money, but now that has changed to impact investing – an important distinction because where many Western companies are building companies to address problems that might not be very significant, African companies often begin with real problems (and are that much more investment-worthy).
Rotimi Pedro from BTVA Newsroom spoke about building a digital media brand in Africa, and reiterated the African imperative: though they had the option to partner with Bloomberg, they decided to build a local media brand because it was important for them to have the flexibility to tell stories relevant to the local market in interesting ways – he mentioned the 2006 example of the Liberian blackboard blogger, who invented a new 'channel' to consume news to suit local needs.
The session on digital payments and jobs highlighted the impact that technology can make in a continent like Africa, where freelancers otherwise find it difficult to get paid without losing a lot to commission. And the market is certainly there: Freelancer.com’s Joe Griston mentioned how US companies who previously outsourced work to India are not actively looking at Africa, and BitPesa COO Charlotte Chen elaborated on why their solution was preferred by so many: payment solutions like PayPal are used a lot, but banks like Equity Bank convert international currencies to Kenyan shillings at a fairly high rate of 13% - significant when you’re a small-time freelancer. Reducing those costs is why companies like Daproim, a data processing firm in Kenya, have a contract with BitPesa to pay freelancers.
At the Other Valleys, I mentioned Microsoft’s 4 Afrika initiative not too long ago, so I was interested to sit in a focus group session with Frank McCosker, who leads the initiative. An extremely enlightening discussion which touched on the impact that TV white space frequencies can make as last mile technologies, and how Microsoft is exploring new business models in countries like Ghana, by for example, bundling internet access with purchases of Office 365. There are also other initiatives that Microsoft backs in Africa, such as Mawingu Networks, which uses low-cost wi-fi and solar power to bring internet access to rural Africa. It was useful to know about the Dynamic Spectrum Alliance, which is exploring ways to increase access to unused radio frequencies for internet access in rural areas of the world. In addition to Microsoft, companies like Facebook, Sky and Google are also members of the alliance. The reason internet access is so important is simple: it significantly improves livelihoods; in fact a 10% increase in broadband penetration can increase GDP by 1.38%. TV White Space as a technology is being explored by a number of people as a solution to the issue of bringing internet access to the emerging markets; a number of research institutes like the Centre for Whitespace Communications at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow are working on this.
The final section of the day saw a number of companies working on tech to benefit Africa, pitch to the audience:
Haller is a mobile site built for farmers in rural Africa to access agricultural knowledge. It also has e-commerce integration, and with 13,000 users at the moment the goal is to reach 5 million by 2020.
Asoko Insight is an Africa-focussed research platform, with detailed data on African private firms (starting with Nigeria, Kenya and Ghana).
Africa Legal Jobs is a job site for lawyers in the African sub-continent.
Afrelib hopes to train teachers in Africa for 21st century skills and classrooms. They collaborate with teachers, students and publishers to collate and curate learning material, accessible from the cloud.
Kukua Weather is a small solar-powered device that collects vital information on weather for farmers, with a very low infrastructure cost as they partner with existing telecom towers for data.
At the end of the day though, as the closing keynote speaker Tomi Davies, President of the African Business Angels Network said, Africa is extremely diverse. People often speak of the entire continent as if it was one country, but from Kenya to Nigeria to Cameroon to Ghana it is a multitude of cultures, each of which is very different from the other. The worst mistake any company can make is to treat one like another.