Africa Gathering: “Start it, build it” Festival of Technology
Friday 16th June, Thomas Reuters Building, Canary Wharf
Africa is an exciting place to be right now in terms of new technology start ups that are competing with and sometimes besting their Western counterparts, producing innovative products and services that can change the lives of millions on the continent. This was the core message of the Africa Gathering “Start it, build it” Festival of Technology, which members of the BIF team attended on Friday 16th June at Canary Wharf in London.
The event was chaired by the Indigo Trust, a charitable organisation interested in catalysing development and improvements in governance around Africa through the medium of appropriate new technologies. You can sense the excitement that organisations and businesses alike have around the potential for change through the rampant rise of mobile connectivity and cheap portable computer devices. It is this sense of momentum that has lead the Indigo Trust to support a network of technology incubation “hubs”, which provide a tailored space with relevant facilities to foster a community of techies and designers that can collaborate to produce innovative software.
These hubs are dotted around the main population centres of sub-Saharan Africa, including Lagos, Lusaka, and Nairobi. The Lagos hub had recent success with a smartphone / web application which provided a simple informatics breakdown of the entire Nigeria state budget, called BudgIT (http://yourbudgit.com). While not explicitly business orientated, this application has made significant inroads into making governance more transparent, which fits into the Indigo Trust area of interest. However, a key point they wished to make was that these social solutions are often transposable onto business needs, and that work was currently going on with Nigerian banks to adapt the technology commercially.
The most sophisticated and mature hub can be found in Nairobi (http://ihub.co.ke/pages/home.php), which has a thriving technology community that is providing an increasingly advanced offering to potential commercial and government clients, and which is spawning a host of home grown tech start ups. Part of this success can be put down to major 3rd party donors, including Google, though the hub is close to becoming self-sustaining financially. I thought that any venture capital approaches to BoP development, would do well to look into this model in terms of taking stakes in exciting business propositions.
In terms of specific examples, one interesting concept was “iCow” (http://www.icow.co.ke/), which provides a SMS platform for farmers in Kenya, providing tools and information to increase the yields and effectiveness of their farming. This service is tailored down to individual cows, with automated messaging and a back up call centre providing the farmer with the best practice, as well as alerts around regional issues like disease outbreaks. This platform is currently heavily funded by donor organisations, and is not as far as I can tell currently aimed at becoming a business. However, its impacts on the Base of the Pyramid are unquestionable, and the ability to scale its solutions through this widespread technology is obviously apparent. My view is that a programme like BIF, if partnered with the right technology experts, could provide real value in helping these donor subsidised tech companies / NGOs, to move towards commercial scale.
Before my conclusion, and interesting side topic was provided by an enthusiastic World Bank speaker, who was describing how the organisation was moving away from trying to provide large technology programmes for governments in the fast moving environment, and towards defining the issues and supporting other companies and NGOs to meet these needs.
Finally, my concluding thoughts are that there is no doubt that these start up tech NGOs/companies have vast potential to impact BoP individuals around Africa, reaching scale with relatively limited investment. While BIF does currently support a handful of relevant projects, it is fair to say that this does not represent the core of the BIF portfolio or the emphasis of our expertise. A Swedish SIDA representative attending the event noted that he was keen to set up a new “IAP account with an explicit technology focus”. Perhaps there is room for a “BIF 2” that does the same, as I think the key challenge for these innovative start ups is escaping the need for donor funding and breaking the barriers towards becoming an independent business (a challenge where partnerships with larger companies in many cases will be crucial).