By Amrote Abdella, Director – Startup Engagement & Partnerships: Microsoft 4Afrika Initiative
Whenever we come across an entrepreneur looking to start a business in Africa, our first piece of advice is this: Develop solutions relevant to Africa. At Microsoft, we’re always working to identify and engage with promising startups – startups who not only have burning ideas, but who have gone beyond these ideas and developed innovative solutions right here in Africa.
As you may have heard, last week, as part of our 4Afrika Initiative, we announced the awarding of innovation grants for five local startups who are doing exactly this. Through our partnerships with 88mph, HiveColab, CC’Hub and other developer communities, we discovered Africa 118, Kytabu, access.mobile, Gamsole and Save & Buy – startup companies who are already making waves across Africa. While we are always on the look-out to support ground-breaking innovation, and drive the long-term competitiveness of Africa’s economy, even we are humbled at how truly brilliant this innovation can be. Here are their stories.
Africa 118 – Kenya
Ezana Raswork’s father had some new puppies that he wanted to get immunised. But he couldn’t find contact information for a local vet who did house calls. That’s when Ezana, who was working at the Yellow Pages in Canada, decided to work on a business idea that would make it simple for mobile consumers to find services in Africa.
“I found that 85% of Kenyans experienced frustration trying to find local information at least once a week,” says Ezana. “This problem seemed so solve-able to me, so we developed Africa 118. Here, we work to build the best, most up-to-date and accurate database, where users can get real-time access to the services they need.”
To use Africa 118, users call an agent at one of the relevant mobile partners, who then sends an SMS back to the caller with the contact information they’re looking for. And a search like this only costs 20 Kenyan shillings.
“We’ve become experts in identifying the best services, getting the right information first time and ensuring there are no duplications. Websites often have inaccurate information, so it’s our job to step in and contact local businesses, to make sure we provide the most up-to-date information. And we’re proud to say we have an eight to nine out of 10 satisfaction rate. Our users come back and have been known to use the service up to 10 times a month.”
Going forward, Africa 118 hopes to make their services available across a wider variety of platforms. “We’re excited about our future with Microsoft, who are helping us develop an online platform and app for our service. Our vision is to give users access to an accurate database through whichever platform they prefer – be it through an SMS or an app.”
Kytabu – Kenya
Tonee Ndungu’s father has always been invested in African education. In 2007, he started a nursery school for his local community, providing classrooms, meals, teachers and uniforms – all at his own investment. But he hit a snag when it came to the unbelievably high cost of school textbooks. So one day in 2012, over a cup of tea with his son, Kytabu was born.
“Kytabu is a textbook encryption and subscription system,” explains Tonee. “Users can rent an entire textbook, or selections of the book, for any period of time – from an hour to a year – using a mobile money platform.”
To use Kytabu, a user purchases the service and receives a memory card preloaded with every book in the Kenyan education curriculum. They also receive a SIM card that allows the app to be updated over cellular data. The whole application runs on a Windows tablet, or off a dongle for Windows 8 desktops, where users can enjoy textbooks, audio books, learning games, virtual classrooms, past tests and exams, as well as an app store.
“The cost of each textbook is subsidised by as much as 20% once it is digitised. The renting concept allows you to rent a page for as little as six Kenyan cents per day. This solves the access, affordability and cost challenge – translating into a 60% overall saving.”
Kytabu’s goal is for the developing world to have universal access to relevant learning material. “There are three main challenges to this” explains Tonee. “Infrastructure, cost implications and textbook lifecycles. Through a micro SD for storage, a dongle or tablet as a function device, a SIM card as a communication portal, and the leasing of content on micropayments, we hope to accelerate this change in the next decade.”
access.mobile – Uganda
Kaakpema ‘KP’ Yelpaala had been living in East Africa for five years, when he became aware of the growth of mobile and the opportunities it offered. He also saw a thriving and growing SME sector – but not too many businesses focused on them. So, he put this opportunity and this challenge together and created access.mobile.
“access.mobile provides high-quality and customised mobile technology solutions to a wide range of enterprises,” explains KP. “We’re helping enterprises – large and small and across various sectors – to adopt and integrate technology by digitising their operations. Our technology drives efficiency, provides key business insights and helps enterprises to be more profitable. We’re not just building tech. We’re providing relevant solutions that address wants and needs – and ultimately create value.”
What’s interesting is that access.mobile has a different story to most tech startups. It wasn’t born out of a business plan. It was born, in part, out of an encounter with a coffee exporter in rural Rwanda.
“I was chatting to a coffee exporter and I saw his process of working with farmers was all paper- and cash- based. I kept wondering how I could digitise his process. So we built him a mobile app that tracked his transactions and gave him insights into his flow and inventory. And access.mobile just grew from there. Today we carry a 90% customer satisfaction rate, and this is from people who had previously just been using Microsoft Excel, at best.”
At the heart of this business is an interest in SMEs and technology access, which has led to a great synergy with Microsoft. “There are mutual interests and priorities between 4Afrika and access.mobile. Microsoft has been helping us to build on our small successes in East Africa and to think about scaling across Africa. They’re giving us access to key people who are helping us pursue a broader African vision.”
Gamsole – Nigeria
Abiola Olaniran was a computer science and mathematics student, with a passion for the mobile space in Africa. After noticing that most people use their devices for gaming, he started Gamsole – a mobile game production company. 11 weeks into its launch, Gamsole had over 1 000 000 game downloads. Fast forward five years and Abiola is Nigeria’s highest paid Windows Game developer.
“Human desire for entertainment is undying, and that’s what we hope to satisfy at Gamsole,” says Gamsole CEO Abiola. “On an everyday basis, millions of people are experiencing little boring moments: the long queue at the supermarket, the traffic, a 13-hour flight. Apart from providing the entertainment factor for scenarios like this, mobile gaming also serves as a great tool for education.”
The secret behind Gamsole’s success is simple: They listen to their audience. “Apart from the fact that we make quality casual games, we listen to our users’ demand. For instance, every now and then we get requests from our Facebook fans for games they would like us to create. Some of these people were on iOs or Android phones before switching to a Windows Phone, and they’re now looking for similar gameplay on their new device”.
Although he peaked early, Abiola only has plans to sustain his momentum. “Gamsole is operating on the fastest growing mobile platform in the world. And we hope to move along with this growth.”
Save & Buy – Nigeria
It was during a work day when Hugo Obi was speaking to his colleagues at a gaming company in Nigeria. They all had things they wanted to buy, yet simply couldn’t afford – mostly due to a lack of access to funds. So imagine a company that helped you save towards them?
“Save & Buy is all about helping you create a savings plans for specific products you want to buy online,” explains Toni Osibodu, Hugo’s co-founder and business partner. “So while you’re shopping online, you click the Save & Buy button and start a savings plan. You select your duration, put down a small deposit and receive reminders of when to deposit money into your Save & Buy account. Once you’ve paid the full amount, the retailer sends your product to you”.
Save & Buy was only founded in July 2013, but under their CEO Hugo have already made huge progress. “We’re now looking at implementing new features, such as saving towards virtual products like birthdays or holidays. Part of this will include a group save feature, so that friends and family can work towards a common goal. Microsoft is helping us here by giving us access to world-class servers, so that we’ll have a stable and reliable platform for the increased traffic.”
Save & Buy are in a good place and their growth is definitely worth keeping an eye on. “Things are moving quickly for us. We were fortunate to have made the right connections fast. We’ve got big expansion plans and ambitions, and hope to be in at least three African countries in the next three years.”
It’s clear that the future is nothing but bright for these five African startups. We at Microsoft are proud and privileged to be a part of their journey. The 4Afrika innovation grant programme will be providing each startup with financial backing, technical support and mentorship. We look forward to seeing them inspiring and influencing future developers and entrepreneurs in Africa, so that together, we can make Africa the global competitor it is destined to be.