Few now doubt the potential of Africa’s tech scene. Analysts and economists the world over frequently cite Africa as the ‘next big thing’, primed to pick up the reigns from where the economies of the ‘Asian Tigers’ left off. The continent has always had entrepreneurs, but never before has so much attention been focused toward their activities, the success of which is seen as vital to African development.
By George Bodie
However, this attention has brought with it many questions: How can a budding startup culture be nurtured? What are the barriers holding back entrepreneurs? And how can edTech, one of Africa’s most innovative and important industries, lead the way?
To help answer these questions, eLearning Africa arranged a Twitter Chat with four of the continent’s leading edTech entrepreneurs: Rebecca Enonchong, founder of AppsTech in Cameroon, a leading global provider of enterprise application solutions; Mac-Jordan Degadjor, co-founder of digital media marketing company Africa New Media in Ghana; another Ghanain, Raindolf Owusu, the founder of open source software developer Oasis Websoft; and Kenyan Tonee Ndungu, the founder of textbook app Kytabu. Here are 10 lessons we learnt from the session, which proved a massive success, providing those interested in the untapped potential of the African education market with a key list of dos and don’ts.
Tip 1: Africa is an excellent place to start a high-tech business
As a budding market, Africa has numerous benefits. As Degadjor stated, “with a population of about 1 billion people, startups and entrepreneurs are assured a ready market for their product.” Enonchong concurred, noting that there “is so much to do”. In Africa, she claimed, “we have more room for creativity and innovation.”
The consensus was that Africa, as somewhere that is gaining increased global importance, much of its potential is yet to be seen. It is full of opportunities.
Tip 2: Innovation is vital
So says Degadjor: “Innovation is the lifeblood of a startup.” Innovation favours new environments where different ideas have space to breathe. Africa is a prime example of this: its own individual circumstances have led to innovation that has changed the way we look at technology. A stand out example of this is M-Pesa, the mobile money application which has caused a sea-change in the way mobile banking is viewed globally.
Tip 3: Be imaginative with funding methods
Funding is often a barrier for startups in Africa. Many entrepreneurs are forced to turn to non-traditional methods to raise funds. Dagadjor recommends using your own savings at first to “build your product/app, [and] build your customer base.” Crowdfunding and friends and family are included on Degadjors list of funding routes.
Owusu said that prototypes are often built before looking for funders. Increasingly Africans are showing that real tech innovation can be borne out of little investment – Senegalese tech genius Afate Gniko’s 3D Printer, which has reached international fame due to the fact that it was constructed entirely of eWaste, is a prime example of this.
Tip 4: The #KillerApp is not dead
Killer Apps, programmes or applications deemed so necessary they provide the core value of another technology, have been central to the development of the tech world in the last few decades. It is common in tech circles to hear the question “what is the next killer app?” being asked. Some have speculated, however, that in today’s rapidly moving tech landscape, it is increasingly harder for innovators to produce singular, breakthrough apps. Instead, change is increasingly happening on an incremental curve.
This was put to the panel and they were unanimous in their disagreement: according to Owusu, the answer was a resounding ‘no’: “There are so many untapped areas in Africa that need frugal innovation.”
Degadjor agreed, citing that many “innovative ideas that are being cooked up in tech hubs across the continent.” Enonchong went as far as to state that “the killer app will never die.”
Tip 5: Believe in your business plan
Self-belief is of course an important element of any entrepreneur’s character. Ndungu was convinced of his project from day one. When asked when he knew his company would be successful, he replied: “Before I started… I think it’s insane to start something without believing in it whether you know it will win or not.”
Enonchong claimed that she realised “I was onto something right after I finished my business plan.” The consensus was clear that little room exists for doubt in the world of tech entrepreneurship.
Tip 6: Governments and civil society need to create the right environment for startups if they are to succeed
African governments are increasingly alive to the transformative power of innovation. Across the continent, government funded techhubs, tech cities and workshops are sprouting up, working with civil society and entrepreneurs to allow entrepreneurship to succeed. As Enonchong put it, “The government and civil society has its place in creating the right environment for investors to flourish.” It is down to entrepreneurs to work with these groups, not only benefiting from the correct environments, but helping to create them in the first place.
Tip 7: MOOCs may be the way forward for Africa
eLearning is an increasingly expanding field of tech entrepreneurship, to the extent that it can be hard to identify which particular strands are the most likely to deliver results. Enonchong’s advice is to “invest in the field you feel most passionate about.” This is of course vital, but which fields are best positioned to deal specifically with Africa’s needs?
Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs, are one possibility. As a continent with an extremely young population, one which displays a growing desire for higher education, MOOCs carry a potential for upscaling; potentially holding the answer to Africa’s growing demand. Degadjor certainly thinks so, claiming that “investing massively in open online courses in Africa is the future of eLearning Africa.”
Tip 8: Local problems need local solutions
“All an entrepreneur ever does is create something that consistently makes money or provides a solution to a local problem,” claimed Degadjor, and the many examples of innovation cited above would support this statement.
Africa’s individual hurdles have long been established, although what is spoken about less is the continent’s ability to find internal solutions. When asked what he would change if he could start again, Owusu said he would “focus on solving key African problems and making impact rather than focusing on building the next facebook or web browser.”
Tip 9: Interconnect and Innovate
One key theme that emerged from the Chat was the fact that entrepreneurs cannot work alone. The importance of working within existing frameworks and in cooperation with governments and civil society has already been declared. On a more personal level, Degadjor advised young entrepreneurs not to “do it alone. It is a huge challenge and a huge undertaking. Rely on your network, your friends and significant others.”
Furthermore, his advice was to create a diverse team: “Don’t hire team members that are a carbon copy of yourself.”
Ndungu added, “If you stop learning, you don’t matter.” His advice was to “be a forever learner. Entrepreneurs are really willing to learn, change and grow.”
Tip 10: Just do it
Africa has been touted as the next big thing for entrepreneurship for long enough. The experts’ message was clear: it’s time to let new ideas come to the fore. According to Enonchong, “Entrepreneurship is all about execution; lots of great ideas and extensive business plans are collecting dust in drawers.” Her advice? “Don’t overthink, overplan. Just do it!”
To hear more on the prospects for Africa’s entrepeneurs, join Tonee Ndungu and Rebecca Enonchong at the ‘Meet the Audacious New EdTech Entrepreneurs’ session at eLearning Africa 2015, May 20-22, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.