African startup future: infrastructure and access

pouring water

Last week, I wrote about the future of the African startup. I tried to answer what our future in the tech startup space entailed, I am not sure there is a solid answer to that question. Something that does need to be discussed however, is the infrastructure and access problem that we are still battling to solve.

The ‘West’ has this romanticised view of Africa, the dark continent, the continent on the rise, the home of the next billion users. For those of us that live here, it is a completely different view, we see the daily struggle for basic necessities – the lack of electricity, water and access to the internet and information and basic education. I don’t mean admonish the African dream (something I firmly believe in) but I would like our friends in the West to understand that: Africa is not a project. It is not summer school. For us that live here it is our lives, our home and our future.

The above statement is very important if we are to understand and fix Africa’s startup future. It is no good for you to come here with grandiose ideas about problem solving in many sectors that, yes, need it, when we don’t have the basics right. If we begin at the start, and overlook the romance of the Africa we all desperately dream of, we begin to see the cracks for what they really are: laziness, lack of foresight and indiscipline. This might seem harsh but like I said we are going back to the beginning. Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country has oil – a decent amount of it. Nigeria does not have a refinery, it exports crude and imports petroleum. The price of crude tanks, Nigeria loses, the price of petrol goes up, Nigeria loses. You get the idea. For the first time its 50-year history Nigeria is building a refinery, why did it take so long? Crude is not that hard to refine, you can learn how on the internet.

Solving the access and infrastructure gaps are so fundamental to Africa’s startup future and the possibilities of what entrepreneurs can and could possible do. The damage that lack of infrastructure and access is creating is fucking everything up. For entrepreneurs and small businesses, the limited opportunities created by infrastructure absence creates unhealthy competition that limits potential for deeper product understanding and refinement. This creates rather ridiculous funding gaps and funders are now dictating where the emphasis should be because we rather see what is sexy and looks good in the press. Very little to no true innovation is happening Africa right now. The investor class in Africa is too powerful and it is fundamentally problematic and dangerous.

If we examine the many initiatives that have been started to tackle these problems, we have to wonder why are they working or why is it taking so long. We all know what the problem is – the current policy frameworks in play on the continent do not prioritise access and infrastructure. On the surface, sure, governments talk a good game, they all “understand” the importance of technology (no, they don’t). The capitalistic pursuits of corporations continue to leave the African people at a disadvantage. If we look at access, yes there are countries with long ways to go in terms of basics such actual cables. However, there are last mile solutions that could easily be employed with collaboration. A novel and maybe even simplistic view of this lies in the hands of mobile operators. Towers cost money, so operators hike up data prices to make up costs (at least that’s what they tell us).

Imagine, if all the operators in a country worked together to share the costs of towers and covered an entire country. Two things come from this: the user will always have connectivity and the cost of data would somewhat if not significantly cheaper. Tigo and Ericsson is a good example of this with their Tanzania partnership. Yes, we can agree that it is rather complicated from a business point of view. Take roaming for instance. The operator offering the roaming service dictates pricing, and with African telcos, and currency issues, home operators have little real negotiating power when it comes to price. The operating expense is very high and as many networks in Africa are still ‘new’ they’re still paying for suppliers and charge in USD. Then there is the skills gap, engineers cost money, good ones cost a lot. These factors are understandable in a growing economy and would be even more so, if there was significant effort from policymakers to encourage cut costing collaboration or if telcos where openly lobby for these.

It is too simple to think that a business’s purpose is for the benefit of the user not the business. How do you explain why data is perishable? Data expires after 30 days, gas for your car doesn’t, books don’t, education doesn’t but data does. A useful product that allows for access to information and help, expires. If we had better policy that made it easier for telcos to operate (South Africa is a mess) and encouraged innovation and competition that would go a long way to help in solving some of the access and infrastructure problems.

How do we build an ecosystem that engages corporations and governments, and that allows them to understand that there can be no innovation if the people we are innovating for can’t access or afford to use the products we are creating?

What is the future of the African Startup?


What is the future of the African startup? This question was posed to me a couple of days ago and I have battled with the answer. The easy answer is somewhere between tech and agriculture, that’s what surface me would say. I truly believe in the power of technology to change people’s lives. Also, let’s face it if we fix some of the basic infrastructural issues that plague the African agricultural space, I think we would be aces.

This is too easy, tech is broad enough to be a non answer. Agriculture?!? This is a no brainer. So I started thinking about it more deeply. What is our future? How will African startups succeed and set themselves apart from the world? How will we as a continent truly scale (read: this is subjective)?

Some tech trends (thanks Deloitte)

Before I delve into all of that, I think it’s best to drill down on some global tech trends. We all know that machine learning, fintech (key emphasis on blockchain and the trust economy), everything as services, virtual reality (building of immersive experiences for users) and analytics (specifically insights into unstructured data) are making the rounds globally. Fintech alone is estimated to see over $150B in investment globally this year, according to PWC. Oh, let us not forget all the rage around 5G these days.

How does Africa factor into these trends? What does our trend future look like? I am sure all the abovementioned trends are relevant to the continent, but some are more relevant than others. Yes, Africans too, want nice things like 5G and VR but some people are still trying to get GPRS in these parts, while others are just making sure the electricity is on. Two key things are crucially important to this continent from the above trends: Fintech and everything as a service. Note, I am specifically avoiding access/infrastructure mostly because that deserves an entire post on its own. For the purposes on this post we will live the fantasy land that access and infrastructure will be solved soon.

Back to Africa

Shall we begin with Fintech? The meteoric rise startups in Africa playing in the financial services area has been Hitchcockian. Navigating interesting regulatory environments and heavy populations of the unbanked. The companies that are succeeding, of which there are many, are finding ways to make money easier. One of the biggest crisis in Africa is financial inclusion. This presents challenges to many of the unbanked who may have business ventures but aren’t able to take advantage of many of the resources that the financially included have. When we think about Africa’s future and more particularly its startup future, we need to think hard about fintech. One of the key challenges that will plague fintech in Africa is the trust economy, Africa still has low credit card penetration or people who are willing to handover their credit card information. If you think about the calibre of people who can afford ( I use this word loosely) to have a credit card – trust shouldn’t be too difficult. How do we expect to solve the trust issue in a cash economy? Before we can truly conquer the world of fintech in Africa, I think trust must be tackled. Yes, price and convenience will also play a big part but the consumer differentiator will be trust.

Everything as a service, this might seem a bit far-reaching but I think the success of Uber on the continent speaks for itself. Africans want services that work, if we can preorder our lives then we will, for a fair price. Even poor people like nice things and the simplification of their lives. I think there have been some success in Africa around service, SweepSouth and WumDrop on B2C side and Ongair on the B2B side. I am sure there are tons more, which you can Google for yourself. I think as we think of the future and what entrepreneurs do, we need to think about platforms that provide mundane services. Not just for the benefit of the users, which is critical, but for the impact companies like this have on unemployment.

Errant thoughts

I am very interested in the current funding landscape. I have a number of VC friends so you can see why. Yes, we can all agree that Lagos is the most valuable startup ecosystem in Africa now, depending on many variables – who you read, ask, who is willing to share funding numbers and who is getting a lot of press. Whatever you are reading, Africa is getting more money and more is still to come. Will they fund the right things? What impact will it have on the ecosystem?

Mobile-only internet users make up over 50% of internet users in most emerging markets, India, Indonesia and the Philippines being good examples of this. Africa is there, and chances are surpasses the Asia numbers. Startups don’t ignore them. I am not giving this too much attention because, it’s obvious.

Press, press and more press! This will probably get me booed, but I worry that we are all get off on the general hoopla about the ecosystem. I think about it as teens sitting on the quad, saying “OMG the African tech ecosystem is so hot right now. Hype is good, it brings investor attention and customer awareness. Overhype is bad, it creates one hit wonders, no names mentioned.

So what is the future of the African startup? As this dude put it…

Heck what do I know, I am just some girl that asked questions for a living.

Can this selfie get me a date?

angry nird

It’s 2am, I just spent the evening at a club drinking tea (it’s complicated) while pretending I can’t see guys ogling my dress. I am showered but the cigar smoke is still in my hair, so here I am on my balcony trying to air it out. I am also whatsapping a friend in New York, she wants to see what “airing” one’s hair looks like, so I send a selfie.

“Ooh sexy,” she types back.
“Think it will get me a date?” I quip with a laughing emoji. There is context to this but that’s another post. So begins an idea.

I have a vested interest in online communities, mostly because I am trying to figure out a way to get a PhD out some of them. On a deeper level most of my closest friends live in different cities/countries/continents (I also don’t get out much), so the internet is our best way to connect and keep up with each others lives. I wrote a piece just over a year ago about Tinder and the confusions it is causing in the dating scene and how we need to redefine what we are looking for online. I still stand by that piece, but last night I had to ask myself a deeper question: can a simple photograph (selfie) get me a date?

I have a point, I promise.

Think about it, how many of us communicate with each other by way of photographs? To share where we are, what we are doing and wearing? Even to share who we are with. It is part of our culture, a very important part of it.

I was added to an online group a few weeks ago about dating, ordinarily I would remove myself from groups like this but something about this community got my attention. Yes, it is a community of people who support each other and there is no negativity just fun and hopefully a match or two. But what was most fascinating was the redefinition of the selfie culture that exists there. It is used to ask questions, respond to questions and explain the current mood. The conversation is the selfie and it communicates bundles. It is so much easier for people to post a selfie than to engage in comments or otherwise. No one set the rule, at least I don’t think so, it’s just the way it is and it is acceptable. The norm, even.

We would all be lying if physical attributes are not the biggest contributors to attraction. It is what gets you interested, a person’s mind and other attributes may keep you interested but it is their physicality that gets you thinking of them without prior contact. More and more we live in a beautified world and we can’t blame it all on the media anymore. There is a strange sense of voyeurism that currently exists on social media that allows us to celebrate beauty in a new and fascinating way. A place where we know is cruel to women and ugly to people that don’t fit the unrealistic/predefined standards of beauty. Yet, there is a strange confidence that selfies bring. There is a quasi-Jungian persona that we have gained in the post-self conscious era. The selfie generation have taken what the ancients used to call “fatum”, to us destiny into their own hands. Selfies create a tapestry of words that culminate in an exquisite, sublime conversation. To outsiders it might look like the tactics of vanity, to the players it is simply the only way they know how to move on the chessboard and the best steps to the dance they own.

If anything you need to respect the courage of the quasi-Jungian persona, to pitch oneself out for date, with the danger that no one will respond. The fragility of ego for some could easily send them into a panic attack. No matter what your judgement is, the pseudo-intellectuals will have reason to disagree, it is ballsy. Selfies become the currency of conversation for the soft spoken, the brazen and the fierce, there is no way to lose if you were never prepared to win.

But back to my question: can this selfie get me a date? It turns out it can, several in fact, my dad should be happy; pity they don’t live in the same country. Selfies as part of the dating currency and it makes perfect sense, just look at Tinder. Even when you are set up by friends, they use photographs to convince you to say yes or no. Blind dates aren’t so “blind” anymore because we stalk them on social media, because we need to be prepared. It is simply who we are.

Being an engineer for young girls is as normal as breathing

women IWD

The conversation around women in the workplace, in the media and socially keeps getting derailed because somehow in 2017 women are still viewed as second class citizens in parts of the world. Just watch this video to see what I mean. It has never been more important to make your voice count.

The feminism movement is in its 4th wave of affirmation, where every voice counts and must count. I hope that as women and men we will use our voice for the important things and create dialogue on our future. Now more than ever women are under attack. The fight to create balance has left bullseye target on our backs.

Today there is no acceptable way to be a woman. It is a lose-lose situation no matter what you do. When all genders judge women by the way we choose to practice womanhood and take agency of our own lives and our own bodies. What chance do women stand to just be women? As women we have to work around a lot of self conditioning, being interrupted and society’s created invisibility of us, micro-aggressions and a scarcity of role models.

I take personal responsibility and I feel a social obligation to fight for young girls and boys everywhere because equality is not about one gender. Whenever I tell people I am a feminist they become apprehensive, it is an unpopular word, it is uncomfortable. Feminism is defined as the equality of the sexes. I think it is right that I am judged and measured on the quality of my work and my intellect than my gender. It natural and fair for me to earn the same has my male counterparts. I do not want be treated special because I am woman, I want to be treated equal.

Young African women and men need female role models to tell them that is okay to dream big, that just because someone says you can’t doesn’t mean you shouldn’t. They need to see equality at work, really at work. As Africans comes online and its people experience what the world of technology has to offer, women will have to take their place as technologists, engineers and entrepreneurs. So we must challenge ourselves to recognize the women who are moving the needle, the women paving the way for young girls to think of tech, entrepreneurship and the many varieties of womanhood as commonplace.

I have spent the better part of my adulthood learning about women in Africa who every day stand up and be an example that I can follow. Examples that young girls and young women in the workplace need to have strength and courage. Many of those women go unnoticed everyday but they are worthy of the role models titles. They make my voice count, they make it easy for me to speak. We all need to be bold for the change we want.

There is a new dawn for women in Africa. Women who will not be mollified by simply a silent seat at the table. Women who will not be satiated by just being asked. Women who will stand up and have their voices heard but more importantly women who are part of the dialogue, who will tell the truth on what it is like to be the only woman at the table, who will carry on because the young girls and boys are watching and hoping one day they too will be you. A time, that being an engineer for young girls is as normal as breathing.