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Go beyond half-truths in Africa’s innovation agenda

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Innovation has become a constant topic in Africa, but there has been an emphasis on doing things and less time has been spent thinking about the impact of what’s happening. RUSSELL SOUTHWOOD, CEO of Balancing Act, tries to understand what it means.

Everyone involved in innovation in Africa likes to hear a warming story. As one of the presenters at Fail Fest London put it last week, there’s got to be an image showing a girl looking into a computer screen that puts a golden light on to her eager, upturned face.

Africa’s Innovation agenda has two threads – one donor driven and the other focused on private investment – but as with much else on the continent, each is intertwined with the other.

So whether it’s a donor driven competition or a private investor, there are always parable narratives that capture the spirit of what everyone is hoping to achieve. Whether it’s farmers using phones to get better crop information, a young women buying insurance on her mobile or a young start-up winning a competition prize, these seductive narratives work a bit like the fraudster’s pitch.

I want to be told that innovation is changing lives and Africa is on an upward curve but the danger is that we all end up believing our own propaganda. Because it becomes widely circulated in the media and on social media, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s true. So what follows is my attempt to try and take apart what might be working from what isn’t.

Start-ups in Africa will tend to work in the larger markets where there are sufficient consumers with mobile phones and enough disposable income for them to get user numbers. Without user numbers, there will not be continuing investment and/or more grant funding. On this basis, start-ups are more likely to be successful in Ghana and Nigeria and Tanzania than they are in Mali, Mozambique or Malawi to take three smaller economies at random.

Start-ups have the same problems that larger companies do in Africa. It’s hard to trade across national boundaries, something that Mo Ibrahim has made one of his constant themes. Many country markets are simply too small but operating in more than one small country is challenging. The absence of common market rules across countries makes the continent a nightmare even for well-endowed multinationals. So it is perhaps hardly surprising that the majority of African start-ups stay in a single country market.

Multi-country roll-out requires capital and some degree of patience and neither of these are in steady supply at the moment. There are a couple of good examples like Africa Internet Group and One Africa Media but these are the exceptions rather than the rule. Despite the constant drumbeat of the Africa Rising tune, there is actually a shortage of investors for African start-ups.

There have been several straws in the wind. Kresten Buch’s pioneering accelerator 88 Mph has pulled back from further work as it tries to find ways to get money out of the start-ups it’s already invested in. Overall, the number of exits from the African start-up ecosystem has been tiny. Another incubator operator told me that only one deal was on the table when they when they went looking for investors so it was not a long queue. For the few bigger international investors, Africa remains a tiny part of their investment portfolio.

Mbwana Alliy of the Savannah Fund (an accelerator and seed fund) told me that almost everyone he was able to raise money from had some connection with Africa and that connection was often personal: for example, they had been on holiday to the continent. Investors are not sitting on the West Coast of America saying I wonder what’s happening in Silicon Savannah. Indeed quite a few would probably be hard-pressed to find it on a map.

Worse still, the current international Internet boom will soon reach its bust: there have been at least two of those since I started following events on the continent. Even worse still, the constant currency devaluations in major markets like Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa mean that the value of any investment and its revenues erodes along with the currency.

But let’s put the money to one side for a moment and just look at impact. Start-ups have been responsible for creating a new atmosphere of innovation and are changing how things are going to be done. Although it’s not explicitly stated, all of the good energy and ideas generated by African start-ups is supposed to rub off on the wider society. And they have gone a long way to helping change the mood music in some countries about what can be done if you’re young and have an idea.

Also as Bastian Gotter of Spark told me, the start-ups can offer young Nigerians the chance to break out of the need for connections, patronage and bribery. When you’re able to connect directly with a consumer market, you don’t necessarily need those things. However, both of these things – the rub-off effect and breaking away from patronage structures – may be long-term goals that will take more than ten years to achieve.

So let’s look at some of Africa’s bigger problems and see whether start-ups and innovation can bring about change. Nairobi has gone from being a busy city to one where when there are heavy rains, there is complete gridlock. People sleep in their cars overnight. Despite all the new road-building, even when it’s not raining it can take 2-3 hours to get across the city. This is a productivity issue on a massive scale. Has there been innovation from start-ups or Government to tackle the issue?

There is the ever-dependable Twitter feed @Ma3Route but that simply is about negotiating chaos not changing it. There is much that can be said about Uber (and other local Kenyan versions) but they are unlikely to crack Nairobi’s gridlock. I’ve picked on Nairobi but there are a dozen other African cities with problems that are as bad. Car sharing? Public transport? Rail systems? Park and ride? Bicycles? Electric vehicles? You know the answers to these questions.

Energy is a pressing problem of huge scale for the continent. It’s also a productivity problem as every time the power goes off, people can’t work. Furthermore, everything has to be constantly rebooted and breaks down more often as a result. Local diesel fuelled generators are hugely inefficient.

VC4Africa has an admirable accelerator scheme for energy start-ups. Microsoft has put money into a real wind technology innovator Saphon Energy. But against the scale of the task, these are but tiny gnat bites on the elephant’s bottom. Akon Lighting is a fascinating

initiative (see Energy below) but it is barely off the starting blocks. Where are the micro-grids? The energy distribution players? The tech innovators proposing to import Elon Musk’s Powerwall batteries or their less efficient equivalent from China?

Education is a key part of any different future in Africa. Almost everyone who has been through the system – in whichever country on the continent – will tell you that rote learning does not breed people who can analyze and problem solve. Teacher absenteeism remains high. Projects like the late-lamented Mark Bennett’s iSchool in Zambia are heartbreakingly good. There is also a stream of impressive young African innovators teaching STEM skills through things like robotics and coding. But none of this has yet really entered the bloodstream of African education systems.

I don’t want to bludgeon the point but the impact of innovation so far has been largely marginal on anything that Government delivers. Yet each of the three areas above – transport, energy and education – offer enormous opportunities for Innovation.

Making All Voices Count – an initiative to encourage social start-ups to promote transparency and accountability – is a great initiative. But it relies on trying to persuade a deeply unproductive public sector to react to pressure to become more productive for its citizens. Where is the encouragement for the public sector to innovate? To find ways of spending public funds more effectively? Where are local city innovation schemes? The innovation schemes that get local government to promise and deliver?

But this is not just a public sector issue for many of Africa’s larger private sector companies still have not yet got the innovation message. Some banks have taken initiatives to encourage and acquire fintech start-ups but these initiatives are the exception rather than the rule. M-Pesa started the whole thing and they are trundling along behind. Many of the traditional private sector companies in Africa remain stuck in working practices that went out of use elsewhere in the 1960s and 1970s.

Why does productivity matter for Africa? Let’s just take one example that runs like a thread through all the issues raised above. Africa absolutely must have Internet bandwidth that is cheaper than elsewhere globally because it does not yet have the volume of people who can afford it. There will only be a critical mass of users if lower bandwidth costs are achieved.

In terms of data infrastructure, Sub-Saharan Africa is probably one of the most expensive places to operate globally: diesel deliveries for some base stations in one West African country require a boat and hand wheelbarrow for delivery. For data to become cheaper, the mobile companies (or someone else) need to be innovating new ways of delivering bandwidth more cheaply. Bandwidth is the petrol that fuels innovation and without cheap bandwidth innovation in Africa will be stillborn.

As Harambe’s Matthias Reichwald wrote in Issue 70 of Innovation in Africa:” I see enormous potential for the continent to take the lead in designing disruptive systemic solutions inspired by the vast infrastructure vacuums that still exist in most countries. Whether these are innovative ways to deliver health care and education, groundbreaking ideas in agribusiness and transportation or unprecedented ways for more inclusive governance or approaches to produce energy. Africa’s advantage is that it can leapfrog in areas where the West is dealing with heavy legacy structures which impede innovation”.

The challenge now is to turn this analysis into projects that fundamentally change Africa rather than simply provide seductive success parables that give their promoters a warm glow.

* Russell Southwood is CEO of and founder of Smart Monkey TV. Subscribe to Smart Monkey TV on YouTube

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AppDate: Prepare for space

In this week’s AppDate, SEAN BACHER highlights Space Nation Navigator, Hitman Sniper, Snake Mask, Memrise, WhatsApp Web, and Carrot Weather.

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Space Nation Navigator

Space Nation Navigator is a bit of a strange app. It is part game, part exercise and part educational. On the game side, users have to navigate the Mars Rover, put the International Space Station back into orbit or move their Martians to safety before a sand storm hits Mars. When it comes to exercise, Space Nation Navigator provides users with a range of exercises and Yoga videos to prepare them for space travel and working in an anti-gravity environment. The education aspect teaches users about the planets, and star constellations, and then offers quizzes on what has been taught.

Platform: Android and iOS

Cost: A free download.

Stockists: Visit the store linked to your device.

 

Memrise

Memrise takes a new approach to help people learn new languages. Instead of providing a user with random phrases and words to memorise, the app connects you with a person already fluent in the language you want to learn. In turn, the person you are speaking to wants to learn the language in which you are fluent. Once your profile is filled out and languages selected, it connects you with people around the world who are interested in your language, and then allows you to chat with them in real-time. Memrise also lets one learn new languages through games, chatbots and grammarbots that help with spelling, tenses and pronunciations.

Platform: Android and iOS

Cost: A free download.

Stockists: Visit the store linked to your device.

 

Hitman Sniper

Hitman Sniper is loosely based on the Agent 47 movie released a few years ago. The game offers players the ability to hone their shooting skills through a range of training courses and, once they think they are ready, they can start taking out the bad guys. Things start off easy enough, but they get more and more difficult as one progresses through the 150 missions on offer. One will also have to upgrade various gun components, like scopes, magazine capacities and silencers, to make the missions a little easier. Hitman Sniper lets users buy 16 to tackle each of the missions – either with real money or via the points accumulated by completing missions. Money and points can also be used to upgrade firearms.

Platform: Android and iOS

Cost: R7 – with a range of in-app purchases.

Stockists: Visit the store linked to your device.

 

Snake Mask

The iconic Snake game that was preinstalled on most older Nokia phones has had a complete make-over. It now uses Facebook’s AR technology, meaning that you have to navigate the snake around obstacles in your home or office, all the while collecting coins and stars that change the snake’s speed and length. Unfortunately, Snake Mask is only available on Nokia’s new range of smartphones. However, it should not take long before it slithers onto other devices.

 

Platform: New Nokia smartphones running Android.

Cost: Free to use through the Facebook app installed on the device.

Stockists: Available through the Facebook app.

 

WhatsApp Web

Although this is by no means a new app, it is an extremely useful one, and one that not many people know about. Tapping out WhatsApps on your phone is easy enough, but thanks to WhatsApp Web it can be even easier. Open the WhatApp Web page under WhatsApp and you will see a QR code. Scan this code through WhatsApp on your mobile and you will be shown a replica of what you would normally see on your phone. You can then type and reply to messages using your computer instead of having to stop everything and unlock your phone every time a message comes through. WhatsApp Web is great if you share your computer with other people as it automatically disconnects when the browser is closed. However WhatsApp also offers an app that when installed will stay connected to your phone unless you manually remove it.

 

Platform: Any up-to-date Internet browser

Cost: Free to use and install

Stockists: Visit www.WhatsApp.com

 

Carrot Weather

There are thousands of weather apps on the Internet these days and all of them do the same thing – inform you of the weather in your area. However, Carrot Weather has taken what is just another app and turned it into something fun. By fun, I mean sarcastic, rude and completely politically incorrect. A user starts off by selecting religious and political views. It then asks about personality, ranging from friendly to homicidal to overkill – which includes profanity. So, for instance, instead of waking up to to the standard partly cloudy forecast, Carrot Weather will display something like: “It’s only partly sunny, the sun is a total effing failure.” It also has a range of insults that it throws at you whenever you open the app – some of them downright insulting, so it is definitely not for those who are easily offended. The app’s user interface is very simple, displaying a week’s daily forecast and hourly forecasts for the day selected.

Platform: Android and iOS

Cost: Free to download but with adverts. The premium, advert free version costs R12 per month.

Stockists: Visit the store linked to your device.

* Sean Bacher is editor of Gadget.co.za. Follow him on Twitter on @SeanBacher

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SA Start-up reinvents PABX

For any South African business, the idea of setting up or changing a telephonic switchboard system is the stuff of nightmares. Dealing with expensive hardware and hearing things like QSIG and VOIP is not what you’d call exciting.But now there is an app.

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Enter BuzzBox (www.buzzboxcloud.co.za), a web-based telephone switchboard that is aimed at small and medium sized businesses wanting to take the hassle and cost out of the company switchboard. Whether you are a small one-man operation or a larger organisation with staff working remotely, BuzzBox is the best switchboard solution.

What sets BuzzBox apart from anything else on the market is its easy-to-use dashboard. It puts you in control of everything from picking your phone number to setting up voice prompts and managing your business-hours schedule.

BuzzBox was developed when the startup behind it, Jini-Guru, needed such a service for its own use across multiple continents. “When we started Jini-Guru we could not find a seamless online process that would allow us to set up a full web-based switchboard, so we decided to build one for ourselves,” says Mike Smits, Director at Jini-Guru.

He says a lot of startups today are tech savvy and know how to use apps and the services that go with it. “It’s the uberisation of services and its driving demand for instant service activation.”

BuzzBox works as an app on both iOS and Android but users wanting a desk phone option can choose from a variety of devices on offer or use their existing VOIP phones.

Setting up a BuzzBox account takes 5 minutes. During registration your FICA documents are uploaded [ID and proof or residence] and you get to pick your phone number before the account is created. Companies that want to keep an existing number can do so too.

The real magic happens when you log on to the BuzzBox Dashboard. The main screen displays a summary of statistics for your account while the left-hand menu provides you quick access to various configuration settings and reports.

Setting up new extensions or external numbers is done with a few clicks and you can even set up various departments which is a great way to route a call to various people in a department, like sales or support.

The intuitive user interface also makes it easy to set up hold-music and voice prompts. You can add voice prompts by recording them straight to your phone, just make sure you use a clear voice with quiet surroundings for the best customer experience.

One of the main features of BuzzBox is its call recording feature that allows an organisation to record calls for legislative purposes, such as a lawyer, or for customer service purposes such as support. Recordings are stored securely online, and you have the ability to download recordings for playback. Companies can opt-in for this service and it’s free to use. Recordings are stored online and are fully encrypted so only you can listen to, or download them. Storage costs R1 for every 1000 minutes of stored recordings.

Other features include call forwarding and scheduling. The latter allows you to set office hours for your organisation which will divert calls to an after-hours messaging service. You also have the option to enable routing to an employee who is on call after hours.

BuzzBox also has a reseller program for companies wanting to offer this as a switchboard solution to their existing customers.

The costs for this service is R89 p/m for the first phone number which includes your first extension for free. Thereafter you’ll pay R89p/m per extension. Calls between extensions are free but you pay per second for all outgoing phone calls. More info on pricing can be found here: https://buzzboxcloud.co.za/pricing/

BuzzBox is offering a Launch promotion where they are offering the first line and extension free for 12 months. Only pay for calls. Use promo code “feoifyaa” during sign-up to apply your discount.

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