Saturday, June 1, 2013
Why tech innovators are Africa's future
Apps4Africa has just announced the three winners of its 2012 competition, showcasing the best in African innovation.
The winners, chosen from nearly 300 submissions, were Ffene, from Uganda, an app that helps small and medium businesses reduce administrative costs; SliceBiz, from Ghana, a crowdsourcing platform to encourage middle class Africans to invest small amounts in high-growth startups; and Prowork, from Nigeria, which is a project management and real-time collaboration tool for businesses.
The Apps4Africa competition began in late 2009 as an annual program that aimed to support African social entrepreneurs using technology to solve societal problems. This year's competition demonstrated again that Africa has innovation and a growing number of innovators. But now the challenge for technology entrepreneurs is not merely to innovate and create apps, but to turn them into lucrative business ideas.
During my trips to Africa while coordinating the Apps4Africa competition, I witnessed from the innovators a real desire to innovate and have their voices heard. But whilst a technology revolution is taking place in Africa, with so many of these young men and women building and creating apps, they still face huge challenges in understanding how to start businesses around their innovations.
Most of the innovators are following trends and their dreams, inspired mostly by the stories of Bill Gates and Steve Jobs making it without a clear business plan or any structured road map when they started their businesses many years ago. The reality check has not yet taken place in the minds of Africa's innovators and lots of time is being wasted on unrealistic desires.
Young entrepreneurs in Africa have a mosaic of demands that need urgent attention. Policy makers need to start taking the young entrepreneurs seriously, as they are the future of Africa.
The growing number of competitions and gatherings -- like Apps4Africa, Startup Weekend, Africa Gathering, Maker Faire, Pivot East and BarCamps -- help to give visibility and credibility to these innovators, but this is not enough. The young African innovator needs business skills and funding.
However, preparatory brainstorming gatherings, where people meet to share ideas, cement relationships and learn, could form the missing link that helps to create a culture of entrepreneurship and trust, that challenges and empowers the technology entrepreneurs to do more for Africa, and encourages the funders to support them.
Now the competition is over, with the prize money coming soon into the winners' bank accounts, what is next for them? Many people are asking this legitimate question.
One thing is sure, the entrepreneurs have ideas; the proof is that we have banks of apps being developed from the continent. But 90% of the people who attended the Apps4Africa sessions, with their business ideas in hand, need mentoring.
The ecosystem in their countries to facilitate the creation of companies and a culture of entrepreneurship and risk taking is currently in its infancy or non-existent. Funding is currently a big issue. Investors don't take the technologists seriously, say the entrepreneurs. Whilst their intentions and ideas are good, many of the entrepreneurs that I meet need to be mentored intensively. Investors don't have time for this.
African policy makers need to seriously invest in creating more business schools and put the right infrastructures into place to save the private sector industry of Africa and youth of Africa. Technology hubs and innovative spaces are addressing these current needs.
The Apps4Africa winners now need to scale up their business models; this means they will need more funding, mentoring and manpower.
To respond to this growing need, I have launched Spotone Mentoring @spot1mentoring, a new social enterprise initiative committed to supporting, guiding, unlocking the potential of the growing numbers of bedroom entrepreneurs in Africa.
With its official launch in the summer, it's an initiative I hope can help Africa's innovators to scale up and become profitable.