Africa’s women digital entrepreneurs are driving innovation


Africa is a continent of entrepreneurs, particularly in the mobile space. But tapping into the innovation and creativity of the 1.1 billion citizens who live in its 56 very different countries is about “combining the best of global with the best of local”.

face-of-africaNowhere is the old adage ‘necessity is the mother of invention’ more true than in Africa, that most misunderstood of continents.

As Nick van Terheyden, chief medical officer at Dell Services, pointed out during an ‘Emerging Innovation’ session at the Dell Women’s Entrepreneurship Network (DWEN) Summit in Cape Town, South Africa, last week:

It’s easy in the West to believe that we’re the leaders and innovators, but the majority of innovation comes from places with less resources. And with so little, they achieve so much.

A prime example of this is the case of Onwaba Mrhwetyana, a single mother from a township who has developed an application called Creche Connect, which is billed as “TripAdvisor for crèches”. Mrhwetyana was a member of Project CodeX, a full-time apprenticeship scheme for budding software developers in South Africa, and last year ended up winning a hackathon offering the prize of R10,000 ($680) in seed funding to develop ideas for tackling early childhood development issues.

Elizabeth Gould, co-founder and chief executive of CodeX, explains the reason for Mrhwetyana’s success:

She was up against people from university and the like, but her idea won as she wasn’t just developing something that she thought could be useful. She was solving a real-life problem that she was facing herself as she couldn’t find a good crèche for her baby. It makes all the difference.

But it is in the mobile tech arena that innovation more generally is particularly marked in Africa. Despite, or maybe because of, having inadequate fixed line infrastructure, the continent has leapfrogged its counterparts in the developing world in this arena. For instance, it was Safaricom in Kenya that invented mobile money in the form of its M-Pesa money transfer service in order to address a pressing need in rural and traditionally unbanked communities. The idea has since been copied around the world.

And according to Ashish Thakkar, founder of conglomerate the Mara Group and entrepreneur-in-residence at the United Nations Foundation, such mobile creativity is only set to increase. He explains:

Eighty five percent of the continent use mobiles now, but there will be 700 million smartphones in Africa by 2020 and it’s generating a leapfrogging effect…So a big element here will be ‘m’ not ‘e’. Seven hundred million smartphones will disrupt agriculture, communications, everything. In Africa, people already spend $1 billion on e-commerce, but in the next five years, it will be $75 billion.

Dell’s van Terheyden also believes that mobile capabilities could help the continent take a lead in up-and-coming areas such as genomics and precision medicine. He says:

We’ve seen the continent leapfrog over landlines to mobile and the same might happen with genomics, which today can already improve life expectancy by eight years due to an explosion of data and knowledge. I’ve already seen some small pluggable devices for mobile phones and, although the focus is currently on western disease as that’s where the data is, that will change as things are tested in the field. They’re portable and easy-to-use and they offer a tremendous opportunity for Africa to leapfrog in terms of innovation.

Innovation and entrepreneurship

Another important consideration, however, is simply the scale of entrepreneurship across the continent. Elizabeth Gore, Dell’s Entrepreneur-in-Residence, points out that a huge 90% of jobs in Africa are generated by entrepreneurs compared to a mere 70% in the UK and US, which makes them vital to economic development in the region.

Africa is also the only continent in the world where equal numbers of women to men start up new businesses, according to Karen Quintos, the supplier’s Chief Marketing Officer who recently changed her job title to Chief Customer Officer.

Women across the world are, in fact, the fifth largest contributors as a group to global GDP and as such make a real difference to individual country’s economic growth levels – despite having much more limited access to resources than their male counterparts. In reality, women face issues ranging from access to capital as they are considered a riskier bet to a lack of self-confidence and mentoring support. They are also subject to hidden cultural bias and prejudice both in business and wider society. But Gore says:

If we can get technology and capital into the hands of entrepreneurs, we’ll solve the world’s problems as they’ll monetise and make profits. And women in particular put 90% of the money they earn back into their community and families.

In a bid to support entrepreneurs of all genders regardless of where they happen to be in the world, however, Dell has just got together with 1776, which offers funding to start-ups, incubator Capital Factory and Microsoft to set up an online networking platform called Union. The platform hooks up local start-up hubs around the world and provides users with access to relevant content, mentors and consultants as well as potential investors, customers and business partners.

Another development that could well also prove useful in supporting growth specifically across the African continent, meanwhile, is the creation of a single African e-Passport  for citizens of all 54 of the African Union’s (AU) member states. Due to be launched later this month at the next AU Summit in Kigali, Rwanda, the electronic document will enable citizens to travel across the continent without requiring a visa.

Although it will initially only be available to heads of state, foreign ministers and permanent representatives based at the AU’s headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, the plan is to roll it out to all AU citizens by 2018. The e-Passport is seen as a first step towards creating a common market on the continent in order to boost trade and development and encourage a free flow of people, ideas, goods, services and capital across borders a la European Union. And such a move is important because as Thakkar says:

It’s currently easier for people from the UK and US to travel across the continent than it is for Africans.

But such a vision is still a long way from being realised and, in the meantime, he warns against the all too common mistake of treating African countries as if they were one homogenous mass:

There are 54 countries in sub-Saharan African and what works in South Africa won’t work in Botswana. In Africa, you have to be local to each market and so the answer is partnership and combining the best of global with the best of local… But there’s always a problem with the perception versus the reality because people don’t understand the African continent. So, for example, the IMF has downgraded Africa in growth terms, but it’s still at 70% in some countries. So it’s important to come and see what’s really happening on the ground here.

My take

Africa is an incredibly entrepreneurial continent but is as diverse in terms of countries and cultures as Europe. As a result, tapping into the high levels of innovation there, especially in the mobile space, should not be braved alone but rather with the help of partners to provide local knowledge and support.

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