Technology and innovation in Africa

A reflective overview by Liz Wolohan, MBA 2022 student at London Business School and trek attendee.

I had the pleasure of participating in this year’s Tech and Innovation Trek which focused on engaging with some of the leading operators and investors in the tech sector across the continent, many of which are led by LBS alumni. The virtual nature of this year’s trek allowed us to take a Pan-African focus instead of focusing on one city or country—highlighting the range of tech hubs and markets across the continent.

Sokowatch: Comparing American and African Entrepreneurship

On Monday morning, Daniel Yu, the founder and CEO of Sokowatch, kicked off the trek. Originally from California, and with a background as a software developer, Yu has lived in East Africa for the last 6 years. The idea for Sokowatch, a B2B offering, providing, ordering and financing to mom-and-pop shops, originated when Yu was living in Egypt after university. He saw the challenges with inventory management of small shops there, and he thought that some logistical assistance could spur growth for these microentrepreneurs.

The focus on mom-and-pop shops may seem niche to those from the US or UK, but in Kenya, 80% of commerce is done in the informal market made up of these tiny shops. Prior to Sokowatch, suppliers like Unilever would import products to a major distributor, and then the distributor sends to warehouses, but there’s no last mile transit. Each shopkeeper has to travel to the warehouse to restock an item.

Yu originally thought Sokowatch would be a platform app that simply alerted the warehouse that Shop X needs 3 boxes of Product Y, but he soon realized that this wouldn’t add value without the distribution network to get those boxes from warehouse to Shop X. Additionally, he discovered that shopkeepers also had no access to financing, so they could not take on credit to smooth their purchasing, and in turn, the distribution; so Sokowatch began to provide delayed payment options as well.

These pivots in response to customer needs has proved successful. Sokowatch now serves 22,000 shops in Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda.

Coming from an American upbringing, Yu also contrasted American and African entrepreneurship and VC for us. From his perspective, American business is more transactional. For example, something that could be solved via email in the US might require a several face-to-face meetings in Kenya, because relationship building is more important. He also talked about the timeline for success, which will likely be more than a decade in African enterprises, compared to 3-4 years in more developed markets. While it still may be a long road ahead, Sokowatch can continue to build on its fundraising momentum.

Yu ended the session with a word of advice for aspiring entrepreneurs: “Get on the ground and start trying things out. Don’t underestimate the complexity of operations in reality. There will be way more hurdles than you could plan for in a business model.”

M-PESA and M-KOPA: The Power of Digital Technology

We then heard from Rajesh Chandy, Co-Academic Director  of Wheeler Institute for Business and Development and Professor of Marketing at London Business School, and Nick Hughes, founder of M-PESA,  M-KOPA, and 4RDigital and EMBA alum of LBS. Rajesh and Nick have been working together on the Science of Scale project, looking at fintech in sub-Saharan Africa to determine why some enterprises can scale and some cannot. They found that only 4-6% of fintechs have scale, and that successfully scaling was primarily attributable to three internal and three external factors: Business Model, Channels, Team, Customers, Partnerships, and Investors.

Nick then spoke to us about M-PESA, a virtual bank account, he founded in 2007. Over the 13 years of its history, the impact M-PESA has made has been calculated as a 2% reduction in extreme poverty.

Over a decade later, Nick is still optimistic about the power of digital technology in emerging markets. Without technology as a connecting and monitoring tool, these customers were invisible to service providers, but now we now have tools that can be used to rethink how to do business.

The mobile payment technology and adoption allows for other innovation to flourish, as it did when Nick founded M-KOPA in 2012, as a pay-as-you-go solar energy company powered by M-PESA. 600M people on the continent do not have access to grid power; M-KOPA displaces the use of kerosene and making clean energy affordable. 

Today, Nick Hughes describes M-KOPA as a financial provider. Providing useful innovative products and providing the financing, by leveraging the existing credit profile.  Serving 1M customers. 

Nick explained that Vodacom started M-PESA in Kenya originally because DFID wanted to fund projects in East Africa, and Vodacom already had a presence there through Safaricom. They stayed in Kenya for M-KOPA because they already had the digital payment infrastructure to build upon.

Additionally, the fragmented nature of sub-Saharan Africa makes it harder to do pan-regional plays. Infrastructure is a big issue, and new models are required to solve the issue at a larger scale. Even in instances where the technology would be transferrable, cultural differences can be the roadblock.

Nick and Rajesh also ended with some advice for the participants. Chandy cannot emphasize enough the importance of in-person immersion in the markets you want to work in. Nick said that technology is the enabler, but it’s not what’s important—operational delivery is the key. 

GreenHouse Capital and MAX Nigeria: Perspectives of Early-stage Investor and Investee

The second day of the trek began with Ruby Nimkar, a principal at GreenHouse Capital. GHC, a Fintech investment company based in Lagos Nigeria, was founded in 2014 as the venture capital arm of the Nigerian tech scale-up Venture Garden Group. GHC has become Sub-Saharan Africa’s largest fintech investment fund by portfolio size, with 23+ investments operational in 6 countries, including Flutterwave, Migo, MAX, Wallets Africa, and Credpal. GHC supports African entrepreneurs build and scale the next wave of pan-African technology companies by providing venture investment, strategic advice, business development services, and ecosystem network infrastructure.

GHC invests its capital and specialized expertise into companies that they believe are building the financial services that will power Africa’s economic future.  

Ruby was then joined by one of her portfolio company CEOs, Adetayo Bamiduro, co-founder of and a Sloan-LBS alum.  MAX is building connected last-mile delivery and online-retail infrastructure for Africa by using mobile and web platforms to connect consumers, retail businesses, and independent drivers in real-time.  MAX began as a delivery service in 2015 but has extended its product platform to include motorcycle taxi popularly known as Okada hailing.

MAX was able to replicate success stories of Uber (US) and Grab GoJek (Asia), by leveraging the rapid uptake of smart phones in Nigeria. The roadmap to success was not identical though. Tech infrastructure in Africa was much less developed than the US. For example, Uber had Google Maps and experienced, tech-savvy drivers. Many of those assets are not available in Africa, so MAX had to be more hands-on in preparing and training drivers. Tayo also said that, compared to American counterparts, African drivers struggle in access to high-quality, reliable vehicles and access to credit financing to purchase a vehicle. These last realizations helped form MAX’s value proposition.

Tayo attributed some of MAX’s success to government engagement. They signed agreement with governments and built technology that enables the government to collect more regulated tax revenue, thereby embedding themselves in government’s success.

Tayo then spoke to the recent partnership with Yamaha that doubled MAX’s valuation. He sees this as long-term synergy that will help MAX to scale much faster, especially with OEMs. At the start, MAX has to finance the vehicles out of the balance sheet. But now, OEMs can lend out and/or finance for these vehicles. This arrangement is a win-win: MAX doesn’t have to pay cash up front, and OEMs sell a lot more vehicles and immediately benefit from the driver’s revenue.

When discussing expansion plans, Tayo wants to take some time to understand the various needs of customers in different cities. He underlined the importance of being nimble and adapting the model for different customer needs. Wherever they go next, he plans to position with the local government to solve their mobility problems.

Closing the Gender Divide in Low and Middle-Income Countries

Wednesday’s programming began with an event presented by LBS’ Social Impact, Africa and Women in Business Clubs, in partnership with Saïd Business School and Judge Business School. A separate writeup of this session can be found here.

FirstCheck Africa: Supporting the Next Generation of Female Founders

Eloho Omame, founding Managing Director and CEO of Endeavor Nigeria and LBS alumna  , then spoke about FirstCheck Africa.and In 2018, Eloho launched Endeavor Nigeria, part of a global entrepreneurship network for high-impact founders to access talent, mentors, and fundraising opportunities. She recently left to launch her own investment fund to support Africa’s next generation of female founders, FirstCheck Africa.  

FirstCheck Africa is a female-led, female-focused angel fund and investor community that is helping African women in tech raise capital by writing “ridiculously early” first checks and creating pathways for more African women to invest in technology startups. FirstCheck’s mission is to advance equity, capital, and leadership for a generation of women in Africa through technology and entrepreneurship. This is crucial because less than 5% of funding in Africa goes to start-ups with at least one female co-founder. 

Eloho believes that, previously, female founders never made the cut, because of their business models and their lack of leadership skills.  Regarding business models, female founders tend not to create business in innovation and tech areas and are more likely to start low-growth or local retail operations. Secondly, African women typically shy away from influencing and mentoring other entrepreneurs, because it is not the cultural norm.

Now is the time to energize this space because there are unprecedented rates of women starting companies and building careers in these markets. While there should be more deals coming down the pipeline, there also needs to be an intentional increase in the number of women on the investment side. Eloho cited that VC investors are twice as likely to invest in women founders if there are women on their investment team. Even when women-led businesses do get the investment, the average check size is smaller than male counterparts. FirstCheck helps by providing services such as one-on-on office hours, access to network, advice, and mentorship.

BanQu: Blockchain as a Tool for Fair Pay

Ashish Gadnis, Co-founder and CEO of BanQu then spoke to us about his organization. Founded in 2015, BanQu is a ground-breaking blockchain-as-a-service social enterprise with the mission to solve extreme poverty. As the world’s first and only non-cryptocurrency blockchain platform—BanQu helps lift people out of extreme poverty by connecting smallholder farmers to global supply chains for companies like Anheuser-Busch InBev, Mars and Coca-Cola. 

The subsistence or smallholder farmer (Tier 0) has a long supply chain with multiple players before the end-user buys the product. The product is first sold to a cooperative (Tier 1), then an aggregator (Tier 2), before finally making it to the “brand-name” brewer or similar (Tier 3). Ashish was frustrated by the total lack of visibility in the supply chain. He did not like how end-users could claim their products were Fairtrade Certified or organic when there were no records from the original producer.

On the other side, smallholder farmers could not leverage data to access better inputs or generate financial track record. Therefore, they were most likely to stay in poverty for generations. BanQu makes supply chains transparent, but most importantly equitable.

BanQu’s long-term goals include lifting 100m out of poverty and generating 100m in revenue. The interdependency of these goals is important to Ashish who has strong feelings on impact investing. He feels that BanQu’s impact is clear because the farmer got paid, meaning he can pay school fees, meaning there are more kids in school, and “that’s all the impact I need”. He believes impact investing is dangerous because lending to the bottom of the pyramid always involves monetary transactions through various institutions and funds to wind through multiple layers. He believes BanQu can bypass all these layers, simplifying everything and getting more money directly into the hands of those who are in most extreme poverty.

BanQu currently has $3M in revenue and 1.5M users on the platform, including 4,000 farmers who were added in January in Tanzania. This makes them poised to raise Series B funding later this year. With the additional capital, Ashish says they can pursue anything with sourcing from emerging markets (agriculture, natural resources central to this). In the mid-term he sees a lot of potential in circular economy work and wants to develop tool for farmers to calculate and monetize carbon credits. 

JUMIA: Africa’s First Unicorn

Our last day of the trek began with another LBS alum and Chief Commercial Officer at JUMIA Kenya, Kenneth Oyolla. After his LBS MBA, Kenneth has held several leadership roles across East Africa’s FMCG and telecom sectors including leading at Unilever, and Nokia before joining Jumia, the continent’s leading e-commerce company and first unicorn. 

Jumia is leveraging technology to improve everyday life: providing new services, enabling SMEs to grow, and creating sustainable impact through jobs. Jumia is the leading e-commerce ecosystem in Africa, with popular offerings like Jumia Marketplace, Jumia Services, Jumia Pay. The idea here is to monetize the ecosystem as a moat. 

To give an idea of scale, Kenneth told us that Jumia processes one transaction every two seconds. They operate across eleven markets on the continent. Their Kenyan market consists of 3M unique visitors per month, which means 25% of the active internet population is on Jumia each month. They have been called the “Amazon of Africa” with their strategy to provide large scale, countrywide, premium, instant delivery. 

Kenneth shared some opportunities and challenges that he will be taking on in the near- to mid-future. He sees a huge opportunity for Jumia from the pan-African free trade agreement, but he’s sceptical that red tape will be significantly reduced.  Having saturated many of the largest cities, Jumia is now looking to enter secondary cities. The challenges here beyond logistics is a lack of trust from more rural customers. Ordering something and paying for it in advance is not a common way of buying something. Therefore, Jumia offers cash on delivery as a way of building trust.

Kenneth was kind enough to spend some time with us discussing his personal background, including sharing lessons learned through his career that spans corporate work, like Jumia, to entrepreneurship. His experience of starting his own business was so valuable, and one takeaway was to rethink your value proposition and company idea if your company is not making it within 1000 days. 

Kenneth also underlined the importance of relationship building regardless of the company-size or industry. He said switching industries was easier for him because he had international business experience building relationships and expanding his network. He’s now able to monetize that network, making some of his prior colleagues Jumia vendors, for example.

Government-funded Innovation and Entrepreneurship Programs

The last presentation of the trek moved focus to government funding for innovation and was presented by Bilaly Dicko. After getting his master’s degree in public policy in Morocco, he returned to his home of Mali with the goal of serving his country. He saw entrepreneurship as a worthwhile goal for this service because 95% of start-ups were failing in the first two years, and he wanted to help build sustainable businesses.

Bilaly was recruited to the United Nations Development Program in Mali to run the UNDP Accelerator Labs initiative, linking private sector pace of innovation with public service. He also established the Mali branch of Youth Connekt, a Pan-African platform that seeks to empower young people through enhancing their knowledge, experiences and skills while investing in their ideas, innovations and initiatives. Finally, he implemented the Tony Elumelu Foundation-UNDP Youth Entrepreneurship Program to empower 100,000 young African entrepreneurs with seed capital, business training, and mentoring.

Since 2019, Bilaly’s acted as a Project Coordinator at IFC in charge of agri-finance products development in Mali, Burkina, and Cote d’Ivoire. His primary goals in this role were to help farmers stop relying on cash, which would encourage saving, and allow farmers to access financing. He wants to prompt the mindset switch from cash to digital through human-centred design to get into the mind of these farmers and learn what their main challenges are. He told us the most important thing is to resist trying to design a solution from the outside without the farmers’ input. A successful strategy will incorporate their hurdles, hang-ups, desires, and goals. He is a strong proponent that “the community knows what is good for them.”

Bilaly then shared his insights into the biggest limitation of incubators in West Africa, namely the curriculum they are using is not based on the sustainability of the start-ups. They are more focused on driving attendance than the growth or success of the participating companies. This stems from the funders’ priorities, which also skew toward short-term outputs and dictate the success/failure of the incubator. Rather, he advocates for a transition from incubators to FabLabs. A FabLab (or fabrication laboratory) focuses on product development and technical expertise, whereas incubators simply provide space to work and help you design your business model canvas, in Bilaly’s opinion.

Closing Africa Club Social

The Africa Club ended the week with a rehash of all the incredible discussions we had had. From international NGOs to angel investors, to fast-growing corporates, the Technology and Innovation in Africa Trek presented a thorough and well-rounded view of many of the endeavours under way across a continent that spans so many varied markets.

The trek organizers would like to thank and acknowledge the collaborative effort between LBS’s Tech and Media Club, Africa Club, Retail and Luxury Goods Club, and the Wheeler Institute for Business and Development. 

The Tech and Innovation in Africa Trek was hosted by the Tech and Media Club and the Africa Club. This year’s trek will hear from some of the leading tech companies and investors across Africa’s rapidly growing retail, e-commerce, and fintech sectors. In past years, the Tech and Innovation treks have been located in Silicon Valley, New York City, and Dublin.

Liz Wolohan (MBA2022) is passionate about expanding London Business School’s reputation as a global leader in impact-focussed business education.  She will be the co-president of the Social Impact Club for the coming academic year. She is also a Social Representative for her class and a member of the Women’s Touch Rugby Team. Liz is an intern for the Wheeler Institute, contributing to the creation of content that amplifies the role of business in improving lives.

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