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We Cash Up aims to be the PayPal of Africa

Comments (0) Africa, Business, Featured

Cedric Atangana

With e-commerce on the continent poised for growth, We Cash Up develops an innovative platform to enable online purchases on phones.

Hoping to ride a wave of innovative online technology and mobile adoption in Africa, the startup We Cash Up has set its sights on becoming the Pay Pal of the continent.

Cedric Atangana, co-founder and CEO of the Marseille-based company Infinity Space, said its We Cash Up network will aim to provide online purchasing power for Africans who do not have bank accounts.

Atangana said as many as 800 million Africans are excluded from internet commerce because they do not have bank accounts. At the same time, most of them have mobile phones.

His solution? A mobile network that enables users to make secure payments via their phones.

A network of businesses and buyers

Small businesses and stores that participate in the network are both a point of deposit and a point of withdrawal so We Cash Up does not have to develop an expensive new infrastructure to manage cash transactions.

We Cash Up says one key feature of We Cash Up is that its developers found a way to communicate across mobile money systems in 54 African countries that enables transactions across borders.

Infinity Space also developed an artificial intelligence that tracks the behavior of mobile users in order to identify risky or fraudulent transactions, the company said.

Infinity Spaces is also developing a We Shop Up platform for participating merchants.

The company operates as a virtual team. Atangana is based in Marseille while other team members work from Kenya or Cameroon.

African e-commerce faces challenges

Atangana sees vast potential both for merchants and buyers and internet use grows in Africa.

Experts agree that the potential to expand e-commerce in Africa exists but it faces key challenges. For example, e-commerce giants including Kalahari and Mocality have invested in Africa and then retrenched after failing to achieve profitability.

Wealthier Africans have not embraced online shopping, for example, because of concerns about fraud. At the same time, many African cultures value their vibrant and plentiful physical marketplaces over online shopping.

Cross-border differences inhibit scaling efficiencies and require duplication of services. The logistics of delivery are complicated.

E-commerce expected to increase

At the same time, the continent appears poised for growth in e-commerce as spending power increases along with internet access. One study predicts e-commerce, now a tiny fraction of the economy, will grow by 40 percent annually during the next decade.

Atangana believes We Cash Up can tap into that growth and change attitudes about online shopping.

Atangana, who holds a degree in engineering from Polytech Marseille, founded Infinity Space in Cameroon in 2010. The company operated in Nairobi, Kenya before Atangana moved its current headquarters to France.

He and Infinity Space chief marketing officer Marcelle Ballow Bekono were named to Forbes list of top 30 African entrepreneurs under 30.

We Cash Up has received several awards in startup competitions, including $20,000 at the 2014 Google Pitch Night.

Friends lacked bank accounts

He said he got the idea for We Cash Up after he had to help friends who did not have credit cards make online purchases.

On separate occasions, he said, friends in Cameroon and Kenya were unable to participate in developer competitions because they could not provide banking details.

“Indeed, one of the conditions for registration was to provide bank details or the majority had no credit card. And it has been very frustrating for me,” he said. “The idea of this project is born from our desire to help these people.”

Atangana said very few similar services are currently available and they seldom cross borders.

Account Nickel offers prepaid cards to people who do not have bank accounts but operates only in France. MPesa is a leading mobile payment platform in East Africa while telecom operators offer prepaid services in other countries.

But Atangana has a bigger vision of mobile e-commerce across international borders.

“This is the Airbnb financial system,” Atangana said.

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6 African, Middle East startups in global competition

Comments (0) Africa, Business, Featured, Middle East

New ventures from South Africa, Morocco, Sudan, Saudi Arabia and Egypt will compete in the Get in the Ring final in March.

Six startups from Africa and the Middle East will compete in the world finals of Get in the Ring, a global competition that helps raise the visibility of new ventures and connects them with potential investors.

The six startups representing South Africa, Morocco, Sudan, Saudi Arabia and Egypt include delivery services, mobile applications and energy developers. They will compete in the Get in the Ring world final in Medellin, Columbia in March.

Get in the Ring is one of the world’s largest competitions for startups.

Contestants face off in a boxing ring to deliver 30-second pitches for their product or service and they are judged by investors and other experts. They are scored based on their business model and potential market, their team, their achievements and their financials.

Two South African startups win regional

Winners for the sub-Saharan region are two South African startups, Newtech Rail and iMORPH3D.

Newtech Rail has developed technology for railway overhead infrastructure. Jan Jooste, a South African industrial engineer and director of innovation at Vaal University of Technology, launched the startup in 2015.

iMORPH3D is a mobile application that enables users to create anamorphic 3D illusions. Android and Apple versions are available for download. It is a product of Adfire Creative M3dia.

Morocco, Sudan among winners

In the North African regional competition, held in Casablanca, Moroccan startup LIK and a Sudanese startup SmartDelivery emerged as the winners.

LIK from Morocco is a mobile application that gives users free phone credits in exchange for agreeing to display advertising on their smart phones when they receive calls. The ads are location-based and contextual based on age, gender, and language. Launched late last year, the app already has more than 100,000 users.

LIK at Level Up Competition

LIK at Level Up Competition

LIK found that its users were seeing advertising everywhere but were not realizing any benefit from viewing the ads. “With LIK, they can finally benefit,” Ismail Bargach said. He co-founded LIK with Omar Kadiri, and Yassine Faddani. The startup also won the Level Up Morocco competition last year in Casablanca.

The Sudanese startup SmartDelivery lets customers order fresh vegetables, fruit and meat via an app and it provides free delivery. It is able to charge lower prices because it buys directly from farmers and eliminates the middlemen. According to the company, the app enables efficient communication on customer orders.

Middle East winners

Vanoman from Saudi Arabia and SolarizEgypt won the Middle East regional competition.

Vanoman is a platform to connect truck drivers in Saudi Arabia with customers who want furniture transported. Fadi Almaghrabi, its CEO, represented the company.

SolarizEgypt designs and installs grid-connected PV solar power plants as a supplement for conventional types of power for industrial, commercial and residential customers. The company was launched by a group of graduates of the American University in Cairo.

Participants pitch their ventures

Get in the Ring brings entrepreneurs together to compete in local, national and regional competitions that winnow the field for the world finals, where they compete for funding of up to one million euros and investment dollars.

Along the way, participants received expert advice, coaching on their pitches and the opportunity to meet investors and develop a fan base.

“This event is not just about pitching for funding. It is also about pitching for attention’’ according to Brian Walsh, founder and chief executive officer of The REAL Success Network, one of the partners for the event. Walsh said the multiple rounds of competition expose them to thousands of potential funders and supporters.

Steven Cohen, head of event co-sponsor Sage One International, said Get in the Ring “is helping to encourage excellence and innovation among local businesses, and to provide role models and inspiration for the entrepreneurs of the future.”

In 2014, the South African startup GoMetro was a runner-up in the global finals.

Get in the Ring began in 2012 in the Netherlands and has grown rapidly into a major global event. Get in the Ring competitions are now held in more than 60 countries. Between 2012 and 2014, more than 3,000 startups participated.

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Profiles of 5 Promising Kenyan Startups

Comments (0) Africa, Business, Featured

nairobi

Following up on our article about the blossoming startup scene in Nairobi, Kenya, we’ve compiled a list of 5 promising Kenyan startups with a quick description of what they do.

 

1. iCow

iCow is an Agricultural Information Service SMS mobile phone application designed to help enhance the productivity of small-scale dairy farmers in Kenya. Aiming to help rural communities and farmers by giving them knowledge to develop as both farmers and businessmen, each farmer enters personalized details about their cows – whether that may be five or 500 – before receiving text messages and voice prompts with tailored instructions about the breeding and production patterns of their livestock. It helps farmers manage their stock and tackle challenges by tracking the estrus stages of their cows, providing the cost per liter of milk produced by their animals, helping them find the nearest vet and AI providers, and by giving information on breeding, nutrition, milk production efficiency and gestation, fodder production, hygiene and animal diseases. Following the 365-day cow cycle, farmers are assisted year round in making informed decisions and reducing risk.

The app runs on even the most basic mobile phone, and each text message costs about 10 Kenyan shillings, or $0.10.

 

Zatiti

2. Zatiti 

Launched in 2013, Zatiti is a web platform which helps entrepreneurs create e-commerce websites (which are M-PESA compatible). 81% of sellers in Kenya are looking for a mobile e-commerce solution to reach the 98% of Kenyans who access the web through mobile devices, but coders and developers are hard to find. The Zatiti platform requires no technical expertise from customers, handling everything from set-up to the design of customized themes. And clients can easily update their platforms with the website builder’s simple content management system. Empowering entrepreneurs, users can also monitor revenue and sales orders, and receive messages through the service.

Zatiti charges a 2% transaction fee and a monthly subscription fee depending on type of plan, along with offering premium templates, increased storage space, and increased product variety.

soko

3. Soko

Soko is a mobile driven e-commerce platform that enables artisans to engage with the international marketplace, even if they lack access to the internet or a bank account. In a similar mold to Etsy, Soko works with artisans to create modern, ethical jewelry, handmade from sustainable materials, and then helps them to sell their products to a global audience of brands, retailers, and online customers around the world. Its niche: all that can be done via only SMS. An SMS entry form allows artisans to create online storefronts, profiles, and upload images. As they text the information is transcribed as metadata which is automatically uploaded to the Soko website. It uses a peer recruitment model whereby store owners recruit and mentor new sellers. Soko says: “With our tools, any talented artisan can participate in the global marketplace, becoming a driver of social and economic development in their community.”

Based in Nairobi, so far the company has 12 employees around the world, about 250 artisans currently featured on the site, and has raised close to $1 million in seed funding.

m-farm

4. M-Farm 

M-Farm is a SMS mobile phone application, compatible with even basic mobile phones, which aims to empower African farmers. M-Farm cuts out the middle man by connecting farmers directly with buyers. It provides them with real-time food pricing information, allowing them to sell their produce at much fairer prices. Making small farmers more visible, it offers a group selling tool where farmers can team up to bring their accumulated produce to drop off points and the SMS system then promotes what they have to sell. And it offers a group buying tool, allowing farmers to pool resources to get better prices for things like fertilizer. Kenyan CEO and founder Jamila Abass says she founded MFarm in 2010 after reading about how farmers have been “oppressed for decades and disconnected in terms of information”.

A SMS for a single crop is the cost of a text message. The company counts nearly 17,000 users in Kenya, and projects one million by the end of next year.

sokotext

5. SokoText

SokoText uses mobile phone text messages to aggregate demand for food in Kenyan slums and unlock wholesale prices for micro-entrepreneurs. The company says “Small-scale vegetable sellers and kiosk owners are the gatekeepers and key players of food accessibility in urban slums. Yet a lack of capital means that they cannot afford to buy in bulk and pay to travel long distances to markets every day to buy just enough stock that will help them get by. SokoText leverages the widespread and increasing use of mobile phones in slums to solve these problems. With SokoText, they can boost their business while becoming the key agents that empower people living in the slums to eat better and healthier.”

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Kenya’s Tech Renaissance: Nairobi Set to Become Africa’s Key Technology Hub

Comments (2) Africa, Business, Featured

nairobi

Mobile and internet penetration, a mobile economy, developing tech ecosystems, and government support are set to make Nairobi Africa’s key technology hub.

Over the last half-decade, Kenya has rapidly developed into a country of digital innovation, and its capital Nairobi, dubbed Silicon Savannah, looks set to become Africa’s key technology hub. With a fast-growing urban economy and a young and digitally savvy population, it is already easier to pay for a taxi by mobile phone in Nairobi than it is in London or New York. Since 2002 Kenya’s technology services sector has grown to more than £300 million (2013) up from just £11 million. And VC funding for African startups, which hit more than $400 million in 2014, is projected to grow to at least $1 billion by 2018. Google, Intel, Nokia, Vodafone, and Microsoft have already opened sites in Nairobi. And IBM has chosen the city for its first African research lab (a $100 million Innovation Centre).

A mobile economy 

At root, this technology renaissance has been spurred by mobile phone penetration. Back in 1999, Kenya, as with most of the Africa region, had a rudimentary telecommunications infrastructure and counted only 300,000 landline telephones. Over the last decade, it has proved easier and cheaper for the country to bypass the analogue age entirely and instead move directly to installing mobile phone networks. Mobile phones are also easily accessible, cheap, and practical, especially when compared with a computer. And unsurprisingly in just a few years mobile phone penetration in Kenya has grown from less than 20% to 85% (it’s 89% in the US).

At the same time, Kenya lacks a traditional banking infrastructure. Until recently, for example, the high proportion of Kenya’s urban population working to support family members in the countryside relied on hand delivery or sending cash through bus drivers. And the combination of these two elements has created the perfect setting for a mobile payments-based economy.

In 2007, state-owned telecoms company Safaricom launched M-PESA, the SMS-based money-transfer system (pesa is Swahili for “money”). Converting even the most basic phones into roaming banking devices, M-PESA spread at speed. And by 2012, more than 17 million Kenyans (70% of the adult population) were using mobile payments, the highest percentage of any country in the world. Now more than $320 million dollars are transferred via Kenyan mobile phones each month as huge swathes of previously unbanked customers join the digital economy. Safaricom also sells solar-powered charging equipment to expand the market.

mpesaGovernment support

With a 40% unemployment rate to solve, the Kenyan government is also supporting the country’s technology renaissance, determined to leverage the opportunity to create jobs and drive sustainable economic growth for the next generation.

In 2009, the East African Marine system, backed by the Kenyan government, laid a 5,000 km fiber-optic undersea cable linking the coastal town of Mombasa with the UAE. And since this time, internet penetration has grown to just under 67% of the population. This is a significant growth from 2010 when internet penetration was around just 14%.

It has created a fertile marketplace for e-commerce and tech businesses, in which the government continues to invest. In 2013 the government formed an Information Communication Technology (ICT) Authority. It laid out a policy roadmap, Vision 2030, focusing on digital infrastructure (e.g. a new fiber-optic network). And it is currently building a multi-billion dollar “techno city” called Konza with aims to create 200,000 jobs by 2030. Located 60 km south of Nairobi, a 2,000-hectare plot will offer office parks for science and technology firms, a university, retail outlets, and residential facilities. Tax breaks are also being offered to companies willing to move to the new city.

A tech ecosystem

A tech ecosystem is also starting to emerge. Where traditional ecosystems may be lacking, Silicon Savannah is filling the gap with innovation hubs and accelerators. The trend has been led in part by Ushahidi co-founder Erik Hersman who considers the future of tech in Kenya reliant on hubs to bring together technology entrepreneurs, young programmers, creative professionals, and investors, along with their ideas and innovation. “Hubs in major cities with a focus on young entrepreneurs… Part open community workspace (co-working), part investor and VC hub and part idea incubator. The nexus point for technologists, investors, [and] tech companies,” says Hersman. Ushahidi established the iHub innovation Centre in 2010, and since then it has been part of creating 152 startups and counts 15,000 members. iHub has also partnered with the ICT Authority on several initiatives, has hosted speakers including Yahoo’s Marissa Mayer, and has driven an upsurge in different types of innovation hubs across the continent.

Accelerators are also part of the emerging ecosystem. A particularly successful example is Nailab, which launched in 2011 to work with early stage globally scalable startups. So far it has incubated 30 companies, and in 2013 it partnered with the government to launch a $1.6 million technology program providing entrepreneurs with access to capital, education, and contacts within the industry. Tech competitions are also emerging. For example, the IPO48 startup competition brings together over 100 Kenyan entrepreneurs, programmers, designers, and project managers at a time, to build a new mobile or web service over the course of two days.

In Kenya, the stars of mobile and internet penetration, a mobile economy, developing infrastructure, and government support have aligned, and there are great opportunities ahead. And as its global reputation for innovation continues to grow, the country has the chance to future-proof itself both as an economic driver and Africa’s key technology hub.

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African Solutions to African Problems: Ushahidi is Taking the Internet to the Next Five Billion

Comments (1) Africa, Featured, Leaders

Ushahidi's BRCK

Representing a new frontier of innovation in Africa, non-profit technology collective Ushahidi is developing African solutions to African problems

“If it works in Africa, it will work anywhere,” is the motto of Ushahidi, a Kenyan non-profit technology collective which designs and builds open source software and digital tools to help people in the developing world.

Indeed, while in the West technological possibilities are being stretched to their bounds, across Africa something as seemingly straightforward as an Internet connection is unreliable. Figures from the East African Community (EAC) suggest 90% of schools and 30% of hospitals are still off-grid. Only 24% of the developing world is connected to the internet. And, as Ushahidi comments, “power spikes and outages are everyday occurrences in Nairobi and across Sub-Saharan Africa, no matter your income level”. But in a region lacking adequate roads and clean water, developing reliable Internet connectivity is simply not a priority for governments.

There are a number of Western companies working to solve the problem – and at the same time bringing their products to the world’s next five billion Internet users. For example Google has ProjectLink Uganda and LoonBalloon, and Microsoft is experimenting with the TV White Spaces spectrum. But Ushahidi has developed an African solution that really might solve the African problem.

The Internet back-up generator BRCK

Designed to be an “internet back-up generator”, Ushahidi has developed BRCK, a piece of hardware that offers rugged and reliable connectivity. Working like a phone, it can be used in any area that gets mobile signal, as it works by intelligently and seamlessly switching as per the need between the strongest network types in the vicinity (broadband, Ethernet cable, Wifi, CDMA, and 3G or 4G mobile phone networks). It supports up to 20 wireless connections at a time. And it also has up to 16 gigabytes of storage space and a BRCK Cloud connection so it can serve as a back-up server and sync with connected devices and cloud applications.

Designed to face Africa-specific environments, the portable hardware handles the heat and dust of even the most demanding environments. And while it connects to the mains, is also comes with about 8 hours of power back up, can be charged via a car battery, or plugged to a solar charger, combating the region’s lack of reliable energy sources.

“As the next 4.5 billion people (65% of the world) start coming online, the need for rugged, reliable, and simple connectivity becomes critical in places with poor infrastructure and limited resources. While existing technologies work well in modern cities, the demands of emerging markets necessitates a rethinking of how technology is engineered, packaged, delivered, and supported. BRCK was conceived in exactly this type of environment. In particular, our struggles in Africa with reliable connectivity inspired us to rethink the entire concept of rugged internet access device – designing the world’s first go-anywhere, connect-to-anything, always available internet device,” says Ushahidi.

Ushahidi driving innovation in Africa

Indeed, Ushahidi, which is part of the thriving Kenyan tech start-up scene – nicknamed the Silicon Savannah -, developed BRCK as a solution to its own problems. “As a company full of engineers working in places with poor infrastructure, we simply couldn’t get connected as reliably as our peers in the developed world”.

Ushahidi designed and developed BRCK with $172,000 raised on Kickstarter. And in doing so, pushed another frontier of innovation in Africa. Crowdfunding is a relatively new phenomenon in the region, but Ushahidi’s Kickstarter success has kick-started crowd-funded entrepreneurship and innovation.

UshahidiExpanding technology’s reach

Co-founder Ory Okolloh, previously Google’s policy manager for Africa and named by Forbes as “one of the most influential women in global technology”, is committed to bringing the benefits of technological innovation to Africa. The company’s first project, for example, was a location-based crowdsourcing crisis-tracker map developed in the wake of Kenya’s 2007 post-election violence. Empowering individuals to document and report incidents in real time, the software allows users to text, email, tweet, or photograph information which is then plotted on to a map. The idea is that media, governments, and relief organizations can see a live picture of what’s happening on the ground and can target responses in real-time. The map has since been used in India during the 2008 Mumbai attacks, during the Haiti earthquake in 2010, and in Japan during the tsunami in 2011. It has also been used to log medicine shortages across Africa and reports of violence in the Middle East.  The company takes its name from this piece of software; “Ushahidi” means “testimony” in Swahili.

And the company is currently expanding its reach with the launch of a digital classroom – the Kio Kit. Ushahidi explains: “You open a box and there are 40 tablets inside, there is a BRCK inside and on the BRCK there is a Linux [open-source] server — so we can locally cache educational content, and serve it up to the tablets.” Ever prepared for the African environment, the modem is in a watertight, hardened-plastic wheeled suitcase and acts as a wireless charging station.

African solutions to African problems has become a bit of a catchphrase, but the impact of socially motivated entrepreneurs could have huge implications for the technological development of the region.

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