Kenya: Who Got Funded in 2014?

Which tech companies were funded in Kenya in 2014? I thought I’d compile a list of the ones I know of.

Send me any that I might have missed.

Early stage capital

Angani – Public cloud computing provider
BRCK – Rugged, wireless WiFi device
CardPlanet – Mobile money payment system aimed at business and NGOs
iProcure – Software for optimizing rural supply chains
OkHi – Physical addressing system for logistics solutions
Sendy – Motorcycle delivery service
Tumakaro – Diaspora driven education funding
Umati Capital – Factoring for farmer cooperatives, traders and processors
GoFinance – Working capital finance to distributors of FMCGs
BuyMore – Electronic student discount card
TotoHealth – SMS technology for children’s health
BitPesa – Bitcoin for African remittances
Sokonect – Mobile agriculture tool to eliminate brokers
BookNow – Buy bus tickets online in East Africa
Mdundo – African music on your phone
Futaa – Source for football news in Kenya
Movas – Global provider of B2B/B2C m-Commerce solutions
Hivisasa – A free, county-level online newspaper
Yum – Online ordering and food delivery service in Kenya
Akengo – Learning management system
EcoZoom – Hardware. Clean burning, portable wood and charcoal powered cookstoves
Jooist – A gaming network for mobile phones
Globa.li – A platform to connect hotels and distributors for bookings

Growth capital

MKopa – solar power financing using mobile money
BuyRentKenya – Real estate classifieds
Wave – US-to-Kenya remittance provider
Eneza Education – Mobile tutor and teacher’s assistant
Sanergy – hardware tech, building solutions for urban toilets and composting
Bridge International – Education in low-income environments, uses tech to send teaching content
Soko – Handmade jewelry and accessories shopping from East Africa
EatOut – Find and book seats in East African restaurants

Exited/Acquired

M-Ledger (by Safaricom) – Monitor your Mpesa transactions
Wezatele – Mobility solutions in commerce, supply chain, distribution and mobile payment integration

A special thanks to John Kieti, Rebecca Wanjiku, Nikolai Barnwell, and Ben Lyon for refreshing my memory!

Broadening the Base of the Startup Pyramid

While in London at the RGS event I spoke about a different way that I’ve been trying to explain the startup and successful ecosystem needed in places like Africa. Specifically, in the major technology hubs for the continent, these are cities; Nairobi, Jo’burg, Accra, Lagos and Cairo. There seems to be enough funding available for SMEs. How do we get more of them?

It goes something like this.

We have a few good success stories in any one of these cities. There are a handful of great tech companies and organizations that have “made it”. This can be seen as a success in innovation or in business (or in both). Everyone wants to be at the tip of this, and these are the examples we hear of at international conferences and read about in the media.

In the middle we have everyone else, the guys who are still slugging away. They have some clients and revenue streams, but they’re not at the top (yet).

At the bottom, that’s what we deal with in places like the iHub and m:lab. These are those scrappy startups that might or might not have any right being in the place. They’re risky, probably don’t have a solid business model yet, and only a few of them will graduate into the SME space above them.

What to do?

To make the tip of the pyramid bigger, to have more success stories in the tech space, there is only one option: you have to make the base of the pyramid broader.

If your job is to see more innovative new tech companies come out of Africa, the recipe is quite simple:

  • Invest seed funds into local tech entrepreneurs.

(that’s my only bullet point, it’s that simple)

Crowdfunding and Seed Funding in African Tech

I’ve written a couple of times about the lack of seed funding in Africa, and how to find the entrepreneurs to fund if you did have seed capital. We’re starting to see a few angel investors like Sean Murphy of Chembe Ventures making their way around the continent, but they are not nearly enough to fulfill the capacity of ideas and individuals who need startup capital.

Crowdfunding

Just this week the CrowdFunding South Africa site was launched (look for them at SXSW this week in Austin), working off the theory that, “South Africa cannot compete in the global online sector if it isn’t funding start-ups at the beginning stage.” Their plan is to do this by getting:

“1000 people get together investing R1,000+ each by pooling the money into the Crowdfund.”

Seed funding is risky, and the idea of Crowdfund is to distribute that risk over a number of people thereby reducing it for everyone. Their goal is to invest 50,000-100,000 Rand in 10-20 “excellent ideas”, and also provide legal advice and contracts, designers, specialized developers, bandwidth, hosting, office space and running costs, mentorship and time saved.

This idea is similar to what Ben White at VC4Africa is thinking about, basically a “Kiva on steroids” as Bill Zimmerman puts it. A way for you to invest in people and projects with larger sums of money and greater risk and returns than on the microfinance investing sites.

Finding the Real Tech Entrepreneurs

Both the Crowdfund and VC4Africa initiatives are excellent steps in the right direction, as they both provide platforms that allow less-knowledgeable investors (of tech in Africa), and deeply involved African tech investors alike, to get involved without too much risk at one time. There remains one issue to be solved though, and that is finding the entrepreneurs to invest in.

Any VC worth their salt will tell you that they invest in the people behind good ideas, not just the product/service that the entrepreneur is trying to create. So, how do you find these individuals? It’s generally through your network, people you trust, that serve as a filter to guide you towards the promising ones. That’s the same in Africa as it is anywhere else, yet here in Africa, there are fewer of these trusted intermediaries who act as filters (especially for international capital), than there are in the US or Europe.

In a meeting this last week of the people behind Limbe Labs (Cameroon), Appfrica Labs (Uganda), the iHub and the iLAB (Kenya) we discussed how these spaces could act as that type of a filter for investors and funds. Each of us sees more young tech entrepreneurs every day, and sees these individuals consistently, than most any other single person could by themselves.

Could these labs, which are now showing up all over Africa, be a way for entrepreneurs to make themselves known, show their stuff, then be introduced to the funds and investors with a greater level of confidence than normal?

Hurdles of High-Tech Entrepreneurs in Africa

Morris Mbetsa is a 19 year old Kenyan with a lot of good ideas. If that was all, he wouldn’t be that special, however, he actually builds prototypes of his ideas and they end up being quite extraordinary. The first time we covered his “Block and Track” SMS-based vehicle security system on AfriGadget. This time he’s come up with a web application – the “Wakenya” system for tracking Kenyan citizens virtually via mobile and web.

The frustrations of tech entrepreneurship in Africa

Morris and I got together shortly after his first system was created. He shared a couple other ideas beyond that first invention with me.

He had received a lot of attention due to the Kenyan TV coverage, but it hadn’t turned into any real money for him. No one within Kenya was interested, either as a business partner or funder. There were a couple international groups that were trying to angle in on him, but when I spoke to him he didn’t know or trust them. What he had was all the makings of a sad story of inventiveness leading to… nothing.

This is our story in Africa isn’t it? How so?

  • We’re continually fighting to get our own money people interested in what we’re doing. We lack seed capital and no one locally cares.
  • We need business mentors that we can trust, ones that we’re not always worried about being fleeced by overnight. Ones that aren’t just looking out for how they can either steal the idea, the IP or the equity.
  • Lacking any local funding or business partners, we hope that an international funder will notice us.
  • If we’re able to get international attention, the next trick is trying to figure out if any of these people are real, honest or legitimate.

It’s frustrating. Why won’t anyone locally come in and fund an idea? Not just an idea, as in the case of Morris Mbetsa and others like Steve Mutinda, but real prototypes. These are working models. (I could go off on a tangent talking about all of the great software developers in Africa who talk a lot about good ideas but never build them – but that’s another post). No, these kinds of guys actually build the prototype first, then try to find someone to fund it. Basically, they’re doing it the right way.

Does the government have a role?

It should, but only in so much as they create a system which limits the hurdles that entrepreneurs need to overcome to create a business, get funding and bring their ideas to market (not just for tech, but for everything). Private investment should be the lion’s share of this type of growth for the country, but in Morris’ case, he’s created a system for Government, so there should be some government funding for just this type of activity.

In fact, Kenya went so far as to create the ICT Board a couple years ago for this express reason:

“To rapidly and innovatively transform Kenya through promotion of ICT for socio-economic enrichment of our society.”

Here we have a young Kenyan with (many) good ideas and prototypes. He needs some structural support though, and we hope he gets it before the vultures descend. I know Paul Kukubo, Al Kags and a couple others within this group – they’re good people and have big ideas themselves. I know that they’re trying to come up with big structural ways for Kenyans to access ICT services and for Kenya to become an global ICT hub.

My question is this: How will that ever be the case if guys like Morris Mbetsa don’t have the requisite government structures in place to allow them to succeed?

3 groups and food for thought

We have a foundational investment-in-innovation problem in many parts of sub-Saharan Africa. If Kenya is one of the top 5 African hubs for technology, then we know that the rest of the countries are in similar or worse conditions than this. What is it going to take for us to truly setup an ecosystem of entrepreneurship and the structures that support innovation, especially in the tech sphere?

1. Outside investment as catalyst
I’m starting to wonder if it will take a concerted effort by investors in the international space who can inject large amounts of capital into business ideas that have potential. Why international, isn’t local good enough? Normally it would be, but international investment comes with some benefits that local investment doesn’t. As anyone who lives in places like Nairobi knows, almost any money you take locally comes with two problems. First, it’s usually a small amount given for an excessive demand on equity. Second, it comes with political ramifications that tend to compromise the receiver of the funds.

Is what we really need a shakeup? A wake-up call for the local investor to realize that they will miss out on the big ideas and products if they don’t create a local system that allows real innovation to flourish, grow and enrich the inventors.

2. Government mechanisms for entrepreneurs
Outside investment as a catalyst for change in this space is one possible idea, but it’s not enough. As mentioned earlier we also need someone within our highly-bureaucratic government system to create a channel for entrepreneurs and investors to act. This could be accelerated business entity creation, and it would likely include lowering certain licensing terms and restrictions. My guess is it would also mean a structure for low-interest business loans as well.

3. A united technology community
Lastly, we need the technology community itself to band together. This is coming into being in a few countries, places where we have techies networking and creating relationships with business people and government. We’re starting to see when an investor comes into town, people okay with sharing the names of other entrepreneurs that have good ideas, and not trying to just tie that investor down with their own stuff.

While there will always be competition, lets put aside the tendency to pull someone else down when they’ve achieved some modicum of success. Instead, trumpet the small wins and help each other get ahead. Goodwill pays off so much better in the long run.

Finally

You can see this is something that I’ve been thinking about a great deal, and it bothers me to no end. For, if we don’t fix this we’ll continue to have the best and brightest head to other parts of the world – there is no industry where this is easier to do than the digital one. With them goes all the intellectual capital, inspiration and revenue that would further enrich our own continent.

I’m determined to play my part in seeing change happen. I want to see real technology powerhouses grow within Africa – ultimately with African investors and with solutions that will take the world by storm.

[Interesting update on Morris]

Uganda’s Appfrica Labs

Jon Gosier runs Appfrica Labs. He’s been hard at work over the last year promoting technology all over Africa on his blog, and at the same time building a base for the technology incubator Appfrica Labs that he launched late last year with some external funding from European VC firm Kuv Capital. Jon is one of the most capable, energetic and social programmers that I know. He is entrepreneurial, understands the business side of things as well as the nuts and bolts of developing. In short, he’s about the perfect person to put your money behind if you’re going to invest in the African startup tech space.

Appfrica Labs Staff

Innovation in Uganda, by Ugandans, for Uganda

There’s something very powerful about the focus that Jon is applying to Appfrica Labs. I’m sure that there are opportunities and applications that he will incubate that stretch beyond Uganda, but he’s taking a measured approach. There’s enough low-hanging fruit in Uganda for him work on, so he’s starting there.

“The mission is to offer opportunities and work experience for East African software entrepreneurs so that they can then use their talents to bolster the growing local markets by creating their own products and companies. We pick up where local colleges like Makerere University leave off by offering hand-on experience in Java, C++, C#, Ruby on Rails, Django and Python, PHP, Perl, Kannel and various other programming languages that often can’t be taught in-depth in classes due to budget restraints.”

Jon notes that there are over 60,000 Facebook users in Kampala, and instead of creating yet another social network, he has decided to focus a fair bit of early development into this platform. He doesn’t focus on Twitter or other “hot Web 2.0 apps” which aren’t being used there by enough people yet.

Proof is in the development

A good example of this local Uganda focus is the apps and tools that are being developed right now. Here are just a couple examples, and I know first-hand that there are more on the way shortly:

Status.ug – an inexpensive, and efficient, mobile gateway for Ugandans to update Facebook via their mobile phone.

Answer Bird - UgandaAnswer Bird – Uses Facebook Connect to allow questions to be asked and answered in a Twitter-like interface more here).

OhmSMS – Get an SMS when your power is off at home or at the office, simply by keeping a cheap mobile phone plugged into an outlet.

Why this works

Appfrica Labs is not only a great idea, but it’s a blueprint for a new way for technologists to band together and create something in the face of a lot of difficulties in Africa. We all know of the problems faced when trying to get seed capital, or of the lack of traction when trying to sell ideas to the government or big businesses within a country.

What Jon has been able to do is create a brand which others can rally around and push their efforts forward as a collective. It’s about marketing, messaging and communication. He’s made a lot of headway for not just himself, but the other entrepreneurs in Uganda due in no small part to the hard work and late nights put into his blog, creating his own code, and promoting his message at conferences.

We have yet to see the final outcome of all this labor, but it’s an extremely strong start that leaves me optimistic about the future of Appfrica Labs and any other innovation hubs that pop up around Africa. Rebecca Wanjiku is right, Africans should stop whining and work smart, collectively to get new technology built, released and adopted throughout the continent.