17 July 2018

Africa: Google Takes African Startups Under Its Wings

Silicon Valley giant Google is expanding its regional mentorship programme for top early-stage technology startups in Africa, with the aim of helping them become commercially viable.

The Launchpad Accelerator Africa programme started off with six countries at its launch eight months ago -- Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Ghana, Nigeria and South Africa.

Beneficiary firms received $10,000 each equity-free cash grants, and have so far raised more than $7 million between them.

Now Google has spread its wings to include technology startups in Rwanda, Zimbabwe, Cameroon, Botswana, Senegal, Ethiopia, Cote d'Ivoire, Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria.

At stake is $3 million in funding, working space and access to expert advisers from Silicon Valley and Africa, over the next three years.

Folagbade Olatunji-David, who heads startup success and services at the Launchpad Accelerator Africa programme said that in order to benefit, the startup must seek to find solutions to a need in its home city, country or Africa, and create value for its users.

"These startups must be based in sub-Saharan Africa, their target must be the African market, and they need to have raised seed funding," said Mr Olatunji-David.

The EastAfrican spoke to startups participating in the first phase of the programme about their experiences and vision:

OkadaBooks - Nigeria

OkadaBooks is a marketplace for users in Africa to quickly publish, distribute and sell their digital content, and for users to access cheaper books than conventional bookstores via a digital device.

OkadaBooks was founded by Jude Nwoko. He came up with the name while riding an Okada (motorcycle taxi) in 2013.

He noticed how the motorcycles were able to navigate Lagos' gridlocked traffic, offering a cheaper, faster and more efficient means of transportation.

OkadaBooks bypasses the "traffic" in the book publishing industry including poor distribution and high printing costs. Earnings are paid directly to user bank accounts.

"My experience of trying to get bookstores to carry my self-published book How Stupidity Saved My Life was frustrating. It pushed me to create the application. I used it to sell my second book," said Mr Nwoko.

OkadaBooks fuses the simplicity of blogging with e-commerce and strips down the publishing process to a bare minimum. The app has a DRM Protector to guard against piracy, a growing concern for publishers across the globe.

"We are leveraging on the penetration of mobile devices to digitally distribute and sell books across the continent, utilising several payment platforms," said Mr Nwoko.

The start-up plans to raise $125,000 by the end of this year and attain a 12,000 monthly book sales platform over the next year.

So far it has more than 211,000 registered users, 35,000 monthly active readers and has clocked up more than 2,000 book sales.

Teheca - Uganda

Teheca is a digital health service start-up that creates better experiences for invalids and mothers during pregnancy, delivery and postnatal care.

The Teheca app helps users find a dedicated care assistant for their loved ones when they are unable to be there for them. The care givers help the women with daily living chores, ensure doctors' orders are carried out and offer companionship.

"Teheca rose out of the need to provide each individual with a tailored care plan during illness or pregnancy. We have evolved from offering home patient and post-natal services in Uganda to the uptake of maternal healthcare services through mobile and web applications. Our team works from home or in a hospital setting. We provide these services day and night," said founder Daniel Ruyonga.

Founded in 2015, the start-up targets young people of childbearing age, pregnant mothers, new mothers as well as hospital and healthcare institutions that offer maternity services.

"Our platform allows both the mother and the hospital to initiate a consultation session and empower the mother to search for the closest health workers who suit their needs. So far, the response has been positive. We are currently working with the Ministry of Health to develop products for public hospitals," said Mr Ruyonga.

"With the understaffed health centres in Uganda, an alternative healthcare workforce will make it easier for families with loved ones who need support to find care givers quickly and easily, give them access to healthcare information and mentor new mothers."

Babymigo - Nigeria

Babymigo is a fast growing community for expectant mothers and young parents.

It offers information in local languages, and connects users with experts and hyperlocal childcare services via short messaging, a mobile app and web portal.

"Founded last year, this company was inspired by my experience working with expectant and nursing mothers in maternity clinics across Nigeria. I realised that they lacked a support system during their most critical time of parenting," said one of the co-founders Adeloye Olanrewaju.

Babymigo uses simple mobile technology that is accessible to every mother irrespective of her social status or location.

"We're building the most trusted support network for moms and moms-to-be irrespective of their social status or geographic location. On the Babymigo platform, mothers ask questions and get prompt answers from experienced moms and medical experts. They have group chats with experts, connect with moms in the same age group and city, find, book and review local maternity and childcare services, and also get to read mother and baby articles," said Mr Olanrewaju.

He added: "We have more than 75,000 registered users so far and have helped mothers answer more than 20,000 questions. We want to reach five million mothers over the next three years and so help reduce avoidable infant deaths."

FlexPay- Kenya

Founded in March last year, FlexPay is an SMS-based platform that helps customers pay for essential goods and services piecemeal through their mobile phones.

The platform allows a customer to reserve an electronic product in their favourite retail store in Kenya by depositing a given amount, then complete the payments in instalments using the mobile money platform M-Pesa over a specified period.

FlexPay targets the unbanked and underbanked in developing economies who do not have the financial muscle to pay for most goods or services on a one-off basis.

"The idea was born when we faced difficulties raising money to buy essential household electronic items. This gave us the idea to develop a platform that would provide the low-end segment of the market with a piecemeal payments gateway," said one of the co-founders Johnson Gituma.

The company is currently working with Tuskys retail chain to offer piecemeal payment solutions for its electronic goods.

"We are in the business of enabling flexible payments for merchants and their customers for the purchase of goods and services through mobile money and bank transfers. For merchants, the model increases sales of inventory, resulting in higher profit and goods/services sold. For the customer, it provides a cheap, convenient and simple payment option to own goods they cannot afford," said Mr Gituma.

He added: "The platform is popular with low-income earners as it helps them use the little income they get to acquire goods. So far we have 3,000 agents registered in Kenya. Our three-year goal is to move beyond Kenya by taking advantage of East Africa's regional integration."

FlexPay is also developing a credit score mechanism for its customers as it seeks to offer a lending services platform as part of its growth plans.

Tango TV - Tanzania

Tango-TV is a video-on-demand service for African content that enables users to stream their favourite films, shows and TV episodes.

Users pay for the content via mobile money services and enjoy a wide variety of media content.

"With the penetration of Internet services across the continent, we saw an opportunity to deliver African films via digital means, an avenue that is gaining traction on the continent," said one of the co-founders, Victor Joseph.

He added: "We differentiate ourselves from competitors by offering hyper localised content targeting customers on the continent. This service started with Kiswahili content and shows in East Africa but we now accommodate more content from Africa."

Tango TV was launched in 2016, and has more than 35,000 active users currently, making it the leading video-on-demand service for Kiswahili content. Its immediate goal is to reach 500,000 users offering them over 5,000 hours of film and TV programming.

"We already have a customised set-top box that allows users to watch any movie they want on their television screen at any time. We plan to scale across more countries in Africa, and are already in talks to expand our content to Francophone countries," said Mr Joseph.

Thrive Agric - Nigeria

Thrive Agric is a Nigerian start-up using crowdfunding to provide farmers with inputs, technology driven advice and access to the market.

The people and institutions that provide these funds in turn get regular updates on the farmer's progress and the profits are split after harvest.

"Thrive Agric was inspired by my experience running a company in the agricultural sector that was connecting farmers to the buyers. I discovered that farmers faced many challenges including access to markets, financing and information on the best farming practices," said a co-founder Ika Uje.

"We started Thrive Agric in June last year targeting smallholder farmers, processing companies and financial institutions and investors."

Thrive Agric now optimises yields using technology and data points, and infusing this with best farming practises.

Its farms are listed on the platform, with details of what it takes to fund a unit, such as an acre of tomatoes or soya bean, the farming timeline and the expected yields. Extension workers are deployed on all its farms, and they in turn report to a consulting team.

"Our extension workers have a customised app that collates data of farmers and farm operations. Our farmers also receive automated short text messages, based on crops they are planting.

"The co-ordinates of farms and crops planted, weekly satellite images, soil conditions and other analysis are taken to ensure accurate predictions of weather conditions and yields," said Mr Eje.

"So far we have harvested soya beans and tomatoes with a group of more than 15,000 farmers around Nigeria. Our target is to slowly scale this up to 100,000 farmers over the next three years. Investment in farming technology is the future of agriculture and we believe we are on the right path with our start-up."

Swift Vee - South Africa

Founded in 2016, Swift Vee is a technology platform for the livestock sector.

"We were inspired by South Africa's crippling droughts, which have caused extensive loss of livestock. Our review showed that we were losing livestock due to inefficiencies in farming practices," said co-founder Russel Luck.

The agri-platform addresses water scarcity, food security and market efficiency for the livestock sector. The start-up's goal is to facilitate the trading of livestock.

Swift Vee has been recognised as one of South Africa's 100 most innovative companies with a global scale up potential.

"The fellowship has allowed us to extend our value proposition to a broader channel of stakeholders in the agricultural segment. So far we have thousands of farmers and customers on board," said Mr Luck.

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