The scale of DRC and its problems can sometimes seem completely overwhelming but every country has to start somewhere. Next week sees the second edition of Kinshasa Digital Week that brings together start-ups with potential private sector partners and Government. Russell Southwood spoke to one of its co-founders Jean-Louis Mbaka about how it all started and what it does.
Kinshasa Digital week (https://www.kinshasadigitalweek.com/) takes place 12-13 April 2019. This tech ecosystem event is now in its second year and is going from strength to strength. The two-day event has one day devoted to the industry (B2B) and the other open to the general public.
The idea for the event came from the three co-founders (of which Mbaka is one) who run a software company called Kinshasa Digital:"Whilst working for companies we noticed a huge gap in terms of tech penetration and general knowledge of tech. We concluded we should get in contact with start-ups working in the tech ecosystem. We noticed a lot of start-ups created products but didn't target companies. As we had contact with both and a great knowledge of start-ups, we felt it would be a good opportunity to bring them together to make a business. So we decided to create an event that would gather decision-makers together, both international and national".
The idea of connecting the start-up ecosystem to the wider world of business is threaded into the fabric of the event. On the first day there is a meeting session between 30 tech leaders and large companies. Other sessions include Administration 2.0: Bringing citizens closer to public services (with the digital adviser to the Ministry of Health); Connectivity, Regulation and Infrastructure - The "must haves"; and Digital Financial Inclusion - a new vector of development. DRC's Minister of Health will be in attendance for a session looking at how digital might improve health coverage.
Day two which is open to the public includes sessions on: digital skills and what companies need; the power of #digital local content (with some of DRC's leading broadcasters); and solutions for start-ups in Kinshasa.
DRC is a huge country of 85 million people with many large regional cities and has barely any paved roads. The task for any digital ecosystem is enormous:"The tech ecosystem in DRC is pretty nascent. It's only in recent years that more people have been getting interested. There's a couple of incubators. In Procoki in Kinshasa, there's an incubator that opened in June 2018 called Ingenious City". It provides the usual mix of co-working space (1,500 sq metres), meeting rooms, training and networking. When full, it envisages housing up to 40 start-ups and space has been reserved for women-led start-ups.
The founding company Sycomore-Venture Sarl describes itself as "a financial engineering company offering the Congolese market a vehicle to support the creation and development of companies that want to see their projects become reality". According to one of its founders Bernard Malaba Tshienda:"The platform is open to all entrepreneurs who have good projects and infrastructure for management".
There is also another incubator called Lumumba Lab which according to Mbaka "mostly incubates projects with social impact." The same organization has also launched a tech school for young girls.
Also there are incubators in other parts of the country
"We've been in contact with people in Lubumbashi. There's an incubator there called Sinaloo and there's also an incubator in Goma we know of. During our event, we'll be having a conference call with the Goma incubator".
So who are the interesting start-ups?
One of the most interesting start-ups is School App (https://www.schoolap.com/). It's a platform which allows schools to give students access to lessons. Parents can also use the platform to follow their childrens' progress. It won the start-up contest at the first edition of Kinshasa Digital week. It then went on to win the Congo heat of the Seedstars event and is now competing globally".
"Another interesting start-up is WapiMed (https://www.wapimed.com/), a platform to help people find the best doctor and it has now also launched a product called Medipay which allows someone from the Congolese diaspora to pay directly for the medicines needed for a relative in the country, thus avoiding them spending the money sent on something else".
The third interesting start-up he names is a local e-commerce market place called emart.cd (https://emart.cd), founded by Boni Mayi:"It's one of the only start-ups making good revenues."
Although there are 25 million mobile users and 5-6 million data subscribers, it is unclear how many of these data subscribers are actually active data users, probably a much smaller number. Downloads from the Play Store for the apps of the start-ups above are 1,000+:"Penetration is low but increasing rapidly. Data prices are going down and smartphones are becoming cheaper as well. Most people connect through mobile".
The appearance of the Health Minister at the event seems like it's breaking new ground so what does Mbaka think the role of Government might be?:"If we want to make substantial change to the tech ecosystem, we can't do it alone. It also about the laws and the operating environment (also through things like support grants). The Government sees tech as a way to develop the country".
Three main barriers exist to the fast development of the digital ecosystem. The first of these is the lack of access to funding to investment:"There's not a lot of sophisticated investors. Most investors put their money in real estate. There will be a big change if start-ups can access funding. There's probably only a couple of angel investors".
The second barrier Mbaka identifies is the mismatch between the education system and what the industry needs:"The education system needs to be more in line with what industry needs. It also needs to be up to date and follow the latest trends".
But the real kicker is internet connectivity and penetration:"It's still very low, although growing fast. If we manage to connect to more people, imagine the potential in a country of 80 million people".
Change is coming the question is how fast it will happen?
"I can't really say right now. Maybe over 5 years we'll double the existing numbers but I'm guessing". But there's no doubt that lower data prices and cheaper phones will create a wider user base, something that both the Government and the private sector knows makes sense.