Growing Africa’s start-up digital economy in a pandemic

African solutions for African problems? Innovation is everywhere – look beyond SADC, says CG Consulting’s sales and marketing director for EMEA, Louise Robinson.

Johannesburg, 07 May 2021
Louise Robinson, CG Consulting Sales & Marketing Director, EMEA.
Louise Robinson, CG Consulting Sales & Marketing Director, EMEA.

Throughout Africa, there are many innovative start-ups using technology in unique ways that have seen them not only survive, but thrive during the coronavirus pandemic. From Mauritius to Mozambique, Ghana to Guinea, rural African businesses are incredibly inventive, overcoming barriers and catching the eyes of big funders with the goal of improving the lives of those around them. While fintech and health start-ups continue to receive backing from NPOs and international foundations – a recent report from Disrupt Africa shows that African e-health start-ups raised more capital last year than they did in all of the previous five years combined – there are many other uniquely African start-ups that play a crucial role assisting rural communities tackling issues.

“NGOs and start-ups are hugely reliant on technology. With COVID-19, the focus turned very quickly from business to humanitarian,” says Louise Robinson, CG Consulting’s sales and marketing director for EMEA. “And we can’t only be talking about Nigeria and Kenya, there are other big hubs like Egypt. There may be language, cultural and technology barriers, but the innovation in Africa is incredible and they’ve had to roll out technology much faster and much cheaper.”

With over 100 million informal small businesses in Africa that contribute to 70% of the continent’s employment, micro and small enterprises (MSEs) are the backbone of the continent. Boost Ghana’s focus is small retailers and enabling them to grow by easing business administration, digitising operations, improving access to working capital and reducing the cost of doing business, while providing suppliers with efficient access to MSE customers on the ground. In the middle of the pandemic, the Ghanaian start-up received up to $120 000 in capital funding from Catalyst Fund that will help them to impact the livelihoods of thousands of informal MSE owners.

Agritech start-ups are transforming farming in Africa, and in Uganda, Bringo Fresh is determined to end food wastage, which, according to its research, starts before the products even get to the market. Understanding why customers were paying high prices for poor quality produce led Bringo Fresh to rethink the supply chain for smallholder farmers. This e-commerce platform is helping farmers, their families and the communities around them, from Kampala to Wakiso.

Agriculture is an important part of the Nigerian economy, with 49% of the estimated 200 000 000 Nigerians who live in rural areas working in the field. CashCow NG is a crowdfunding platform out of Lagos, Nigeria, which has opened up livestock investing for everyone and at the same time, is tackling food insecurity in the country. By building an online marketplace where agricultural commodities like cattle and other livestock can be bought and sold, CashCow NG connects farmers looking for investment to grow their farms to individuals looking to invest in agriculture without direct participation.

In Zambia, farmers and other rural business owners lack access to affordable, available and appropriate equipment for key business ventures. Without productive assets, these entrepreneurs are unable to grow their businesses. Founded in 2010, Rent to Own (RTO) is a social business that provides high-impact assets (like refrigerators, hammer mills and irrigation pumps) to micro-entrepreneurs in rural Zambia. Not only does RTO help potential clients to select their assets, they provide distribution at a lower cost, personalised financing and training services.

Malawi’s SmartDiaspora is the first online platform dedicated to the diaspora, helping Malawian expats invest in property back home. The start-up focuses on affordability and sustainability – SmartDiaspora can get an affordable and quality Durabric home built in 12 to 16 weeks, negotiate with local loan brokers on your behalf and help with purchasing building materials in the form of vouchers, redeemable only against building materials. While SmartDiaspora is currently only available in Malawi, it will be expanding its services to Kenya and the Ivory Coast.

Around the world, over 100 million children live in urban, low-income areas without access to early childhood education – 60% of these children are in sub-Saharan Africa – yet in Africa, education has failed to make it to the top of the agenda for policymakers. Zimbabwe’s Simba Education, a social business, is looking to change these statistics. Simba gives teachers with inadequate skills the tools they need to deliver a quality, competitive education. They use innovative mobile technologies designed to reach low-connectivity areas.

A lot of the work these businesses do relies on funding from NGOs and foundations and there are as many as the start-ups themselves. While some are well-known, such as the United Nations, World Bank and the World Health Organisation (WHO), there are numerous others, like The Roger Federer Foundation and the Trevor Noah Foundation, which both support education initiatives. Microsoft, Google and Dell – via the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation – all have active programmes running targeting African youth and tech innovation.

Even in the midst of a global pandemic, 2020 was a groundbreaking year for African start-ups, with nearly 400 companies securing over $700 million worth of investment. Africa is embracing technology in its own unique way – there cannot be a one-size-fits-all approach for a continent comprising 45 countries – and the world is taking note.