Category Archives: Africa rising

There and Back Again II – Why You Need to Apply for DEMO Africa

OK, so 2 years after the fact, this guy David Marete, is dusting off an old story, which he should have completed way back then, published and simply moved on. This sounds very much like a has-ran looking back at their only claim to fame with a wistful look in their eye. IKR? So why are we revisiting this story?

Look, I made a promise to Harry Hare, the CEO of DEMO Africa, that I would (finally!) finish my second blog post on the DEMO Africa experience. Why is this important to him, or to you for that matter? Because DA have put out a call for applications and we want you to send in yours. ‘We’ in this case includes Harry Hare, myself and the DEMO Africa alumni community/fraternity. We will cover that fraternity section shortly.

So let’s get this out of the way. The entire message of this post is, APPLY FOR DEMO AFRICA!! If you are running a startup in Africa, are involved in one, or are considering where to launch a product or service APPLY!! Special bonus points to you if you know you are onto something special, the product is smoking hot, the market is ripening by the day and you are ready to totally kill it. APPLY!!! Crypto guys need not apply though. Just joking. So the point is…

Image result for we want you uncle sam

To apply.


So, What’s In It For You?

Why should you as a startup spend 2+ hours filling in some forms for something that feels like a lottery ticket, when you could be pushing code, capturing market share and making bank? Runways end right? Hockey sticks don’t just happen. Let’s get into the meat of it…

WIIFY 1: The Selection Process

We covered this a bit in the first post. If you’ve been on the startup scene for any duration of time, you have come across startup ‘competitions’ and ‘challenges’ with vague and opaque selection processes. The ones where the winners fly in from off-continent specifically for the competition. The ones where the winners announce their win an hour before the judges do. Oh and the judges and winners are pals/dating kinda? Or the ones where you need to pay some weird registration fee just to compete? DEMO Africa is not like that. Ok? Underscore, italics not like that. I did a bit of digging on the selection process. Sources close to the matter say that there are panels who look at 2 sets of 10 startups each. So each startup is assessed in two separate panels. The overall score for each startup is averaged across the panels in which they were assessed. In summary this selection process is rigorous, transparent and competitive. It is partly what makes DEMO Africa (DA) what it is. The outcome of this process is a rather talented set of entrepreneurs and startups ready to take on the world. If you are running a serious startup, you want that kind of pedigree. It doesn’t hurt.

WIIFY 2: The Experience Itself

I have done gigs. But none of them matched up to DA. This isn’t exaggeration. Let’s start with locations. Business is location, location, location, right? DA always chooses smoking hot locations for demo day. They don’t pull punches on this one. During our year it was Sandton City. Sandton City is an alternate reality my friend, a glitch in the matrix. I could gush about it but we don’t have the time.

DEMO Africa can be a surreal experience for the startuppers who are demoing. You thought you beat 95% of startups in Africa to come and fluff around? Or you thought people flew from all over the world to watch you pitch so that you could disappoint? My ninja… think again.

You land on day one. On day two you go in for bootcamp training so intense your head wants to boil. (Head boiling doesn’t happen often for me.) The training itself is 100% relevant and 99.99% accurate. On day 3 you submit and test your presentations. These are the final copies guys. You don’t submit decks five minutes before you mike-up. Beginning day four you are unleashed on an unsuspecting world.

There was a lady there called Nichola Hodgson. She and her team were amazing. They scripted and scheduled us through the rough cuts and the actual thing like clockwork. The variables they managed included, how many presenters are on the team? Are you running a Mac, Linux or Windows demo? Will you be streaming a mobile device? What’s your cable interface like, is it HDMI or VGA? Does the actual demo have sound or it’s all from your mike? If yes, at what point in your demo? Then watching all these variables come together on audio-visual for 15 presentations in a day, was just something else.

On the material day, Toby Shapshak was our mcee. I was so stressed backstage he came and told me to relax. At this point I could have passed out. A couple of months back me and my boys were watching Toby on CNBC Africa and now we are backstage of the same event? But passing out was not what we went to do!!

The actual demo is about 6 minutes of you pitching and then 4 minutes Q&A with a preselected panel. Know your stuff coz the panellists are razor sharp. My panel had Agatha Gikunda – Intel Corp, Llew Classen – Newtown Partners and Collins Onuegbu – Signal Alliance.

The opening and closing graphics for DA 2016 were also quite inspiring to say the least. To be honest I came away from both feeling half-jedi/half-wakanda if you get what I mean.

WIIFY 3: The People

The rolodex you acquire from DA is also something else. Let me rattle off a list of VC’s that I kinda know now. To quote Eminem, “So here’s my list and the order it’s in”

  1. Tommi D – Arguably the biggest name in angel investing in Africa.
  2. Collins Onuegbu – Signal Alliance. Probably chair of Nigeria’s angel network.
  3. Lexi Novistke – Singularity Investments. Levi is one of the bigger and more respected names among women in tech in Africa.
  4. Vinny Lingham – Investor on Dragon’s Den
  5. Stephen Ozoigbo – Innovate Africa. He was our trainer on the bootcamp preceding demo day. He has an encyclopaedic knowledge of the funding process and startup life.
  6. Llew Claasen – Newtown Partners
  7. Wim Van Der Beek – Goodwell Investments
  8. Farouk Jivani – Invested in and was one of the few Kenyan VC’s at the event. Kenyan VC’s are like black swans. You don’t know they exist until you meet them. (Or maybe I haven’t looked hard enough.)
  9. Tom Tshingano – IDF Managers
  10. Lia Mayka – At the time she was with Village Capital.
  11. Marcello Schermer – at the time he was with Seedstars World. He since moved to SA.
  12. Kezia Njeri was representing Viktoria Ventures whose principal is Stephen Gugu, the other Kenyan VC who was present as far as I know.

A couple of disclaimers are necessary at this point. One, I haven’t raised any funding. (These things take time!  lol) Two, I doubt whether most any of them remember me. But what you might not get from these names is that these are principals not analysts. These are the market leaders who will corral a team and shepherd them into a funding round. This network is where the deal action is, it’s where the competition is (but it’s also where the sharks are. Good luck!)

Other big names who were in attendance and I later got to meet included:

  1. Toby Shapshak – Hosts a weekly tech show on CNBC Africa. He is also an alumnus of TEDx.
  2. Amrote Abdella – Head of Microsoft Africa.
  3. Christine Nganga – Strategia Advisors Ltd. Worked on Wall Street
  4. Liz Muange – Trade Africa, official YALI alumnus
  5. Doyin Adewola – BoxOffice Nigeria
  6. John Kimani, Andy Volk and Aniedi Udo – Google SSA
  7. Idriss N’daho – Orange Africa

WIIFY 4: The Freebies

No other launchpad gives you as many freebies as DEMO Africa. Useful ones too. Seedstars tries yes. But DEMO knocks this one out of the park. All conferences need your signage and stuff. DA handles that for you. DA organises deal rooms so that VC’s can take you offline very fast, lock you down and sign some term sheets, if you get what I’m saying. Some of the training that they give you cannot be gotten from any measure of scouting the internet. These include how to handle VC’s, how to structure employee equity, personalised pitch deck coaching etc. I haven’t gotten come across this level of goodies anywhere else.

For the techies, these included AWS credits. There was another freebie that made a world of difference for me. I was on assignment with my startup in a foreign country and I realised I had to tweak some aspects of my technology stack. I popped into my freebies and pulled out a Visual Studio subscription that was just sitting there waiting for me. I used it just yesterday to update my Visual Studio Enterprise subscription. Without it my life would have been exponentially harder for 6 months. So courtesy of DA and Microsoft, my life was exponentially easier for 6 crucial months.

There’s a level of the DEMO Africa game that I failed to unlock. The top 5 startups get to visit Silicon Valley on an all-expenses paid tour in spring. How cool is that!

WIIFY 5: Credibility/Legitimacy

As you would well know the world revolves around trust and credibility. This is doubly so in the corporate world where I ply my trade. Unfortunately credibility for startups can be a very scarce resource.  Let me give you two examples of how DEMO Africa gave me more credibility.

I put up a youtube video of my demo during DEMO, then added that link to my email signature. Quite simply, my email response rates went up. It’s like people now had a reference point to see that what we are doing is verifiably legit.

The same email signature saved me in a spot of trouble late last year. I was on an implementation assignment in Kampala with the startup and I had a cash crunch. I needed to pay my rent and my cash wasn’t coming in for a week or two. So eventually I went to my host hat in hand and said, “I’m sorry. I’m out of pocket right now but cash is coming next week or so.” He told me, “I saw your youtube video. It’s fine. I trust you. You are legit.” Have you ever felt grateful? Somehow in the process of swapping interesting articles and links with my host, I had used my official email; the one with the automated signature; the signature that had the youtube link in it. He’s called Gary Mugisha by the way. Best host you can ever ask for in Kampala. Please don’t go abusing his kindness.

Did I mention that the youtube video was a very high quality recording from DA’s official videographer? This was yet another freebie from DA.

WIIFY 6: The Fraternity

If you are a startup CEO, you are a hero in your own right. If you are in Africa you deserve 2 extra medals. For goodness sake you are bearing the weight of the world and its ancestors on your shoulders. Chances are you are walking a very lonely path. However, you are not alone. DEMO Africa is a community of people who are positively rooting for you, who want you to succeed, who understand some of your challenges and are willing to open doors for you. This is something you don’t want to and shouldn’t walk away from. This is a culture with the DA team. In some hubs you will find some people who get it. But I found this to be the culture with the whole DA team – Harry, Pam Sinda, Hany Zuhudi, Francis Nderitu, Mbugua Njhia, the late Eng. Obuya (May he RIP.)

There is also the fraternity. The cohort looks out for each other. Are you visiting in my country? Please feel welcome, let me help you knock down doors.  Am in your country? Let’s meet up and discuss… Even non-cohort fellow alumni will generally speaking have your back.

Findings, Summary and Conclusion

Ok, so that’s it. You now have the full breakdown of why DEMO Africa is the launchpad of choice for game-changing technology and startups in Africa. (And also why this post took 2 years to write – I knew y’all would think it’s way too over the top.)

In short, there is no other launchpad that gives you as much as DEMO Africa does or will. Ok? There just isn’t. It remains unrivalled, unparalleled and unbeaten.

Please. Go and apply.

Bonus Facts: Past DEMO Africa Members

You have made it this far. Your attention span is long. Your patience is legendary. You have endured 2000+ words of inept selling. You are quite simply a champion. This is another reason why you need to apply.

So as a bonus for staying with us this long, here is a list of a few of the larger names on the continent that launched/made it into DEMO Africa.

  1. SpacePoint
  2. ZeePay
  3. SimbaPay
  4. Eventus
  5. OgaVenue
  6. Eduze
  7. WezaTele
  8. RoundBob
  9. BambaPOS
  10. InsureAfrika
  11. Lipisha
  12. iPay
  13. CarpartsNg
  14. Zuvaa

Again I ask: Please go and apply.



There and Back Again I: DEMO Africa 2016

“Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers… -Mac ad by Apple 1984

Yawn.. Stretch…     Ding! “Landing in 10 minutes. Cabin crew please take your seats…” Ding!  This was the captain of The Zambezi River on flight 761 from Johannesburg to Nairobi. I was waking up.  Shake my head… rub my eyes… The interesting thing is I hadn’t been asleep. I had been wide awake, but I was waking up from a dream. And that dream was DEMO Africa 2016. Pinch myself. Wake up sleepy head!

I will be honest with you DEMO has been on my bucket list since 2013. So this was a dream come true. And I really didn’t want to wake up J But besides it being a personal goal, DEMO Africa 2016 was a parallel universe. Otherworldly, overwhelmingly, different.

DEMO Africa is Africa’s best launchpad for its top startups. And when I say ‘best from Africa’ it very literally means that. This year the number of startups launched was 30 and this year about 720 startups from across Africa applied. Now by definition a startup is a curious thing. It has a sideways view of a value chain or gap which it then decides to get into and rearrange or fill. So when you get 700 startups applying, even if it is from across the continent, then you know that the future of entrepreneurship in Africa is bright. Going by these numbers DEMO Africa curates the top 0.5% of startups coming out of the continent over a given duration. Unverified sources tell me that there were panels looking at 2 sets of 10 startups each. So each startup was assessed by two separate panels. Thereafter the total scores per startup were averaged across all the panels which assessed them. In summary the selection process was rigorous, transparent and competitive. It is partly what makes DEMO Africa what it is. This process resulted in a talented set of entrepreneurs being selected. We shall discuss the Kenyan startups shortly and the rest of the startups in a later article.

2016 cohort.jpg

The 2016 Bootcamp Class.

For starters it was hosted at Sandton Convention Centre (SCC) which is South Africa’s biggest and best convention centre. So it is arguably the best in Sub Saharan Africa. Rumour has it that it is booked one year in advance. For example, the attendance was approximately 400-500 persons. The conference had one wi-fi network assigned to it and that network was always up and fast. This was covering all social media uploads and downloads – whatsapp, instagram, facebook, twitter, livestreams, periscope, snapchat etc. 500+ people.  As Willy Semaya captured in his article on twitter activity, there were 4500 tweets with the hashtag #DEMOAfrica. And that was only Twitter, and specifically that hashtag. And wifi was always on. That was just the wifi, which should give an indication as to the scale of SCC. We shall deal with the name Sandton later.

To dial it back a bit, I am from Nairobi, and we call Nairobi the Silicon Savanna of Africa – the unrivalled epicentre of innovation in Kenya and East Africa. There is a place similarly called the Silicon Cape of Africa and that is Cape Town. Cape Town has been running away with the brand of being the innovation and entrepreneurial hub of South Africa. Now Johannesburg, being the economic capital of SA has decided it will not just stand by and watch as that brand is stolen out from under its nose. And so in the past week, there was a series of events which planted it solidly on the map as a rival in that space.

  1. LeaderX was aimed at SME’s and spurring innovation not necessarily large scale, but SME’s and innovation all the same. It was geared towards a slightly older, more experienced demographic. A mid-career executives thinking of taking the big leap and unsure about what they were getting into.
  2. The launch of the South African Business Angels Network.
  3. Simodisa was an evening cocktail bringing together some people from within LeaderX and the South African Business Angel’s Network. The keynote speaker was one VC who goes by the name Vinny Lingham who is one of the sharks on Sharktank SA, in other words our version of Kris Senanu or Myke Rabar. At Simodisa I had the opportunity of meeting a mid-career oil and gas engineer with 3 patents about to launch out. He inspired me because too few Africans are diving into the deep end of innovation with technical solutions.
  4. Then there was DEMO Africa.

So as you can see there was a wide range of levels, events and demographics which one could plug into and participate in both spurring as well as celebrating entrepreneurship. In the light of this sequence of events, we must recognise the strong and effective hand of the City of Johannesburg for orchestrating it. In a strange twist of events, the mayor of the city, who had been deeply involved, had originally been selected to open the conference. However, voters expressed their displeasure for the ANC and voted the ANC out of Jo’burg, Pretoria and Cape Town. As a matter of fact, my taxi from the airport to the hotel featured a live radio interview with the new mayor expressing his thanks to the voters and staking out his line item deliverables. So the original mayor of Jo’burg who was a rather effective person was no longer in a position, to undertake this duty, both literally and figuratively. Bad things do happen to good people sometimes. But we digress.

The preparations for DEMO Africa began weeks in advance. Our cohort was being guided online by Innovate Africa’s team which is led by Stephen Ozoigbo. Innovate Africa took us through the business plan canvas, how to calculate customer lifetime value, and most importantly how to value a startup for vc negotiations. We learnt that when discussing funding with vc’s, you should preferably not mention company valuation until as late as possible. As an aside Stephen operates out of Silicon Valley, California and is one of the most experienced and probably centred people in the VC space I met. I should have gotten a selfie with him.

Also, the ICT Authority of Kenya very graciously bought the air tickets for Kenya’s five startups to attend the conference. In many cases, startups are stilling fleshing out cash flow on to the bare bones of a market opportunity. So for startups to raise the funding to attend can be a task. For example, a number of startups missed the bootcamp two days prior to the main event for financial reasons. During day one of the bootcamp is when we taught how to handle negotiations with venture capitalists. During day two of the bootcamp, a lady from University of Cape Town (Silicon Cape things) took the class through how to structure and plug a pitch. Experience and expertise was shared during the bootcamp and all of Kenya’s five startups benefitted from it. The bootcamp itself was so good that one DEMO Finalist from Egypt called Ehab said that even if he never demoed then he had gotten enough value for money and time so far. In short the Kenyan government is involved in innovation here, and we Kenyan startups were grateful for that.

Now that we are mentioning the startups let me give a special mention to the Kenya Team

  1. Anthony Nyagah from Strauss Energy. Strauss are Kenya’s sole representative in DEMO Africa’s Top 5 and will be going to Silicon Valley later this year. They are replacing roofing tiles with solar tiles. An interesting component of their technology is that the energy storage is done not via battery but via a technology called compressed air energy storage (CAES). CAES achieves conversion efficiency of 75% compared to 60% with the latest lithium-ion batteries. This CAES is provided by a demo 2015 finalist called LiGE who’s operations director, Margriet Leaper, I had the opportunity of meeting.
  2. Patricia Mithika from Boresha Ltd who is doing digital content for peer-to-peer learning. We spent a good 4 days together and she has a golden heart, much better than mine :-). Not to mention the fact that we happen to be from the same area in Meru! Boresha Ltd has users outside Kenya, which is proof of a valid opportunity and business model. 20160826_120716.jpg

Patricia doing what she came to do…

  1. Brian Ondari from AirKlip was the youngest member of the team. A true innovator, he paid a grand total of USD 100/- for his accommodation in SA. That’s the power of AirBnB. AirKlip is also in educational technology helping students plan their coursework, classes and exams.
  2. Millicent Micere and Isis Nyong’o from Mum’s Village. Mum’s Village is an online community for mothers and especially first time mothers. Motherhood can be overwhelming and the community provides a place where experiences can be shared, resources identified and targeted marketing done. One of their most interesting products is called The Milky Way. Let me leave it at that. Millicent and I were classmates in campus and I find this important because Strathmore IT graduates have been said not to stack up against Chiromo or ‘Juja Boys’ or Moi University graduates. So that fact that 2 DEMO Africa finalists were Strathmore graduates should be proof that we measure up against the best of them out there. Millicent is also one of the most humorous ladies I know. Much love Millie!



BBIT class of 2016 lol


Serious discussions in our own personalised deal room 🙂

  1. Then there was me plugging anti-money laundering solutions for the African market.

As you can imagine selecting the best 30 from across Africa was difficult judging strictly on the basis of the Kenyan startups. More on the other African startups and the experience itself will follow in the next two days in a different post.

A word must be reserved for the organising teams who made sure that 29 out of 30 startups made it to the event, including visa organisation, air tickets for some, audio-visual set up, food, drinks and logistics over the four days, scheduling the pitches, confirmations for various events, slotting in speakers and panellists per industry experience, planning, backup-planning, exit-planning and more planning. These were Harry Hare the leader, in conjunction with LIONS Africa, the City of Johannesburg, Google, Intel, Microsoft. Harry’s team comprised Mbugua Njihia, Pamela Sinda (whose brother used to school me in basketball in high school) Hany Zuhudi(who I once shared an office with at 3Mice) Francis Nderitu and Engineer Martin Obuya.

IMG_20160826_170934 - Copy.jpg

With Hany Zuhudi after it ended…


With Mbugua Njihia at Michelangelo Towers. First Day of Bootcamp


The Brain Trust

So on New Year’s Day, I found myself trawling the interwebs looking for some inspiration. It’s just that sometimes, as Eminem would say, “You’ve gotta find that inner strength… and get that motivation…” So I ended up reading this interview given by Charles Townes to Charles Townes is the scientist responsible for the invention of maser, laser and outer space exploration via radio frequency analysis. It’s a very remarkable interview by the Nobel Prize Winner. He was also part of the overview team for getting Neil Armstrong onto the moon in 1969 and has provided advisory support in SALT talks. Seeing as 2014’s KCPE results had recently come out, it got me thinking about a particular gap in our education system.

We are seriously under-harnessing our best and our brightest.

The critical success factor for nations nowadays is what we might call the brain trust, ie the skills and intellectual firepower that can be marshalled for any given issue. It is said that Germany has an annual meeting of about 300 economists every year who debate the policy requirements of the nation. It is no wonder that they own Europe. In short, if we are to fully take advantage of our resources and the opportunities around us, we must harness the brain trust available to us. There is biblical precedence for this. Israel’s tribe of Levi were their lawyers, judges, health scientists and advised kings and governments.

There is a very interesting link on Quora on what life is like for very intelligent people. Quora is a site which crowd-sources answers, experience and expertise. As one person put it, “You go to Google to get an answer. You go to Quora to get a response.”  Many respondents on that particular question went to schools for gifted children. This is very useful because one answer points out that while normal people have trouble figuring things out, geniuses have trouble fitting in. So this kind of environment, ie schools for the gifted, is a safe environment for them to nurture their gift instead of burying it in the sand. Otherwise all their brainpower could easily go to waste cooking up mischief and so forth.

There was an article somewhere on the interwebs about a young fellow who graduated post-doctorate from MIT at the tender age of 16 or so. And is allowed to meander around campus and do his own research. That is important. A fellow like that has difficulties relating to the rest of us lesser mortals. Big Bang Theory certainly makes that clear to us. (God bless their souls!) A fellow like that may produce only 2 papers in his life, but would be of ground-breaking scope similar to Einstein’s e=mc^2. The sooner he produces those papers the better 🙂

Brain drain is real.

Case in point is Equity’s Wings to Fly program, especially the part used to airlift Kenyans into American universities. The architect behind wings to Fly is one exceptional man by the name of Mr. C.S. Khaemba who was once the principal of Alliance High School (AHS). He mastered the art of getting students into Ivy League colleges, then exported this art to Equity Bank. Unfortunately for us, a statistically significant number of our best and brightest always flew out to the States to pursue studies and ended up staying there. In 2008 for example the number one at AHS was an absolute genius called Sammy Sambu. Sambu was never defeated in academics in high school. The only time this happened, he had been out on an exchange program in the US for most of the term. The following term, he was back at the top. He went on to become a Rhodes Scholar, has completed his Master’s studies there and might be part of the faculty of either MIT or Harvard (as I ponder the meaning of my life lol).

Another example of this brain drain is another old boy of AHS who studied his undergrad in either Boston or Philadelphia. He must have studied cryptography or the like because from there he went on to work at either the Pentagon or the CIA. Nowadays when he visits his mother he arrives unannounced. He cannot tell his mother that he’s around. I must say that sounds like an interesting life. (Ding dong! Haiya ni wewe!)

There was a class-mate in high school with whom I used to spar intellectually. (Not Sammy Sambu!) We singled each other out as personal hate-figures on the basketball court in the very first month of high school! Such competition can be healthy. He had been to a Montessori school early in his education, while I had spent a portion of my childhood buried in Nancy Drews, Hardy Boys, a few encyclopaedias and so forth. So upon entering high school, our level of exposure to the outside world was a tad higher than the majority of our classmates. The point here is that his early training made a difference in him. As we speak he is an aspiring polymath in the US. His contributions will likely benefit the US more than Kenya.

Once upon a time I managed to get some significant face-time with our associate pastor, who is a very widely travelled man. He told me he has routinely met with Kenyan geniuses who look back on 20 years of research in foreign lands and so forth. One told him with tears in his eyes that he wished he had developed the motherland. The 2 founders of KEMRI were other old boys of AHS who realised that they could do much more for their country by coming and building a medical research institute that caters to the needs of a tropical environment and so forth. Kudos to them.

This is not to say that Kenyans living outside the country are wrong in any way. As a child of educationists, I can authoritatively say Moi’s disdain for matters academic or progressive was a serious encumberment.  I would definitely not have minded a more conducive environment for academicians and educationists locally.

In his book Invention, Norbert Wiener discusses how ground breaking inventions and innovations come around. There has to be a conducive environment for this kind of thing. Universities, research and development budgets, intellectual discussion forums and so forth. As a son of generations of educationists, I know that a considerable portion of the blame for this sad state of affairs lies in the mismanagement of education under the Moi regime. Kibaki in his characteristically quiet way swiftly went about correcting this, licencing myriad universities.

Recently, India managed to get a space mission in orbit around Mars. On a shoe string budget. This tweet captures the poignancy of that moment. I don’t know whether that gets your hamsters running upstairs, but really, Africa should be staking a bit of a claim in this kind of action. One thing I admire about India’s educational system is their Institutes of Technology. India’s Institutes of Technology boast lower acceptance rates than MIT or Harvard. That quality is not wasted. IIT’s graduates are so skilled that a lot of the world’s research and development work is done in India.

In the grand scheme of things, universities are ideal for basic research of the type where e=mc^2 comes from. Polytechnics on the other hand should be churning out technologists who can compete globally in any industry. Peter Drucker is on record that America’s competitive edge is its technologists (polytechnic graduates). I guess nowadays its real competitive advantage might be fracking. But there’s a reason why I am saying this. China’s population is so large that the number of geniuses in the country is almost equivalent to the number of students in the American tertiary education system. China’s geniuses, ‘force-multiplied’ against China’s R&D budget, which is fast approaching America’s, can only have one outcome in the long run.

For example, we have recently seen technological innovations that enable greenhouse agriculture devoid of soil. Instead of soil there are plastic granules which do not absorb water. While this technology is being hailed as a recent breakthrough, it has been in use in China for the past 10 years. Another example of this gap is that a number of young Kenyans are studying medicine in China. I happened to speak with one such graduand and she told me that she ‘discovered’ a herb that grows wild in Western Kenya which is very useful in the fight against either diabetes or prostate cancer. These examples just go to reinforce the fact that the technological differences between China and the US need to be analysed and understood for our own benefit.

Off the top of my head, here are a number of changes which we need to see in our education and technology system. Some are cost-effective while others are more cash-intensive.

  1. Some basic respect for intellectual property would help. For example software cannot be patented in Kenya. This is wrong.
  2. Universities should create partner programs with the best and the brightest. Rwanda’s Carnegie Mellon University and Dubai’s New York University come to mind.
  3. We should beef up our National Academy of Sciences both in terms of mandate and muscle.
  4. There should be tax breaks for Research and development as well as tech-heavy investment. Pharmaceutical research for Africa should be centred here in Kenya. We import a disproportionate percentage of our drugs whereas we could be keeping those currency flows in-country.

Africa’s Moment is Also Our Choice

Psalms 90:12 Teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts to wisdom.

Matthew 1:17 … and from the carrying away into Babylon unto Christ are fourteen generations.

We as Kenyans at times display a singular ability to focus our attention on short-term hot-button issues while long-term tectonic issues go begging. Take for example the most recent uproar over #MyDressMyChoice. It was precipitated by some Kenyan youth who stripped someone naked for wearing a miniskirt. The moral issues of this incident are however not the purview of this piece.

The underlying tectonic issue here, which the sage Charles Onyango-Obbo pointed out in his article that week, is that there is a strong positive statistical correlation between such behaviour and lack of economic prospects for youth. In other words, this stripping is symptomatic of bleak prospects for youth, who proceed to vent their frustrations on the womenfolk around them. So while it is good activism to organise a march against such behaviour, it would behove us to deal with the underlying socio-economic issues of unemployment. Otherwise we will keep wandering from hashtag to hashtag, protest to protest and cause to cause without ever really solving anything.

It goes without saying that Africa has a serious unemployment problem. Our demographic charts are either pyramidal or ovoid, with bulging bases and middles. In the early 80’s the percentage of youth in the population was approximately 15%. A good friend of mine used to teach English at the time. She used to give students comprehensions which opined that this mild 15% of the population was headed for disaster if employment was not prepared for them. With our youth approaching 50% and unemployment close to 60%, it would be a safe guess that the disaster that was mentioned in those comprehensions might be just a short distance around the corner.

Much as this state of affairs might be viewed as dangerous in one light, literature from certain sources tells us that Africa is the only continent with a ‘demographic dividend’. Anecdotal evidence makes me believe that we just might be able to solve this problem in time and comprehensively.

A while ago, we found ourselves in the interesting circumstance in which we got to pick the brains of some senior Chinese banking executives. The circumstances surrounding this opportunity are a potent mix of ivory, ignorance and immigration worthy of a separate blog post. Most importantly, they shared with us some of the things that happen in industry in China. For example, there was a manufacturer who once approached them for financing because they had just gotten a contract to manufacture phone batteries for a Nordic mobile firm. Less than a year later the same manufacturer approached them for another loan because they had gotten a contract to manufacture vehicles for a European company! When Juliani sang his hit song Exponential Potential, this must surely be what he had in mind.

The world’s largest manufacturer, Hon Hai Precision Industry, otherwise known as Foxconn, was founded in 1974. As we speak they employ upwards of 1 million employees and is the world’s third largest IT company by revenue. They produce a vast majority of the world’s electronics. Apple, Blackberry, Nokia and Motorola for example manufacture through them. Your Sony TV or Toshiba laptop could also easily have been manufactured there. How does a company grow from 1 employee to 1,000,000 employees in 40 years?

In the lead up to World War I Japan is said to have industrialised in 50 brief years. Allow me to say that again. Japan industrialised in 50 years! It took Britain approximately a century to develop the capitalist foundations for industrialisation involving finance, the spinning jenny and the steam engine among others. Japan did all that in 50 years.

This brings us to the two verses from the Good Book above. It hit me the other day that the 14 generations from Babylon to Christ were some rather tumultuous times. In that time Babylon was conquered by the Medo-Persians under Cyrus the Great. Not too long afterwards Alexander the Great appeared on the scene like a flash in a pan leading the Greeks to world domination. After him came Judah Maccabeus, Hannibal and Julius Caesar. The common theme here is that these men and peoples bestrode their times like such colossi, that anyone else gets a footnote in history if they are lucky. Granted, these men had pivotal roles to play in history and history belongs to God. But what were other men doing with their lives in those times?

Or otherwise phrased, what were the generations of say the Chinese doing in the time of Alexander the Great? Or what were Turks doing in the time of Julius Caesar? The Greeks under Alexander the Great or the Romans under Julius Caesar had big hairy audacious goals which they set out to meet. They strategized, they cooperated and they put their shoulders to the load. History reports back to us that much like Admiral Nelson they “met the enemy… and he was theirs.”

The point here is that we could easily get so wrapped up in our own petty narratives, squabbles and parochialism that we miss out on our purposes and thoroughly fail to address the real challenges of our generation. From what I understand of African history, our fathers’ generation had the task of deciding on general directions and definitions after gaining self-rule. I think this poverty/unemployment thing is the real economic problem of our generation. Whether or not we address it is our choice. Perhaps in so doing we could reserve ourselves a slice of history, not for history’s sake, or glory’s sake, but because in doing something worthwhile, we make a difference which history deems important enough to record.

The economies of Asia which are being called the Asian tigers, (India, Indonesia, Singapore, South Korea, the Philippines) are claiming their place in history and at the bargaining table. It has been said that when Africa emerges, then our economies will be called the African lions. I personally really look forward to the day when we can hear that term ‘African lions’ and it actually carries a double meaning. Right now, it only means wildlife.

Obama made it to the White House. Foxconn is 40 years old. Japan industrialised in 50 years. We can do it too.

Perspectives and frontiers for Kenya’s technology ecosystem

The Kenyan tech scene has in the recent past given significant media and 5th estate coverage to the concept of the Silicon Savanna. However, beneath the media coverage of OLX, m-Pesa, Rupu, Kopokopo, iHub, AkiraChix and so forth, there exists a sub-stratum of technology firms that I refer to as the ‘unsung’ heroes of the Silicon Savanna. You may already have heard some of the names in this in-exhaustive list. What may not be obvious is the significance of their stories. A large percentage of these people and their firms operate in financial services technology (FST) and have been instrumental in the growth and competitiveness of Kenya’s financial services industry.

Paul Kukubo and Ken Njoroge of 3M and Cellulant

Paul Kukubo set up 3Mice Interactive Media which handled digital branding and exposure (website management, digital campaign planning and so forth) way back when the most tech savvy people I knew were catching up on the difference between a computer mouse and a server. At that time, one could make a clean 150,000 making a basic 3 page website. Mr. Kukubo also deserves special mention because it was under his watch at the Kenya ICT Authority that Kenya’s tech ecosystem began to receive international plaudits for its credentials. As we speak, he is breaking new ground as usual heading up East Africa’s first commodities exchange.

Ken Njoroge of Cellulant was the first techpreneur to see the potential in Kenya’s nascent mobile revolution. All those ringtones and local digital content on mobile phones started out from Cellulant. Nowadays, there is a chance that several services that you use on your phone may be running on a Cellulant-provided backend. His list of clients includes Barclays, Kenya Airways, KCB and Standard Chartered among others. As a matter of fact when the Nigerian government wanted to bypass all middlemen in their fertilizer procurement process, it was none other than Cellulant which provided the necessary technical skills to enable them to do this.

Fintech Kenya

If I am not wrong, Fintech was Kenya’s first indigenous FST company. It was started by a group of 5 bankers who saw the gap between industry standards at the time and the cutting edge. They decided to fill this gap which in my understanding was a conceptual leap at the time. Rumour has it that they did not leave their jobs to bat for the fence. Being bankers, they were more considered in their risk-taking. However, shortly thereafter Fintech became a powerhouse in the FST industry and have clients in 16 countries across Africa. In recent times Fintech has experienced stiff competition within the market. However this is a natural part of industry maturing.

Mike Macharia of Seven Seas Technologies

Back in 2004, working in Seven Seas Technologies was the equivalent of working at Twitter or Google today. An SST engineer would swagger onto campus, very likely to teach a class or give a talk. There would be hushed whispers of acknowledgement “This guy works at Seven Seas” to which the response would invariably be something along the lines of “Wacha!” Given SST’s early bent towards network-related products and services, it goes without saying that around this time there was massive investment by corporates in networking technology. It could be that it is around this time that the concept of branchless banking came into vogue. Kenya has since developed the capacity to produce trained networking engineers which has marginally driven down the pizzazz associated with this sector of IT. Be that as it may, it is rumoured that Mike Macharia turned down an opportunity to study in the US of A to chase down a business opportunity in Rwanda. It was a case of two tickets and only once choice, with one ticket more likely favoured by his parents. And here we are, several years down the line, discussing Kenyan tech history. Perhaps not all youth is wasted on the young.

Kamal Budabhatti of Craft Silicon

This gentleman in my opinion could easily vie for the resident wizard of this group. Reason being that he developed an entire core banking system (CBS). From my point of view that is a massive undertaking. There are countless banking products, SWIFT formats, government regulations, multiple possible user configurations, different client-relationship structures and a whole myriad of things that go into a core banking system. In short, if you take away the people running a bank and its relationships, a bank is its CBS. And if you go the bank and the teller tells you (pun intended) “Sorry, systems are down,” it is most likely that their CBS is suffering from one form of flu or another. Craft Silicon has clients across Africa, Asia, Europe and the Americas. His is definitely a resounding Kenyan success story.

Ken Ngunjiri and Paul Mbugua of Eclectics International

Eclectics International is arguably Kenya’s largest FST company. In a brief space of time it has acquired over a hundred clients across Africa, the vast majority of these being banks. The conceptual leap behind Eclectics’ meteoric growth has been their development of proprietary intellectual property to meet their clients’ needs. This IP is developed by the firm’s strong bench of tech wizards who would put any ‘Silicon Savanna aspersions’ to shame. The thing about these wizards is that they are busy serving behind the scenes as opposed to developing apps in our startup ecosystem. For every Rupu or Kopokopo you see there could easily be a legion of tech wizzes out in offices or server rooms designing, developing or tweaking software for large corporates.

Vincent Ntalami and Conrad Akunga of Innova Systems

Vincent Ntalami and Conrad Akunga are the founders of a firm called Innova which specialises in custodial, investment banking and bancassurance software. Mr. Ntalami and Mr. Akunga are both graduands of a program called IMIS which was quite the rage in the late 90’s and early noughties. (IMIS graduands hooba!) Mr. Ntalami studied actuarial science and became AIG’s youngest vice president globally (before 2008!) while Mr. Akunga studied computer science and went on to become one of Microsoft’s top MVP’s in Africa. They have clients across East Africa including top tier banks in Kenya and are bent on world domination in their space. Anyone who has ventured into bespoke banking software in Kenya will agree that landing top-tier clients can be an extremely competitive and rigorous process. What I particularly like about Innova’s enterprise is their conceptual leap into a niche category which drew on their skills and experience. This precluded entrenched players in the industry from claiming a stake in their space.

As has been mentioned above, one of the reasons we don’t hear much about many of these people is because they serve behind the scenes in niche markets. Their primary sale is to enterprise buyers as opposed to the average Joe on the street. Another reason is that we have not been putting out enough local content on the Internet. This has resulted in these stories getting crowded out by ‘noise’. It is said that in order to know where you are going, it is important to know where you are coming from.

The important thing is that these stories need to be told for the benefit of the new generation of students going through and emerging from our technology colleges and universities. During my time in campus, the stories of Yahoo, Amazon, E-bay, Paypal, Google, Facebook and LinkedIn had me enthralled. Much as that was the cutting edge of global tech innovation I was so enthralled that I overlooked the significance of these local stories happening right in front of my eyes. After entering the workplace and working the grind I forgot to dream. However, this same grind gave me a much higher appreciation for the significance of these local stories. It taught me that if I want to make a difference globally, I would have to start locally and solve local problems. In my opinion it is in understanding the stories of these gentlemen that we can figure out the next frontiers of opportunity.

Observing the valuations, profit margins and threat-of-new-entrants for most of these companies, it becomes apparent that industry first-movers accrue serious incumbency benefits and in most cases are able to lock out other entrants from gaining a foothold. Most importantly, new entrants are forced into increasingly niche areas.

So how does this affect cocoa production in Ghana? It appears to me that the FST industry, which has traditionally employed a considerable portion of our best and our brightest, is maturing. The implication is that profit margins are narrowing together with the space for ground-breaking innovation. Additionally new entrants are being forced to newer and more niche segments of the sector. Coupled with the fact that Kenya should be moving to a cheaper energy regime in the next 2 years or so, this could easily mean that the next frontier of opportunity for Kenya’s IT graduates, engineers and aspiring industrialists might, at long last, lie in manufacturing.

As a matter of fact, there exists a very real danger in the ‘Africa Rising’ narrative. The danger is that African entrepreneurs could fail to seize the opportunity presented by ‘Africa Rising’ by failing to develop a competitive manufacturing base. The result would be that our rising markets and growing middle class would be supplied with foreign products, a scenario which would be hard to come back from. It has been opined that one of the main structural differences between Germany’s and Britain’s economies is that Germany retained its industrial base and edge while Britain did not. The effects have been clear to see post-2008.

All in all, in order for us to take full advantage of this information may well require conceptual leaps such as the gentlemen above have made.