By Danny O’Brien Exploring Innovation across the world. Founder at & Consultant for New York International

I’m sitting in a bar next to the Hôtel des Mille Collines in Kigali, Rwanda as I write this article. The hotel is a bland 4-star hotel no different from any other you could see anywhere in the world. However, if you have ever seen the film Hotel Rwanda, you will know the significance of this hotel during the Rwandan Genocide in 1994 when the manager hid 1,268 refugees, ultimately saving their lives.

It’s incredible to think how far Rwanda has come as a nation in just 23 years. It’s the fourth country I’ve visited on my trip to Sub-Saharan Africa and by far the most advanced. Not just the fantastic road network, new skyscrapers (with more being built), or the fledgling tech ecosystem that exists, but they also have a progressive government. Led by President Paul Kagame (who is not without his critics), the government invests in youth, tech, and new technologies. They want to become the knowledge economy of Africa and are well on their way to doing so. I’m over halfway through my trip to sub-Saharan Africa, exploring emerging tech ecosystems; so far these countries have surpassed all expectations. It’s impressive how young founders are using alternative business models to solve age-old African challenges that the West was unable to solve through NGOs. Here’s a look at the top five startups I’ve met so far.

Intership (Kampala, Uganda): Intership is solving a logistics problem for the growing middle-class in sub-Saharan Africa. Despite the growing demand for high-end products such as electronics, fashion, and cosmetics, none of the major e-commerce retailers—including Amazon, eBay and Alibaba—will ship to this region due to the logistical challenge and small market size. Intership solve this problem by buying the goods on behalf of locals across six African nations. They first deliver them to their hubs in US, Europe, or Asia, and then forward them direct to customers via DHL (with whom they have a shipping deal). Intership deliver value to customers by saving them money and reducing wait times to under one week in some cases while earning commission on each product sold. The fashion conscious middle-class are a rapidly growing cohort, which is why Intership have seen explosive demand for their service since starting a few months ago.

ARED (Kigali, Rwanda): ARED’s Mobile Solar Kiosk provides a one-stop shop destination for mobile users in rural and semi-urban areas. The kiosks are integrated distribution channels of key services such as Wi-Fi, airtime, mobile money, intranet/Internet, charging stations, etc. Customers are typically those at the base of the pyramid who access content via smartphones. The kiosks are distributed to operators for free and operators earn a commission on services sold at each kiosk. The kiosks are aimed at women operators and those with disabilities who otherwise have limited opportunities to earn an income. ARED make money by charging content providers and selling the data analytics collected at each station. They currently generate $100 per kiosk per week.

SafeMotos (Kigali, Rwanda): Travelling by motorbike taxis (also called boda-bodas or motos) is hugely popular in sub-Saharan Africa. They are incredibly cheap and take you door to door, unlike buses, which may only be indirect. I’ve used them a lot on this trip! Unfortunately, you’re around 300 times more likely to be killed on the back of a moto than on a vehicle in Europe or America. 80% of accidents in Kigali involve a moto. A lot of the drivers are unsafe and it’s a huge problem. SafeMotos’ drivers are equipped with smartphones that record data on how safely they drive. This data, combined with customer reviews, helps users identify the safe drivers from the unsafe. Their Uber-like platform is also convenient for ordering your next ride. Users input the destination and suggest a price rather than trying to haggle with a driver they meet on the street. SafeMotos raised money from prolific VC fund SOSV but have now pivoted to an alternative revenue model. They want coffee shops, restaurants, and other destinations to cover the cost of the SafeMotos trip that takes a customer to their establishment—essentially paying for leads. For example, if I want to go to Café Neo for a meeting, I will travel for free if I travel with SafeMotos. The café knows they will recoup the cost and more with what I spend in their store. This could allow them to scale quickly in terms of user numbers.

From Africa to Ireland and back again. SafeMotos, African startup story via Irish startup incubator

BRCK (Nairobi, Kenya): BRCK is essentially a modem that is able to connect up to 20 devices at a time and seamlessly switch between Wi-Fi, 3G, 4G and Ethernet connections automatically, depending on which signals are available. In moments of very low connectivity, BRCK uses the best available source to provide uninterrupted Internet usage. Even if there’s a power blackout, the device comes with a battery that provides up to eight hours of use. Only a third of Kenyans have access to the Internet and many schools suffer from regular power outages, which makes it difficult to charge devices normally. BRCK’s new product, Kio Kit, is a portable digital classroom that includes a Wi-Fi hotspot, a small server packed with educational content, and 40 tablets that can be charged wirelessly and work in the roughest conditions in rural schools.

How mobile technology is driving Africa’s digital economy

Addis Insight (Addis Ababa, Ethiopia): Addis Insight is an Ethiopian based online news platform that aims to bring up-to-date information to a country where the largest print media company only prints 25,000 copies of their daily newspaper for a population of over 100 million. Despite being just over a year old, they are one of the top three sites visited by Ethiopians every day. They have amassed over 110,000 fans on Facebook—despite the social network being banned in the country under its current state of emergency. Addis Insight covers topics such as current affairs, business, technology, lifestyle, and entertainment. They are also investing in video content, a growing medium in Ethiopia. It’s impressive how popular they have become in a short period of time given Internet penetration in Ethiopia is about 6%, and Facebook and Twitter are currently banned.

Danny O’Brien is the founder of Round The World With a new innovation consultancy and insights platform based in Dublin. He travels to emerging and established tech ecosystems around the world gathering trends and advising companies on their innovation strategies. Contact Danny at [email protected] to learn more about his research or follow him on twitter: @dannyobrien7.


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