Africa is a rising global competitor in the technology industry. It was already a leader in mobile to mobile payment systems with its m-Pesa system, but now startups are being launched all over the continent, even in rural areas with little to no electricity, as more people gain access to wireless internet and smartphones. There are now more than 90 tech hubs across Africa, according to the World Bank. South Africa still has the most, but Kenya, Ghana, Nigeria, Tanzania, and Senegal aren't far behind.
People in the Western world are finally starting to take note, too. Data from CrunchBase showed that 2013 was the most active year for tech investments on the continent and in 2014, investments are already surging. Big whig companies like Microsoft, Google, and IBM are putting money into local startup accelerators and their own initiatives.
Here are 10 African tech startups to keep your eye on in 2014 and beyond. They're all making waves because of their emphasis on affordability, diversity, and accessibility.
In 2013, Dropifi became the first African startup to be accepted into 500 Startups, a Silicon Valley seed accelerator and investment fund. Launched in 2011, Dropifi is a widget that offers an intelligent contact form. It helps businesses analyze, visualize, and respond to incoming messages, with a way to use social media to see the demographics of site visitors and message senders, as well as a formula to analyze the emotions in the messages. Dropifi won first place in the Global Start-Up Open Competition in 2012. It has about 6,000 clients in more than 30 countries and plans to expand even more.
Based in Nairobi, Kenya, Angani is a public cloud computing provider that offers services to East Africa. The company buys infrastructure in bulk and leases it at a lower rate to enterprises in the region so that companies don't have to worry about buying hardware, software, servers, and cooling systems. Angani services range from 512 MB to 16 GB of storage. The company is also doing an Amazon Web Service system play for Kenya.
3. Able Wireless
Able Wireless launched in 2013 as an on-demand wireless streaming service provider in Kenya. The equipment used sits at the edge of the network and reduces the travel distance for content and creates real infrastructure on the ground in Kenya that makes it easily accessible and available locally. A household box that is made from a modified Raspberry Pi allows the content to be delivered. It also serves a wireless hotspot that can connect to two other devices in the home. With a 24-month contract, Kenyans can use the service for about US $6 a month, much cheaper than other options in the area.
It's been called the "Netflix for Africa" because it streams documentaries, movies, music, YouTube videos, specific local content, Al Jazeera, and other general content. This content is mostly available in pirate shops, which are very popular in Africa, said Able Wireless founder, Kahenya Kamunyu. When he visited his rural village after it got electricity, there were already two such DVD shops open. He wants to solve the pirating issue and make it easier for people to enjoy content.
4. SleepOut Kenya
SleepOut is an online portal that puts Kenya's local accommodations on the map. It can be used by backpackers, hotel aficionados, or tourists visiting the area. There are reviews, bookings, and contact information for all the hotels. It doesn't sound revolutionary, but it's something that was lacking in the country and in Africa in general.
SleepOut was started by Mikul Shah, who launched EatOut Kenya in 2011. The company quickly became the most popular source for food reviews and locations (much like Yelp in the US). Shah has become one of Nairobi's most well-known entrepreneurs and plans to expand both companies in East Africa eventually.
Mellowcabs are electric vehicles that provide first and last mile public transportation in urban areas. The startup launched in South Africa, where taxi cab companies are popping up to capitalize on the growing population and emerging market. However, Mellowcabs revenue model helps them stand out — the rides are free. They are ad-supported, as banner ads directly on the cab are available for purchase. The cabs have regenerative braking that uses kinetic energy to power the vehicle, on-board tablet computers, use hydrogen fuel cell technology, and are made out of recycled materials, including hemp plastic.
An e-commerce startup inspired by Amazon, Jumia launched in Lagos, Nigeria in 2012. Lagos is an upcoming tech hub on the continent, with a large urban center and youthful population. On Jumia, people can purchase anything from electronics to clothes to home goods. The company has a 90,000 square foot warehouse in Lagos, and also has an office in Egypt. Jumia delivers to Morocco, Kenya, Cote d'Ivoire, and most recently, Uganda. In 2013, the company won an award for Best New Retail Launch, after it was given $35 million in Series B funding from Millicom.
Music piracy is a huge problem in Africa due to lack of intellectual property regulations and lack of enforcement. To combat the issue came Kenya's version of iTunes, a startup called Waabeh. The company is striving to solve the problems of search, discovery, and distribution of African audio content, and wants to give higher royalties to musicians in the process. Users can stream the music, embed codes into their websites, and share with friends. It is available on the web and as an Android mobile app.
Sterio.me is another critical education startup in Africa, where there is a high student-to-teacher ratio and very low literacy rates. Education is a particularly critical issue for girls, who are often kept home or taken out of school at an early age. Mobile phone usage is skyrocketing on the continent, especially because of mobile-to-mobile payment systems like m-Pesa, so SMS-based programs are a good way to capitalize on the trend. Sterio.me capitalizes on mobile, although it doesn't require smartphones. Teachers can record a lecture or quiz, upload it to the site with a code, and learners can access the code. They also receive one free calling to the teacher with the recording. The first pilot phase was launched in Zimbabwe last year.
Obami is a South African-based social learning platform that brings people in the education system together. Students can make a profile and connect with like-minded people around the world, get news from schools and groups, and submit school work. The startup, which launched in 2007, is currently used by about 400 organizations across Africa, but it just launched a mobile service earlier this year. The mobile app, Obami Tutor, focuses on private tutoring to help those specifically in the South African education system. Teachers that connect with the students use a curriculum aligned with the school system and guide students through the worksheets and other assignments. It's a subscription-based service but is free while it's in the BETA phase. Barbara Mallinson, Obami's founder, is one of the leading female entrepreneurs in South Africa.
10. Oju Africa
Apple's emoji icons are notoriously homogenous. Oju Africa, which is powered by the African mobile company Mi-Fone, decided to go ahead and change the game. It recently released a set of 15 darker emoticons. The set is available in the Android Play Store right now, and an iOS version should be available soon. There's a long-standing debate about the lack of diversity in emoji icons, and it's exciting to see that an African startup addressed the issue.
Oju's tagline is "Everyone smiles in the same language," and has been a catalyst for the movement to get Apple to diversify their emoticons. Oju is also a proponent for a digitally united Africa, and has garnered quite a bit of attention with these emoticons.
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Lyndsey Gilpin has nothing to disclose. She doesn't hold investments in the technology companies she covers.
Lyndsey Gilpin is a former Staff Writer for TechRepublic, covering sustainability and entrepreneurship. She's co-author of the book Follow the Geeks.