Wednesday, October 5

How Africa’s Tech Generation Is Changing the Continent

DESIGNING FOR AFRICA is the objective of many new technology ventures. The continent is still a largely untapped market, particularly in remote, off-the-grid places. Mark Kamau, director of user-experience design for BRCK in Nairobi, Kenya’s capital, holds a prototype for a mobile weather station.

Inspired by Silicon Valley, young entrepreneurs are bringing life-improving innovations to sub-Saharan communities.

ONE DAY IN 2004, in the Kenyan farming village of Engineer—so named because an Englishman once ran a mechanical repair shop there—a slight and nearsighted boy was walking past the only printing shop when his eyes fell on something he had never seen: a computer.

The boy watched as the owner stabbed at his keyboard. Edging closer, he saw pages spew out of a printer. Standing beside the humming machine, the boy stared mesmerized at the words and numbers that had somehow been transmitted from the computer. Almost a teenager, Peter Kariuki had discovered his destiny.

His parents, subsistence farmers of cabbages and potatoes, began to worry that Peter was spending too much time at the printing shop. No one in Engineer had access to the Internet. Few even had electricity. Tech booms were a faraway notion, and talk of random scrawny, bespectacled kids inventing hardware or writing code and cashing out in their 30s had yet to reach Engineer. Regardless, Peter was hooked. When his superb grades in primary school qualified him to attend the prestigious Maseno School (whose alumni include Barack Obama’s father), a teacher gave Peter the keys to the computer science lab, where he could code all night long.

In 2010 the 18-year-old computer wizard traveled to Kigali, Rwanda. Kariuki got a job designing an automated ticketing system for the capital city’s bus system. Although Kigali was among Africa’s tidiest and most crime-free cities, its transit system was woefully in keeping with the norm on the continent. Because the buses (really just vans) were unreliable, overcrowded, and glacial in velocity, most commuters relied on motorcycle-taxi drivers, who are notoriously reckless. Indeed, throughout sub-Saharan Africa, road accidents are catching up with AIDS and malaria as leading causes of death—and police statistics that Kariuki has seen indicate that in Kigali about 80 percent of road accidents involve motorcycles. These facts riveted Kariuki and his roommate, Barrett Nash, a fellow start-up aspirant from Canada with oversize red-frame glasses. After turning off their laptops for the evening, Kariuki and Nash would stroll through Kigali’s red-light district to an outdoor bar where, over Primus beers, they would wrestle with a basic question: How could they provide Kigali with an Uber-like motorcycle-taxi service that was efficient, affordable, and safe?

Kariuki and Nash described their concept in a video posted on a website used to seek start-up money. An accelerator group founded by an American venture capitalist named Sean O’Sullivan reached them by email and offered them an expenses-paid, three-month mentorship in Cork, Ireland. After determining that it wasn’t a hoax, Kariuki and Nash quit their day jobs. When Kariuki informed his parents, they consoled themselves with the recognition that a 22-year-old had plenty of time to recover from an early failure.

Kariuki and Nash returned to Kigali in spring 2015 with the finalized software for the concept they had dubbed SafeMotos. Rain clouds were gathering as they climbed on motorcycle taxis. Amid the downpour both vehicles raced heedlessly uphill, just as a truck driver ahead of them threw his gears in reverse. Kariuki flew off his motorcycle. He wound up with a broken kneecap, three missing teeth, and a disfigured lip. Later, when the surgeon who fixed his mouth inquired about his misfortune, Kariuki told him that his motorcycle driver had been in a traffic accident.

“I see this all the time,” sighed the doctor as he proceeded to stitch up Kariuki, who managed a smile. His marketing analysis for SafeMotos was now complete.

Today the Rwandan start-up initially funded with $126,000 is the first and largest motorcycle ride–sharing company in Africa. It partners with more than 400 licensed and painstakingly monitored motorcycle-taxi drivers in Kigali, who are likely to make 800,000 trips this year. Gross revenue for 2017 is projected to be $1.1 million. “My dream,” Kariuki told me recently on the rooftop balcony of one of Kigali’s many sparkling new hotels, “is to establish Kigali as our stronghold that no one can touch—and from there move into 10 other cities.”

The pride of Engineer belongs to a wave of digital entrepreneurs who aim to transform sub-Saharan Africa. Their emergence coincides with the ubiquity of mobile phones throughout the continent, as well as the arrival of high-speed Internet—which, as recently as a decade ago, was rare in most of Africa. During the past few years, tens of millions of dollars in venture capital has flowed from the West into such countries as Kenya, Rwanda, Nigeria, and South Africa. The result is a generation of innovators whose homegrown ideas could, in the manner of SafeMotos, improve the lives of their fellow Africans. Continue reading