News & Views

Most Contagious / London / Toby Shapshak

by Contagious Team


'Despite the obstacles that would turn a developed world developer to jelly, African entrepreneurs aren't being hindered by this - they are trying to find ways to solve these nagging problems.'

Toby Shapshak, editor and publisher of Stuff Magazine in South Africa, will be speaking at Most Contagious in London on 11 December on the subject of Africa: the world's new innovation lab. To find out more about Most Contagious or to purchase tickets, email arianna@contagious.com.

Here, he answers a few of our questions about the subject.

What are the biggest differences in how entrepreneurs in Africa view the world compared to people in other regions? What are some of the unique challenges you witness for African companies?

The challenges aren't actually that different: principally, access to finance (through angel or early stage investors), access to help with business plans and a good mentor. The biggest challenges are access to power and fast internet - the lifeblood of the digital economy. But across the continent, innovation hubs like Kenya's iHub or Johannesburg's JoziHub, are springing up that provide a workspace and a melting pot for young innovators. The difference I have noticed in start-ups around Africa is that they have a tendency to want to give back to their community. 

What do you think the biggest assumptions are about tech in Africa? How do your experiences differ? 

The world seems to think Africa is filled with poor people and old technology, a continent and people that needs saving. I beg to differ. Sure, we have challenges and inequitable wealth problems, but we're the most innovative people I know. People have problems, so they solve them. Sometimes with amazing results that end up solving problems for the rest of the world too. 

The first heart transplant was done in Cape Town, where space tourist Mark Shuttleworth built a global digital certificate business, Thwate, that he sold to Verisign for half a billion dollars. Amazon's cloud computing technology was originally built in Cape Town too; when Visa wanted a mobile money solution, it bought a South African company called Fundamo for $110-million. In Kenya, where tech innovation is thriving,M-Pesa accounts for 80% of the mobile money in the world and 40% of Kenya's GDP moves through it; while real-time event tracking software Ushahidi is being used in everything from locating trapped people in earthquakes in Haiti and anonymously reporting drug dealers in Mexico.

Despite the obstacles that would turn a developed world developer to jelly, African entrepreneurs aren't being hindered by this - they are trying to find ways to solve these nagging problems.

How can entrepreneurs outside of Africa learn from what's going on there? And what's the best way for those outside Africa to create mutually beneficial partnerships with those inside? 

Do the right thing, hire a local to show you the scene. Too often, big companies come into developing markets, get shown around and then start doing business without giving back to the community. We live in a conscientised society where taking advantage of locals in such a manner is past muster. 

The lesson is really that people in the country, on the ground, experiencing the problems are more likely to know how to solve them than do-gooders coming in from the outside. Take the problem with malaria, and the developed world's obsession with trying to solve them using mosquito nets. A handy, easy solution for foreign travellers maybe but hardly an every day solution for people living with it every day.

What do you anticipate will change with regards to African entrepreneurship and innovation in the next 5-10 years, as many African nations find themselves among the world's fastest growing economies? 

The massive growth of Africa's economies in the last decade, as the Economist has highlighted, is due to the boom in resources and minerals. The six out of ten fastest growing economies in the past 10 years might have been from Africa, but it is being fuelled, for the most part, by the mining industry.

What Africa needs is the next generation of economic activity that such booms bring. Take a look at north America, where a gold boom on the west coast invigorated the railway industry, which as a result built towns and support structures across the continent and provided the impetus for related industries to flourish. I believe mobile is the 21st century equivalent of that railroad, and on top and around it there is potential for more success stories like M-Pesa, Farmerline, mPedigree, iCow and Ushahidi to emerge. 

What trends or changes that you are seeing in Africa excite you most?

The stuff being done with mobile phones, in so many different fields: from educating farmers and diary owners, to managing rice farmers, to checking the efficacy of medication, to teaching young women about healthcare, to helping kids study maths or read books. Cellphone-based payments are the most exciting, of course, but over and above this kind of financial inclusion, there are wonderful things being done with education. 

A lot of innovation in Africa seems to be driven by necessity. What are some of the next needs to be tackled in the continent?

Power, power, power. Not the despotic nor political kind, but electricity. More people in Africa have a cellphone than access to the electricity grid. Nigeria, despite having one of the continent's largest oil reserves, has monumental power problems, but still manages to be a global force.

The next great inventor or innovator is more likely to be a Tesla than a Jobs or Zuckerberg. Tesla discovered alternating current, the AC in AC/DC, and a range of other electricity-related things. William Kamkwamba - who built a windmill out of spare bicycle parts and whose life story has been aptly summed up in a book called "The boy who harnessed the wind" - is returning to Malawi to build a $60-million wind turbine installation, last I heard. 

With the world desperately needing energy alternatives to fossil fuel, I think Africa, with its abundant sunshine, is an ideal place to prove that solar power can be a reliable, resilient alternative.


Toby is speaking at Most Contagious in London on 11 December at Kings Place, N1. Purchase tickets via Eventbrite or if you are a Contagious Feed or Contagious Magazine subscriber, contact arianna@contagious.com to take advantage of your discount.

Most Contagious will also be taking place in New York on the same day. Visit the website or contact arianna@contagious.com for more information.