News & Views

Most Contagious / New York / Erik Hersman

by Contagious Team

Why Africa is prime territory for creative thinkers to solve both big and small issues around last mile connectivity, energy needs, food and agricultural use and re-thinking how technology can be used to enhance like education and healthcare

Founder of iHub, a Nairobi innovation hub for the technology community, founder of BRCK, a backup generator for the internet, and co-founder of the mobile app Ushahidi, are just a few of Erik Hersman's titles.

We are extremely excited to have Erik joining us at Most Contagious in New York on December 11, to share his views on Africa as an emerging market and the opportunities coming out of the continent. 

To find out more about Most Contagious or to purchase tickets, email

Ahead of the event, Herman answered a few of our questions on the topic.

What are the biggest differences in how entrepreneurs in Africa view the world versus people in other regions? What are some of the unique challenges you witness for African companies?
I think entrepreneurs everywhere tend to view the world similarly. There's a problem, a solution, and a chance to make money while providing a solution for whatever gap it was that was realized. The difference in Africa comes from the culture of entrepreneurship, and even this differs by what country you're in. Nigeria and Kenya are both the most entrepreneurial countries in their regions, but the cultures are vastly different. West Africa tends to be a bit louder, more in-your-face with the deals and the hustle, while East Africa is more conservative and relies upon your network a great deal to make anything happen. Face-to-face time across the continent is very important, it's about trust and getting to know someone over a long period of time that opens doors. 
There was a good article a couple years ago about how the West might have serial entrepreneurs, but that Africa has parallel entrepreneurs. Everyone diversifies and has a couple businesses ongoing at any given time. It's the smart thing to do against the risk of any one thing being shut down, not working properly or some unforeseen problem hitting the industry, city or country. The danger here is that without focus some entrepreneurs end up spreading themselves too thin and don't see the growth that they might have had in a single one of their businesses. 

What do you think the biggest assumptions are about tech in Africa? How do your experiences differ? 
The assumption about tech in Africa by most people is that there is nothing here. That's absolutely wrong, there are about 1 billion people on the continent, the trends for internet connectivity continue to grow, with more undersea fiberoptic cables landing each year. We have one of the fastest growing markets in the world for mobile phones, and a growing trend of more disposable income being spent on technology products, driven by handsets and mobile phone airtime. On top of that, Africa leads the world in mobile money, in both size and innovation. 
Africa is behind other parts of the world on penetration of the internet, but it's growing faster and it can be thought of as the last blue ocean for this in the world. 
What we're seeing in Africa is a continent coming online, using the mobile phone as the primary connection. 

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? 
A lot of what's happening in the tech space in Africa can be read about online, just like any other part of the world. There are researchers, such as iHub Research, putting out reports on everything from regional connectivity numbers to stats on startups. Associations like Afrilabs can connect people to the many different tech hubs popping up across the continent, there are 19 tech hubs in the Afrilabs network, set to grow to 25 in the next few months. You can talk to an entrepreneur in Cameroon, Ghana or Kenya just as easily as one in the UK or US. 
I'm the founder of the iHub in Nairobi, I've seen first-hand how partnerships can be made between entrepreneurs in different countries through these tech hubs.  I've also seen how entrepreneurs from the West can come to Africa and build strong startups here, just as well as anywhere else in the world.  

What do 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?
I expect we'll see a lot more ideas, products and services that start in Africa go international.  Most of the world sees Africa as a consumer of tech products, but already we're seeing the new paradigm of mobile money start in Africa spreading to other parts of the world. We're seeing crowdsourcing and mapping software, like Ushahidi, being used for every major crisis around the world, from earthquakes to elections. 
Right now we see a lot of activity, but that doesn't mean a huge amount of big successes yet. In the next 5-10 years, I'd expect to see a good number of growth stories, successful tech entrepreneurs who have made it beyond the early stages.  
What trends or changes that you are seeing in Africa excite you most?
Probably the change in mindset, where we in Africa see ourselves as the source for creating the changes and exploiting the opportunities that we need locally.
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?
Wherever there are more problems, there are more solutions to create. Africa is prime territory for creative thinkers to solve issues big and small around things like last mile connectivity, energy needs, food and agricultural use and re-thinking how technology can be used for basic things like education and healthcare. One of the benefits we have, in a lot of African countries, is not being tied down by a bunch of legacy systems, instead we can learn from what's happened elsewhere in the world, and leapfrog to what might work best for our needs.

Erik is speaking at Most Contagious in New York on December 11 at the Times Center. Purchase tickets via Eventbrite or if you are a Contagious Feed or Magazine subscriber, contact to take advantage of your discount.

Most Contagious will also be taking place in London on the same day, where Stuff Magazine's editor and publisher, Toby Shapshak will be taking on the same topic. Read Toby's interview with Contagious here.  

For more information on the London event, or to book tickets, email