Is francophone Africa creating its own tech business culture? Yes but it won’t flourish without support from the ecosystem.

@eliseleclerc, Funchal, Madeira
With contributions from the M-ITI social tech research team

 

‘Some young people hide from their parents to attend entrepreneurship skills workshops as it is seen as a lowly subject ‘’for losers’’ in their culture’ (Tech hub manager, Gabon)

Sub-Saharan francophone Africa’s lateness in jumping on the bandwagon of global models of technology entrepreneurship seems to be a universally accepted fact. Many articles describe how anglophone African countries have a ten-year head start due to a number of factors, including a more flexible business culture and regulatory environment inherited from the Anglo-Saxon model.

Reports on the tech hub and business markets in Africa invariably give francophone African countries low rankings compared to anglophone countries (GSMA 2016 report on tech hubs, Doing Business 2014 report). However when our study set out to discover the sub-Saharan Africa social tech ecosystem in francophone Africa, I found huge enthusiasm and a great potential for social tech development with the right support.

I spoke to social tech players on the ground, from entrepreneurs to tech hub managers in Togo, Bénin, Côte d’Ivoire, Sénégal, Cameroun, Gabon, Madagascar, and they all agreed that despite this, tech startups have an enormous potential in francophone Africa if a number of barriers can be removed.

Tech entrepreneurs have so far shown extreme resilience and passion for what they do, which can be seen as another form of business culture adapted to their context. They are often people returning from the diaspora (‘re-pats’) to start a tech company in their home country, and they have shown great creativity and imagination in overcoming local obstacles. One hub writes fake landlord contracts for its entrepreneurs in order to enable them to register their companies, (the system is not joined up enough to realise no rent is being paid nor received), while others provide free early breakfast to help their customers focus on their work throughout the day. Another is generating much-needed revenue by authoring ‘soft-landings’ reports for entrepreneurs seeking to do business in neighboring countries. In Cameroon, where the internet was shut down for three months in early 2017 in the anglophone part of the country, entrepreneurs told us that they used intermittent proxy servers every morning to check if they had received important emails, and if they had, they then traveled for several hours to the francophone side to find a place where they could answer emails. In Gabon entrepreneurship is not valued as a career path, and youth organisations have been working with secondary schools for several years to encourage entrepreneurship and business skills. One youth organisation manager told us that while they have broken new ground with many students, their parents still believe that business skills are for those who have failed at school and haven’t been able to find employment, leading students to hide from their parents to attend entrepreneurship skills classes.

Marc Lepage, Innovation Advisor at UNDP in Africa, told us: ‘francophone African countries are lagging a bit behind slightly, but are catching up rapidly...There are some differences and many cultural aspects that set them apart. Tech development is more recent in Central and West Africa, and therefore people are not doing tech full time. Another interesting angle is the recovery and resilience aspect, for instance countries recovering or still affected by the Ebola outbreak in West Africa.’

Some startups are looking for women-only hubs; a female entrepreneur from Bénin explained she felt that, ‘with a similar idea, men have more chance of being financed than women.’ Many startups are also having to run two ventures to be viable. A FabLab manager from Senegal told us: ‘we are only managing to survive by running a commercial venture at the same time as an NGO to overcome the absence of social enterprise status.’ Such enthusiasm and creativity demonstrates the dynamism and resilience of the tech scene in the region.

And indeed they are well on their way: the old reliance on the French-African axis, which is still funding tech hubs through the Organisation Internationale pour la Francophonie (OIF), is slowly making space for a more diverse influx of investment and enabling entrepreneurs themselves to find seed funding for their ideas. French agencies like the OIF and the Agence Française pour le Développement (AFD) have undeniably had a critical role in developing tech hubs and tech competitions in francophone Africa over the last few years, but the entrepreneurs themselves have had to find their own seed funding, either from personal income or from crowd-sourcing, which has widely limited the impact of these initiatives on start-up creation.

It is to plug this gap that new investment funds sponsored by I&P are now opening in francophone Africa, with a funding strategy that should be crucial for tech startups. One of those is Teranga Capital, co-founded by Olivier Furdelle in Senegal in 2016. He explains that ‘the financing amounts are lower  (€75K-€300K) than the private equity players usual thresholds and the criteria slightly different in order to support entrepreneurs who are at an earlier stage of their start-up, i.e., who have at least started selling a viable product or service and performed their proof-of-concept on a small scale, even if their company is not yet registered.’ Further upstream in the entrepreneurship process, a seed funding and acceleration program between I&P and USAID will soon provide 0% loans of €10K to €25K to entrepreneurs who have not yet reached a commercialisation stage, and who need seed funding for the concept phase of their idea.

But diversifying seed funding is not the only key to the development of tech innovation in sub-Saharan francophone countries. Another challenge is communication, not only between tech hubs within the same country (a certain rivalry between tech hubs seems to impede collaboration, with many not aware of or not working with other hubs in their town), but also among hubs across sub-Saharan Africa. Marc Lepage explains: ‘What is needed is support around networking and collaboration between hubs and development organisations within a single country and beyond, in order to share not only information but also innovation practices, along a South to South axis, rather than solely North-South.’

The role of the diaspora, alluded to earlier, is often seen as a key ingredient for fostering further tech innovation in the region, and again there seems to be a difference between anglophone and francophone sub-Saharan African diasporas. While we have met with large anglophone diaspora organisations like UK-based Afford, we were told by Togo-born Claude Grunitzky that his attempts at creating a francophone equivalent (Welcoming Diasporas) had been very difficult. Many entrepreneurs have had to find seed funding in Europe or the U.S. in order to start their company in Africa, and diaspora engagement with their African community varies enormously from one country to another within francophone Africa. The Senegalese diaspora for instance seems particularly active when it comes to creating tech innovation, and this could be one of the many factors that have helped the country become a pioneer of tech innovation in the region.

While ‘re-pats’ may be one way of increasing tech entrepreneurship, their dominance in the tech sector may also be a sign of dysfunction in how teams and pitches are recognized as investor-ready, or socially beneficial. When, early in our study, we first noticed the high numbers of ‘re-pat’ founders in the African tech sector, we concluded ‘re-pats’ were especially well-primed to combine locally and globally circulating forms of knowledge. Success rates in attracting funding and media attention enjoyed by ‘re-pats’ and expats, however, do not necessarily translate into success in establishing a grassroots social tech. Our report details a mismatch between local environments and what may be considered social tech by wealthy, outside organizations that fund and make awards. For example, some technologies recognized by those outside sub-Saharan Africa as social techs actually serve only a small elite and do not contribute to widespread social development — we call these  ‘bourgeois-apps’. It’s not always easy for an outside funder or evaluator to notice how niche a tech might be, and in fact ‘re-pats’ and expats are often the ones making these applications. Part of the reason for this mismatch between an idea and a successful social tech, as some of our interviewees explained, is that the ‘re-pats’ typically need long periods of adjustment and ‘re-learning’ in order to operate in local business environments; another is that ‘re-pats’ (though not all) tend to come from high-opportunity backgrounds that do not always leave them well-placed to develop social techs with ‘base of the pyramid’ benefits. Similarly, an excellent recent report by Village Capital, ‘Breaking the Pattern,’ details how implicit bias is driving capitalization toward local ‘re-pats’ and Western expats, causing investors to overlook talent born, raised, and educated in Africa, because ‘re-pats’ and their ideas are more likely to be ‘legible’ to them. As former hub-worker in East Africa put it, Africans from the diaspora are ‘automatically placed higher in the pecking order.’ A former regulator, also in East Africa, sees part of the solution to this issue in encouraging more local flows of investment; he told us: ‘investment in Africa needs to be decolonized.’

Returning diaspora contribute greatly to their countries of origin and have a valuable role as ‘bridge’ people, but support for these entrepreneurs should not be at the expense of great local teams, who tend to have less access to global capital flows.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In Africa, every small business is a guineafowl—which deserves to fly away (to profitability)

In Africa, every small business is a guineafowl—which deserves to fly away (to profitability)

A Numida staff member teaches a new client how to use the Numida accounting system.

A Numida staff member teaches a new client how to use the Numida accounting system.

@valanchee Kampala, Uganda

Mina Shahid is the co-founder and co-CEO of Numida, a financial management mobile application that uses cash flow and behavioral data to unlock financing for potentially over 22 million African small businesses and enterprises. When Mina, a Canadian born systems engineer of Egyptian descent, starts talking about his startup, he does so with the enthusiasm and charisma of a startup co-founder—but he is also very philosophical, beginning with the history of his startup’s name: Numida. ‘Numida’ is creatively truncated from Numida meleagris — the Latin and scientific name for guineafowls. It’s commonplace for African families to domesticate guineafowls due to their excellent nutritional value. But because these fowls are wild birds, when they learn to fly, there is always the risk they could make away into the woodlands at the expense of the farmers’ investment in looking after them. To enable their domestication, their wings are clipped after hatching. Similarly, Mina believes that the wings of millions of small businesses in sub-Saharan Africa are clipped due to  the enormity of challenges they face and thus never have the opportunity to take-off. Without a fair chance, many great ideas lie ‘comatose’ and, with the passage of time, are silently off-loaded into limbo. Such wasted potential!

Where it all started

Ideas are a dime a dozen. Execution is everything. Such and many others are combat-inspired platitudes entrepreneurs love to use. However, sometimes ideas are executed as per the script, and things just don’t work out. Having worked with EWB Ventures, a Canadian seed-stage investment vehicle designed to cultivate talent and nurture early stage social enterprises in sub-Saharan Africa, Mina had firsthand experience working with disadvantaged communities.

“I was working as a consultant for the government of Ghana, at first, ” he says. “In 2012, we started a lending business in Ghana with a focus on agribusiness and particularly food security.” Despite the fact that these small businesses were the powerhouses of Ghana’s informal-sector dominated economy, a major challenge they faced was a lack of cash flow data to prove their business’s profitability and creditworthiness. However, after two and half years of working hard at the project, the lending service didn’t pan out as envisaged. The Ghanaian economy was not faring well. They closed shop and moved on. But the challenge and lessons learnt were the inspiration behind Numida.

“You cannot arrest an idea whose time has come.”—Victor Hugo

“One thing I decided was that if we were ever going to do this again, we would do it differently,” Mina says. Through assiduous collection of data about small businesses, and with an engaged behaviour change programme for the non-tech savvy SMEs, they could hit gold. The best and most promising avenue would be to develop an app on a widely accessible mobile platform.

“Ben Best, Numida’s third co-founder and CTO, and formerly a co-founder of the lending business in Ghana, used the experience he gained together with me to begin building Numida.” Mina recollects.

They did take their swing. One of many swings. Perhaps an infinite number of them. They began with exploratory market research in Uganda, Kenya, and Ghana about small businesses and their potential, and what could be done differently to enable them to take off. According to their preliminary findings, Uganda offered great potential. They decided that Uganda would be it. In January 2016, the not-for-profit Financial Sector Deepening Uganda (FSD Uganda) supported them with an initial grant to build the first version of their product and pilot it with 1000 small businesses in Kampala. Coincidentally, a couple of months earlier in 2015, a survey conducted by FSD Uganda and Technoserve found that 75% of small businesses identified cost and access to finance as a major barrier. So Numida had a stronger case and more support. The pilot kicked off in earnest in March 2016.

A staff member demos the Numida interface.

A staff member demos the Numida interface.

Supplementary or complementary solution?

A sheet of paper is arguably the greatest app that has ever existed. Fundamentally, businesses must create records for proof of transaction and for purposes of transparency, audit, and valuation, among others. Mina saw that verifiable records could also be used to extend loans to businesses, should the need arise.

For Numida this insight about records was a two-sided coin: it represented both a unique behavioural challenge (and threat) and a latent opportunity to effect tremendous systemic change amongst SMEs.

Millions of SME owners across Africa do not keep traditional, paper-based books or care to consistently document their accounts. The SMEs are deeply ensconced in informal settings, which never call for accountability or urgency, except when insufficient working capital suffocates them slowly and steadily to their unfortunate demises.

Numida, a financial management mobile application, is designed specifically for small businesses in Uganda that don’t keep financial data or record books.

It’s the first (true) Software as a Service for African small business.

But this has not been without challenges

Whereas Numida wants to bring fun into the staid and boring and tedious bookkeeping process, many SMEs have shunned and continue to shun its offering—much as it is to their disadvantage.

Although user onboarding is done by the Ugandans on the Numida team, who understand the subtleties of language and market context, aligning the business owners’ attitudes to modern and novel ways of bookkeeping is where the conundrums begin.

Inherent suspicion toward new practices within the small business owners community in Kampala is a big challenge, and Numida is the first product of its kind on the market.

“If people are viewing us in a skeptical way because we are new product and service, it’s definitely harder to do user acquisition” Mina says.

Competing inside a system that has been gamed: The damaging effects of Uganda’s two-lane internet

Beyond the trust issues that incessantly frustrate their activation and user onboarding programs, a major issue, and one often overlooked by industry experts, is the absence of net neutrality in much of sub-Saharan Africa. Numida’s CTO, Ben Best, recently wrote a passionate plea calling for net neutrality in Uganda and explaining the negative impact of its absence on their business.

Basically, there are two classes of mobile internet in Uganda (popularly known as MBs—Em Bees—or mobile data). The first is the full-open access internet similar to that enjoyed in many parts of the developed world. The second is called a “social bundle” and only provides access to Whatsapp, Twitter, and Facebook (dubbed ‘WTF’), and more recently, Snapchat. Social bundles, which are aggressively marketed by the telcos, are about four times cheaper than the full-open access internet data bundles. Both types of access are sold as 24 hour sessions.

For a business owner to use the Numida app, he or she has to go to the Google Play store and download the application. However the majority of the first time users fail to do so along the way because the app cannot be downloaded using social bundles, which many of them religiously subscribe to. Data can be entered offline, but periodic saving and syncing requires access to the full internet as well. The social bundles are so pervasive that for most Ugandans, the ‘WTF’ internet essentially is the internet. Because of this, small business owners don’t understand it when they cannot download the Numida app or save data. You cannot blame them.

“We’re in the market where the largest multi billion dollar tech companies have an unfair advantage over startups,” Mina decries. “This disincentivizes innovation and makes it very hard for local startups like Numida to compete.”

Telecommunications companies have long been complicit in such dubious preferential treatment of the internet through coy marketing campaigns promoting the subsidised social bundles.

In retrospect, however, it is clear that many of today’s  large tech companies were successful in large part because they were built on open standards and systems and architectures.

But with the proliferation of social media, the calls to Numida to embrace and build off social media platforms could not be any louder. Besides the big tech giants have lately upped their ante by promoting themselves as strategic and supportive deployment platforms. Mina is not particularly impressed with this suggestion: being a third party on a platform whose terms and conditions are not inclusive of Numida’s goals and prospects. “Everybody is being forced to build bots and services for the Facebook messenger platform, ” he says, “What happens when Facebook decides that Uganda is no longer a market that is interesting to them? What products and services will Ugandans use then, in this unfortunate event?”

Entrepreneurs and staff members talk inside the Numida office in Kampala, Uganda.

Entrepreneurs and staff members talk inside the Numida office in Kampala, Uganda.

Reality check: can you hear me now?

Mina says working with the telcos is inevitable, especially in the future when Numida has gained significant traction. And in this case, it would be the numbers of small business owners who’d be religiously using the app to keep and monitor their records that would provide a double win for them and for the telcos in the long run.

While potentially a dangerous model to emulate, telcos in Uganda have formed close alliances with sports betting companies because there is a mad dash for the services they offer: Quick gains from gambling (at least the promise of) on text-enabled mobile devices using mobile money wallets, without a worry of fees to connect to the internet. It’s about the numbers both telcos and gambling companies love to see on their bottom lines.

In fact, Numida product manager, Christopher Stern, has been thinking about how to include game mechanics common with sports betting in their app, too. This comes after having recently attended the Digital Skills Observatory (DSO) workshop in Nairobi, Kenya organised by the Mozilla Foundation. The workshop was a product of a year long study on the experiences of a growing class of first time Kenyan smartphone users and their interaction with digital financial services. One key takeaway from the  study was the quick uptake and pervasiveness in East Africa of gambling and sports betting via mobile phones. 

However, Numida is fundamentally different because their mission calls for social impact on top of creating value for their users and ensuring the sustainability of the app itself—unlike telcos and sports betting companies which are concerned only with their bottom lines. The task at hand is to make using the Numida app as enticing  as the sports betting apps. How can Numida leverage the mechanics that endear the rich and poor to sports betting, while maintaining their social mission? For example if they promised small businesses quick rewards such as instant loans, or celebrated good record keeping performance according to some sort of leaderboard, would they have a better shot at success ? Perhaps. Would these perks incentivize the users to religiously commit to the mundane task of digital book keeping? Perhaps. These assumptions and more only show that developing a product market fit is no mean feat.

A new pair of wings

Nobody is documenting the cash flow data of small scale businesses and in this data Numida sees a gold mine. To be able to grow and scale, however, Numida will need a pair of new wings. Mina confesses that the grant from FSD Uganda was a critical enabler at the stage before building a product. He explains this is because private investors do not just invest their capital in the company but also become advisers. Your problem becomes theirs too, and they are usually invested for the long haul unlike many other kinds of investors.

Mina says that they have been lucky with their grants but nonetheless there is no such thing as an unconditional grant—every grant has some sort of condition. It gets worse when this grant money is inflexible—it could be a potential killer, more lethal than the lack of access to finance in the first place. The product cycles for tech projects are built on the premises of rapid iterations and pivots whenever the need arise. However many grants are structured in a way that doesn’t allow dynamism and agility. Failure to adhere to the terms of reference could mean failure to unlock a cheque to enable further product development.

“If you’re trying to build a private business, it’s dangerous to rely on grant money because then, there is a lack of incentive to actually develop a business model that works—and is sustainable.” Mina says.

Working for the “dual bottom line” is extremely challenging; Numida carries the yoke of rendering social and economic impact in one shot. While on the other hand, for users to unlock value, they must invest the time in entering data on their mobiles, day by day, to fully harness the benefits of the app. It’s unlike their usual daily dopamine infested bread—Whatsapp and Facebook. And sports betting.

 

This Ugandan Lady is Using Technology to Teach Women Business Skills

Sherifah takes questions at the 2016 ZImba Women Summit at the Sheraton Hotel in Kampala.

Sherifah takes questions at the 2016 ZImba Women Summit at the Sheraton Hotel in Kampala.

@valanchee Kampala, Uganda

Her CV is intimidating. Sherifah Tumusiime is the co-founder of Zimba Women, a Ugandan-based enterprise that uses technology to equip young women and girls with skills requisite for running their businesses. In 2015, she was inaugurated as a YALI Fellow, an exceptional leadership program initiated by former U.S president Barack Obama to foster leadership training among young African leaders on the world stage. She is the founder of Uganda’s first online babystore. And among others, she is a comp science grad from Uganda’s historical and most prestigious university, Makerere.

While she expressed discomfort toward the label “social enterprise," and particularly social tech because she felt it was limiting, she was generous enough to share with us her experience in the trenches. We had the opportunity of picking her brain on social tech entrepreneurship in Uganda, and sub-Saharan Africa at large.

The fledgling Zimba Women has big plans. It has trained over 250 women since its inception in 2014, 60 of which are actively running their own businesses. Zimba Women recognised a significant void in the ecosystem that wasn’t inclusive of women and girls' participation. Progress on gender equity is somewhat feeble and lacks the ambition the media has conditioned us to expect. The first steps are what are the most important: a foundation that is built on solid rock. One that can withstand difficult phases and can take on any form of tribulation without sinking.

“Social tech ecosystems,” she says, “just like any other ecosystem, should be self-servicing.” For example, the Madhvani sugar factory that opened shop in Eastern Uganda decades ago, by virtue of having a conveyor belt and machinery to breakdown molasses, set the pace for development of ancillary services and infrastructure like schools, hospitals, airstrip, among others. The unseen factor at play is the intensity of capital and labor.

Sherry seems to suggest that social impact is just something you can’t control, at least implicitly, without developing the supporting structures. This directly influences the almost cliched call of solving problems, and in this case not first world problems.

For her the most pressing problems to deal with are inclusion and access; to markets, education, good governance. But she is skeptical on the role of the government as the master of fate for her people. “Taking on the government is like putting a band aid to a bleeding artery. There is only so much it can do.” She asserts. She remains optimistic of the initiatives to extend services akin to public goods that should otherwise have been rendered by the government. She hopes that maybe, and just maybe, these little initiatives can stoke a fire that would later on spread wildly.

History has showed us the succeeding state of affairs especially when governments (African governments) receive alms for development (with exclusion of emergency and debt relief), the script usually involves newly acquired posh apartments in Europe and flashy brand new jeeps. This dilemma is sucked up in an infinite loop only getting close to answers when tough speaking commissions of inquiry are instituted, but yet, only getting parabolic; so close but never offering conclusive findings or prescription of punitive measures to the indicted.

“However, government is intrinsically preeminent,” she quips, with a look resigned to fate. The concerns Sherry raises about the rot in government coffers are genuine, but she still believes in the long term commitment to good governance, mitigation of abuse of tyranny and iniquities of evil men, hence fostering projects of great social impact. In the short term she calls for a mixup of strategies from the more frugal and astute private sector. “The Tony Elumelu Foundation has showed us that it is possible,” she says. Tony Elumelu is a Nigerian billionaire who is giving back to society, $100 million to support entrepreneurship among young Africans.

She was also quick to mention a strategic, and perhaps philanthropic move, by James Mwangi, the chairman of Equity Bank Group Kenya. He is funding talented and underprivileged Kenyans to join leading schools in the West, upon whose graduation they’d return home and give back to their communities. This is almost in the same spirit as the Tom Mboya Foundation, named after Kenya’s erstwhile vice president, which funds air travel tickets for young Kenyans going to study abroad.

The skills they get, and the experiences they have, foment a chain ripple effect of redeeming the home countries when they return. That’s where the core element of social impact lies.

She says if there are several such programs through the year, the ecosystem would self-service with such fluidity that pressing societal problems would be tackled one by one by the young people, who are one of the biggest resources the continent has. Yet, if not mentored and provided with meaningful opportunities, could potentially be the greatest source of anarchy and undoing meted on the continent.

When asked about fundamental issues holding young Africans back, from social tech enterprises mostly, she was quick to refer us to a study carried out not so long ago: the East Africa Youth Survey Report, published by the Aga Khan Foundation in the first half of 2016, which contained dumbfounding revelations about the values, concerns, attitudes and aspirations of a predominantly young populace in Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania and Rwanda, about 80% of the population being less than 35 years.

The study reveals that while youth are suffering from and concerned about unemployment, they are willing to be part of the solution by creating jobs through entrepreneurship. The study also reveals that while the youth hold positive values, they believe political participation is a critical civic duty.

However, between 40% of the respondents would only vote for a candidate for political office if they received a bribe. With the exception of Rwanda, there is a veritable crisis of integrity among East African youth. For example, over 50-58% of the youth in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania believed it did not matter how one made money as long as one did not end up in jail. Only 21% of Rwandan youth held the same view. Similarly, only 10% of Rwandan youth said they would take or give a bribe, compared to 35-44 % in the other three countries.

Overall, East African youth are positive and optimistic about the future and are confident that it will be more prosperous, offering more jobs and better access to health and education. However, with the exception of Rwanda, youth in Kenya and Uganda believe their societies will only become more corrupt and poorer in values and ethics, and that youth will engage in substance abuse.

While the findings may seem contradictory – hopeful and depressing – there is an opportunity to focus on developing and channeling strongly held, positive values of faith, family, hard work and entrepreneurship. The strongly held values and the spirit of enterprise, along with impressive GDP growth, must be leveraged to address the challenge of unemployment, especially among university-educated youth.

In short, Sherry saw the East African region as the ultimate showdown of making it against all odds. Whether through hard work (underhandedness and unscrupulousness inclusive), or through sheer chance and good old traditional luck, survival was second nature. And it is not like there are incentives for that.

What is happening in East Africa is basically what political scientists have called “personal anarchy,” where one’s moral decisions are mostly based on their impact on oneself. For example, why is there no perceived benefit to an East African youth to behaving in a way that strengthens civil society? Whatever the reasons, clearly if social good is not at the top of your mind, or something you consider routinely in your daily decisions, it seems unlikely to provide a fertile ground for social tech.

Social tech in Uganda through the eyes of a foot soldier

Felix Mwebe, to the right, at UNICEF Innovation Lab, Kampala.

Felix Mwebe, to the right, at UNICEF Innovation Lab, Kampala.

@valanchee Kampala, Uganda

Felix Mwebe passionately swears by the mantra: give me a platform. He succinctly seems to suggest that all he's ever needed is to be given just access to the big stage. With that he promises to perform feats of magic never seen before.

His mantra is perhaps analogous to giving a hacker unencumbered access to a zero-day (for the uninitiated, a zero-day is system exploit that is not yet discovered by the system architects. Many last inordinate lengths). Having access to a zero-day is more like giving them power to do whatever they deem important, at least as long as the loopholes exist.

But certainly, when the loopholes in the systems are patched, then the hacker would have to wait for another hand out, another zero-day. Another day.

With the benefit of context, many young people in sub Saharan Africa are basically hacking through the challenges which continue to pillage the cog of service delivery. The passion, purpose and the unwavering resolve to develop meaningful solutions to some of their communities’ biting problems and challenges radiate in the air. Just the way it is supposed to be. But without doubt, addressing these problems especially through the use of technology for social good has met significant bottlenecks, even while not foregoing the immense successes birthed thereof.

Felix Mwebe is the founder and managing director of Projectic Group of Companies. A fledgling design agency in Kampala, Uganda. At face value, his company looks like a struggling lone wolf inundated by the imposing superiority of the sub Saharan mara, but on the contrary, there is so much more than meets the eye. Projectic does a bevy of things; from branding and design, to research, and a division he calls Think tank and innovation – the social tech division of the conglomerate for lack of a better word.

We had the pleasure of having a chat with Felix Mwebe especially about his journey and experience developing tools for social tech innovation in Uganda, given his vast and previous experience with UNICEF Uganda.

On Joining UNICEF Uganda and Discovering His Star

It was one bright afternoon in 2010, during his undergraduate studies in Telecommunications engineering at Kyambogo University where he serendipitously bumped into Seth Harry, a man working for UNICEF Uganda.  As luck, and deliberate efforts, would have it, Felix kicked off a friendship that got him invited to the UNICEF’s innovation lab in Mbuya, a suburb out of Kampala city.

Just an invitation, like being given a platform, saw him getting offered an internship/volunteering opportunity with the ambitious innovation lab of the time. At his time in UNICEF Uganda, he mainly worked with extending support to the development of the Digital Drum/Rugged ICT kiosk project targeted at the youth centres. The major objective was to extend solar-powered and maintenance free knowledge-sharing computers to millions of young people who lived and still live in rural areas notoriously known for lack of basic amenities such as clean water and electricity, and lately the internet.

But not limited to only the digital drum project, he also participated, among others, in the development and maintenance of the WASH project aimed at improving water sanitation in the country where access to safe and piped water remains a preserve of just about half of the population.  

The Role of Young People in Finding Solutions to Local Problems

“The future is now, but we aren’t any better from yesterday.”

Well, to a large extent Uganda and sub Saharan Africa at large have made significant leaps in development of public civic infrastructure, trade positions, health, education, etc. But with these improvements, the continent continues to significantly lag  behind the developed world.

Behind the scene are explosions in population all over sub Saharan Africa. This puts the average age of Africans at 18 years, compared to say 44 years for Japan. Yet what we continue to see are high dependence burdens and searing pressures on scarce resources.

"Nonetheless, sub Saharan Africa continues to have hope in its young people as is evident in the initiatives taken to forge life especially where the governing authorities have fallen short." He adds, "The hunger to improve the status quo has undeniably been noticed by some players in the private sector I have worked with. Although I am quite sure there are many others betting against the winds of institutional shortfalls."

The Role of Social Tech Hubs

He's had a pleasant experience of visiting RLabs in Cape Town in 2016. RLabs were founded in 2008 with the sole aim of giving hope to the young people who are sucked up in drugs, crime and despair. The divide fuelled by the apartheid history in South Africa, dearth of skills, and continued economic suppression of the black community in the rainbow country were largely the premise for RLabs to be established.  The restoration centre, which now has five labs all over South Africa, heralded an innovative system of remunerating any young person, for showing up at the centre. Yes, whoever showed up!

While firmly entrenched in restoring hope, the labs had a model of bringing struggling young people together, and equipping them with skills that they would in the near term find invaluable such as accounting, computer maintenance, and videography among others. In turn, they would form collective and meaningful relationships and consequently lead paths different to what was previously making them desolate.

The system creatively named Latos is a log system where points are realised for every lesson attended. In turn, the points can be redeemed for a meal, a cuppa, and also voucher cards to make purchases at local and nearby retail shops and supermarkets.

Moving away from the business-y and profit driven incubation and innovation hubs in Uganda at that time,  Felix and others travelled to learn how they could implement such a system for a similar social initiative in Uganda.

Soon enough they found Plan International was in advanced stages of starting a similar model of empowering young people and giving them a chance of believing in their dreams however impossible they seemed.

In 2015, SmartUP Kalerwe commenced activities in a suburb north of the capital, Kampala. The SmartUP initiative deeply explores the problems facing the youth between 17 to 26 years and attempts to tailor a comprehensive program they believe would solve most of their problems. In Uganda, according to Felix's research , there was severe unemployment and underemployment due to lack of bankable skills. Through building on latent talent spotted among the youth, SmartUP fosters growth in sports, computer maintenance, secretarial work development, photography, videography among others.

While these skills may seem random to a highly polemic society, they could potentially lend a second chance to someone without skills and hope to lead a meaningful life. And the role of such initiatives is to help the young people become invested in seeking solutions for challenges which are systemic to their communities.  

At the moment, the hub is in advanced stages of spreading across to five other districts in the country mostly concentrated in the northern part of the country namely Gulu, Lira, Alebtong. Also, the second national SmartUP lab is in advanced stages of opening in Addis Ababa in Ethiopia.

The Demand for Local Content

Local content is content which is relevant to a community’s needs and as such may be defined by location, culture, language, religion, ethnicity or area of interest.

Concomitant to the demand in local content, social entrepreneurs and distinguished organisations doing social tech work are filling this void. It has been said that Africa’s education system for example is trapped in the gripes of a colonial education system which should have been antiquated and safely stored as a relic of the past. Yet we continue to see continued complacency. And this is not only with education, but thematically distributed; in health and entrepreneurship among others.

Local content has arguably been a major buzzword of social tech in sub Saharan Africa. To suggest its dearth, or lack of sufficiency, ignores fundamental and structural challenges to social tech.

Challenges of Social Tech Initiatives

The ravages of hunger:
While young people are the pillars of the social tech movement if I may call it so, young people are arguably one of the greatest weaknesses too. Most of them forge a path in social tech entrepreneurship because it seems like the easy way out, or at least promises to be. Indeed, especially due to the fact that it often is the easier route of lining up for grants and other forms of equity-free impact investment. The ravages of hunger are quenched without regard staying true to the course of social entrepreneurship. 

Commitment from young people:
Skin in the game is an adage to signify how much perseverance a social entrepreneur ought to have. Many of the young people are like the proverbial canary in the coal mine which dies upon first incidence of oxygen exhaustion.

Over reliance on expats:
Significant initiatives supported by large international funds and organisations hire expats to do everything from preliminary research studies right to conceptualisation and development at the expense of local and much affordable expertise. Besides, expats have had to learn almost entirely everything about the uncharted areas they are sent to hence increasing not only product/service development cycles but also bleeding other resources which would otherwise have been significant.

Long term commitment to social tech projects:
Commitment to social tech projects is uncertain because of reasons only privy to mostly the supporting organisations. For example UNICEF’s Digital Drum project was discontinued. Closely related was Teacher-in-a-box, a project which never saw the light of day, among many others. This is not only party to large organisations but also to individuals since some projects may not kick off as expected.

Software ate social tech hardware:
It is true. In fact, to borrow a pithy anecdote from Marc Andreessen’s proclamation that software ate hardware, in this case; software ate social tech hardware. This is so because most of the prototypical social tech solutions require some form of equipment and hardware especially in education, agriculture, health and sanitation. However, innovating through hardware constantly is expensive and success henceforth is not guaranteed. This has in turn increased social tech innovation through development of software, and apps, which may not have immediate impact, but are favoured since it is the more affordable channel.

The future of social tech is backed by data

Developing products for sub Saharan Africa can be a challenge given the demands of problems at hand coupled with the severe lack of constituent data.

UNICEF’s Pulse Lab in Kampala one of the three, others being in Jakarta and New York— was started to collect and analyse meagre and hard-to-find data to drive policy decisions, resource allocation, mentor data experts, among others.

"This is a move in the right direction to making data driven social investments (that will endure)." Felix says.

On recounting his experience, it feels like he's just dropped a soliloquy. Trancelike, only because of his zest to inspire and empower.