I’ve just had the pleasure of attending the DEMO Africa 2012 conference in Nairobi, Kenya, which wrapped up yesterday. The conference, which was the first ever African version of the long standing series of global DEMO conferences, was designed to bring African high tech entrepreneurs together with investors from around the world.
My own objective for attending was neither as entrepreneur nor investor, but as a “fly on the wall” trying to identify potentially interesting business opportunities by getting a sense of current trends and the needs of the local markets. There was a lot crammed into the two day conference which would be too much to cover in one post, so for now I will summarize a few of my top observations and take-aways.
Move over “e” and “i”. Make room for “m”.
Mobile technologies dominated in this conference which was, of course, no surprise. Companies with names such as mKazi, Mprep, mPawa, Mverified, and mTracker showcased their respective innovations creating access to advanced technologies using simple low-end feature phone technology.
One question nagging me about many of these products, however, was what would happen to their business models in a few years time when smartphone technology inevitably becomes cheaper and more durable. This is why one of my favorite presentations was by a company called Balefyre which develops a software platform which acts as a bridge between the protocols used for modern smartphone applications and USSD, the protocol currently used for applications on low-end feature phones – essentially extending the life of these apps and bridging them into the smartphone and smart tablet era.
“It’s like _____ but localized”
One running theme among many of the demonstrators was products or services which were similar to those already in use in developed countries, but adapted for the local markets.
One example that stood out was Maliyo Games which makes localized casual games (simple, intuitive games, “like Angry Birds but localized“). During their presentation they debuted a new game “Mosquito Smasher 2“, which was an instant hit with the audience.
Another stand-out was Sasa Africa, which made clever use of existing feature phone and mobile payment technologies to create a platform for artisans and artists from remote locations to sell their wares online. Vendors can access the platform and make online sales from their villages without the need for direct access to the Internet, or common online payment mechanisms (“like etsy.com but localized”).
With a camera phone and a simple GSM feature phone app, vendors photograph their wares and post them online to the Sasa platform using SMS. When a purchase is made, they receive a text message instructing them to go to their local M-PESA agent for product verification, shipment, and payment. Although Sasa is focusing on arts and crafts, it’s easy to see how this method could be used to connect all kinds of small merchants around the world to the Internet.
I do have one nit to pick: I felt that many of the companies presenting were addressing what I call “luxury” problems – e.g. how to order a burger online, real-time chat rooms for television programs, concierge services, etc). Don’t get me wrong, most of these were great products with real demand. But something I felt was lacking at the conference were solutions that addressed fundamental “bottom of the pyramid” needs such as health care, access to food, electricity, clean water, etc.
There were, of course, some notable exceptions, one that I liked in particular being FarmerLine which wasn’t actually part of the Final 40, but one of the winners of the Apps4Africa contest sponsored by the U.S. Department of State (see video message by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton).
FarmerLine provides relevant agricultural information directly to remote farmers across the region in real time in the form of both SMS text as well as voice messages (to ensure that even those who cannot read can benefit). This is intended to help remote farmers increase yields and profits as well as improve the food security and nutrition situation on the continent.
I would have loved to have seen more companies like FarmerLine at the conference. What I think would be an excellent enhancement for next year’s DEMO Africa would be the creation of a category specifically for technologies addressing basic fundamental “bottom of the pyramid” needs.
Microsoft and Nokia
Another aspect I personally found interesting was the high profile sponsorship and presence of Microsoft and Nokia at this conference. It was a bit of a delicate dance as on the one hand both companies wished to demonstrate their partnership and solidarity by appearing together as much as possible, while on the other hand trying hard to ignore a certain elephant in the room.
Attending this conference was a highly educational experience for me personally. It helped me begin to get an sense of the similarities and differences between this world and the ICT world I am more familiar with in the developed world. There is currently a genuine energy and excitement in the African ICT sector which is being led from the ground up by the private sector while at the same time being supported by government entities such as the Kenya ICT Board (also a sponsor of this conference). It’s easy to see why so many of us in the developed world are beginning to get drawn in.
But it’s hard to say where it will go from here, things change rapidly in ICT. We could be witnessing the beginning of a whole new era for Africa, or it could simply be the start of the next big bubble. Either way, if you are from the developed world and interested in getting involved in the African ICT sector, this seems to be the ideal moment. There is a huge need for technical and business expertise in Africa, while at the same time many in the developed world are still sitting on the fence waiting for a more comfortable moment to enter the market.