Mobile Phones Spawn a Revolution in Entrepreneurship in East Africa

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Len Rosen's picture

This week the people of Kenya are waiting to find out who they have elected to lead them for the next few years. But real leadership is coming from a new generation of young people with access to cellular phones and the Internet.

Today 26 million of Kenya's 41 million citizens have mobile phones and almost two-thirds of these users conduct business from them including online banking, news searches and seeking of information on health and medical issues. And Kenya's population is young with almost 60% between the ages of 15 and 35, a population eager to use new technology including mobile phones and the Internet.

All this connectivity is inspiring a new generation of entrepreneurs, some who have found a place in which to hatch their ideas. The organization is called iHub, an innovation community located in Nairobi, Kenya's capital, that provides a physical incubator for new inventions and business ideas. But iHub isn't just a physical space. It is also a virtual community reaching out to more than 6,000 members and receiving about 1,000 new applications to join annually.

iHub

If you visit the website Rolodex it currently lists 121 new startups of which the following nine caught my eye.

  • Afritorial.com - an Africa-focused content aggregator and news hub.
  • BTI Millman Company - a software developer who has created an application that uses SMS technology to send and receive data collected by field teams for analysis.
  • CORDIO East Africa - a research institute focused on studying sustainable development and marine conservation in the Indian Ocean.
  • MFarm Ltd - an agribusiness software developer of a free mobile application that collects wholesale market price information on 42 crops in five markets within Kenya and brokers deals on behalf of small farm sellers connecting them to buyers.
  • StartupAfrica - a blog site that offers new African business startups a place to tell their stories and includes postings on investment and other business-related topics.
  • Synacor - an application developer focused on improving living standards in Africa with a focus on water and transport. Their latest product is Majisoft, a mobile software-as-a-service application for water utilities.
  • The Kuyu Project - focused on digital literacy for African youth. They have developed a prototype product called StorySpaces, a mobile application for online global conversations.
  • Ubuni CIC - providing mobile learning or mlearning to create social impact around such issues as poverty, health, occupational training and agriculture.
  • Ufahamu - means "awareness" in Swahili. The organization provides a data mapping and visualization platform for health issues such as sanitation and associated diseases, asthma, diabetes, and malaria.

Recently 10 companies in the iHub incubator received seed funding from venture capitalists. iHub's past success stories include two worthy of note.

Ushahidi

Ushahidi, meaning "testimony" in Swahili, came into existence because of the disruptive violence that followed the disputed Kenyan presidential election in 2008. Concerned citizens who were also good programmers got together and decided that crowdsourcing incidents of violence and pacification would be useful. They built Ushahidi as an open-source platform allowing anyone with access to the web or a mobile phone the ability to join an online community and submit incidents to the site which would then appear on a map. Since its founding Ushahidi has gone viral (see map below) and is now crowdsourcing crises around the world including the 2010 Haitian earthquake and more recently in 2012, Hurricane Sandy. I checked to see if Ushahidi has anything going in my neck of the woods and found a site focused on the Great Lakes, with news announcements, data reports, and events all accessible by clicking on the map interface.

 

Map-of-Ushahidi-Maps--500x240

MedAfrica

MedAfrica is a healthcare app that runs on mobile phones. It links people to health content and services with a goal to improve the overall health of Kenya's population. The current app contains a directory of 7,000 doctors and 3,000 hospitals, plus information on diseases and on tracking signs and symptoms. The goal eventually is for MedAfrica to tie in content voluntarily provided by pharmaceutical companies and other players in healthcare, allow app users to connect to doctors by mobile phone to discuss medical problems and setup appointments.

 

MedAfrica in use

 

Mobile phones have given a whole new meaning to the words "Out of Africa." And maybe in the near future when I write about the MIT Technology Review 50 New Disruptive Companies, several will have taken their first steps from incubators like iHub.

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