10 African tech startups worth watching

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It’s practically a tradition to follow a post like this with a good old-fashioned flame-war where everyone reveals his or her own sense of inadequacy. In order to save time I’d like to encourage you to stop reading now and skip to the bottom and start doing that right away; that way I can continue by typing Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet and get away with it.

Disclaimers: I have left out Motribe, my own company, because I think that would legitimately earn me some flames. I have also left out all the usual suspects from South Africa because they already get tons of coverage. No-one has bribed me to be on this list, though that’s more a sign of my inability to hustle than a lack of interest.

My definition of startup will also be questioned, so here it is before the trolls start their stomping: a startup is a company or product team in the process of developing and proving its business model and market assumptions. Yes, this means that I think there can be a startup inside a corporate.

Now that I have finished covering my own ass, and before we get into the list itself, let me say this: haters gonna hate. See you in the comments.

1. The First National Bank mobile apps team
Inside FNB, there is a team of people who are quietly, and sometimes not so quietly, changing the way the public interacts with their bank and more importantly, their money. The release of the FNB smartphone app has changed mobile banking for me personally and everyone I know who uses it, which is a fantastic result for a first release. The challenges this team face are numerous: technology development in a space as regulated as banking is tough and finding a way to create new customers as opposed to converting existing online bankers is going to be tougher.

2. ForgetMeNot Africa
Six mobile operators in Africa have implemented ForgetMeNot’s Message Optimiser platform already and it helps people access the Internet via SMS. The technology won the best innovation award at the Mobile Entertainment Forum’s (MEF) Meffy Awards this year. ForgetMeNot has several product offerings all focused on mobile technology and providing access to mobile users in Africa. Its primary investor is LonZim, a UK company focused on investing in businesses in Zimbabwe and Mozambique.

3. Bandeka

Forbes recently covered Bandeka, a social network for “well-educated Africans”. Despite how raw it is to just stand up and say you’re elitist about your membership, the dating angle on this social network makes it a clear candidate for success in Africa and it also makes the content so much more interesting. For instance, at the time of writing ,the featured question on the home page from women to men is “Is it better for the relationship if your wife handles the household chores?”

4. iCow
A good place to watch for the next hot startups in Africa is the iHub and iCow is no exception. iCow is a feature phone and SMS app that helps farmers to track analytics about their cows ranging from gestation to immunization and access information about diseases, find local veterinarians and optimise their animals’ healthcare.

5. Ushahidi
Ushahidi is a non-profit startup in Kenya with a great team and some brilliant success stories. They provide an open-source disaster-mapping platform that integrates social media, mobile and other digital inputs. The service was used during the 2008 Kenyan elections and the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. The platform helps collect incident reports and map them onto a location-based timeline. Have a look at the Haiti site as an example of how it works.

6. Mobiflock
By far one of the most appealing tools for parental control I have seen in ages, Mobiflock helps parents restrict what their kids can do on their phones. I’ve seen this startup pitch a few times and the message is consistent: mobile phones are a necessity for kids and this is how you make them safer. This kind of parental control is not for everyone but I am sure it will be popular with those You Magazine tannies who are tired of their daughters selling naked pics for moola.

7. MXit
Speaking of Moola, now that Alan Knott Craig Jr has taken over MXit, the massive South African instant messaging service and optimised the headcount we are going to witness a race against time for the company to pivot. Why would MXit need to pivot when it’s growing by 50 000 users a day? Because the Java app for feature phones is not going to be technologically defensible for long and the challenge the new management team face is how to make the platform (as opposed to the interface) relevant in five years time. Start your clocks, my guess is it has about two years to figure out what it is going to become.

8. Snapt
Dave Blakey is a clever guy and his new software startup Snapt is already gathering some insanely cool international customers. The Snapt platform provides good-looking UX for open-source software like HA Proxy and Squid. If you have ever had to set up HA proxy on Linux you would know why this is such a useful thing to have. It’s pure geeky stuff with the kind of polish we all wish open source software had.

9. TwinPine
Everyone knows, or should know, that Nigeria is the place to be when it comes to mobile services and advertising. TwinPine is a new Nigerian mobile advertising platform that has some really big properties including Vanguard mobile, MTN, Jobberman and Pepsi.

10. Prices.com.ng
Every country needs a price comparison site but, more importantly, every country needs a clear winner in the category otherwise the consumer has to work harder. Prices.com.ng is one of the early entrants into what must be a tough market to do pricing comparisons in so let’s hope it sticks around long enough to survive.

Now that we’re done with this list there is one final point I’d like to make before the comments start: this is not a top ten list even though the items are numbered. The order is arbitrary and any startups not on this list are not being left out because they are irrelevant. If you want to see some good startup coverage have a look at startupafrica.com or do some of your own searches.

There are a few closing remarks worth making about the African scene in general:

  1. The iHub is something to watch and the more of those kinds of initiatives the better. It’s certainly put Nairobi on the tech map.

  2. Lagos and Accra are the next two startup hubs and with the vast West African population as a testing ground I think many good things are going to come from that region.
  3. Francophone Africa is either not producing interesting tech startups or it’s incapable of breaking into the English-speaking space on the publicity level. Someone please prove me wrong here.
  4. Many (not all) African startups suffer from extremely poor user experience and design. This is a major weakness and needs to be given more attention.
  5. The investment community is growing and so is the startup community. This means that there is less fear of failure and better opportunities for technologists who want to give it a shot.

Hopefully this will have given you some food for thought. See you in the comments

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