30 brilliant African tech startups

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The methodology behind this list of startups had two simple directives. First, the startup had to have African roots and secondly it had to be brilliant.

More specifically, we were looking for that type of brilliance that exudes intelligence, talent, quality or simply, something fresh. Of course brilliance, like most things in life, is subjective, so we went into this journey with an open mind. Tabula rasa if you will and we hoped to recognise brilliance when we saw it. We did, over and over again.

Why did we focus on Africa? The continent’s one-billion people are coming online and 600-million of them already have mobile phones. It is estimated that by 2040, Africa’s working age population will be the largest in the world, making for a large number of young, active consumers — the brand conscious, aspirational demographic businesses covet. In the last 10 years 117-million Africans have migrated to cities, establishing a larger, wealthier concentration of people in need of goods and services and making Africa more urbanised than India and almost on par with China. Consumer spending grows by four percent a year and by 2020, Accenture estimates that poverty levels in Africa will fall to 20% from nearly 45% percent in the1980s.

The secret is out. Wired likens the opportunities in Africa to those of the pre-dotcom boom in 1995. Says the magazine: “If you want to become extremely wealthy over the next five years, and you have a basic grasp of technology, here’s a no-brainer: move to Africa.”

So what opportunities are indigenous African tech startups seizing? Let’s take a look. Please note that this list is not exhaustive by any stretch of the imagination. Instead, consider it a sampling of African talent and be sure to let us know about brilliant startups that should also be on this list. We look forward to hearing from you and compiling a sequel to this article.

22seven – South Africa

This startup made a disruptive entrance into the personal finance management scene just a few weeks ago when it launched to equal measures of censure and praise. The closest thing to the wildly successful Mint to come out of the African continent, 22seven shows you how you’ve spent your money, helps you think about why and suggests changes you can make to better manage your income.

Why is it brilliant? The user interface design and experience is both exceptionally powerful and beautiful. Yes, the Flash platform is an offbeat choice and yes, it’s scary to entrust your banking details to anyone, let alone a faceless site on the web, but don’t let that detract from the fact that 22seven is an ultra compelling service created with plenty of swagger and style.

This Army – South Africa

Two apps in particular called, Tank and Ammo, developed by this South African startup with a penchant for militant naming conventions, caught our attention. Tank is an easy-to-use browser based app for building websites and Ammo helps you build mobile optimised eCommerce stores.

Why are they brilliant? Both of these apps are ridiculously intuitive, user friendly and exude a type of magnetic elegance that sucks you in. Tank supports Markdown as well as standard HTML markup so it manages to be newbie friendly, without being too restrictive. While setting up an Ammo test account, we began wishing we had things to sell on the platform. It’s just such a pleasant environment to be in.

Taxi Rank – South Africa

Down in Cape Town, Taxi Rank makes it easy for the city’s 4-million citizens to catch a cab. Simply enter your pick-up and drop-off destinations to compare estimated quotes from multiple cab companies. Once you select a quote, the cab company will send you a text message confirming the pick-up time and cost. Taxi Rank’s mobile site can automatically pinpoint your location if your phone supports browser based geolocation — no need to provide a pick-up point.

Why is it brilliant? The Taxi Rank design is intelligently simple and it works beautifully. It follows Google’s less is more approach to deliver a supremely useful service in uncluttered style.

Dropifi – Ghana

The team behind Dropifi are re-imagining one of the web’s oldest and most resolute elements, the “Contact us” form. The Dropifi solution consists of a website plug-in, optional QR code (for print-outs) and an analytics tool.

The plug-in simplifies and speeds up contact form implementation on company websites and presents an unobtrusive interface to customers. The novelty QR code can be printed out and is a fun way of directing users to a company’s online Dropifi contact form. The final part of the solution allows companies to extract intelligence from messages received through their Dropifi contact forms and makes responding to incoming messages easy.

Why is it brilliant? What was the last big innovation in “Contact us” forms? Autofill? Dropifi boldly pushes the age-old convention forward. It gives companies better organisation of customer correspondence, while at the same time providing customer insight.

Companies can for example, gain insight into recurring issues through “trending topics” harvested from customer messages and how well (or badly) the company measures up to the industry query response average. For end-users filling in contact forms, the Dropifi experience is simple, quick and even fun.

Lekoua and Son – Cameroon

The X-NetPhone is the result of a collaborative effort by Lekoua and Son (L & F) and three expatriates based in Germany and the USA. Assembled in China and now sold in Cameroon, the creators proudly underline the phone’s simplicity. The bare-bones approach means the phone is dirt cheap at EUR€16 for a standard version and EUR€19 with a camera. Other features include dual SIM slots, MP3/MP4 player, radio and flashlight.

Why is it brilliant? The X-NetPhone was tailor made for the Cameroonion market. Nothing more, nothing less, just a simple, practical phone for under US$25.

Pulse – Cameroon

Pulse is ambitious. Born out of frustration with inefficient communication channels at the University of Buea and other universities in West Africa, it aims to connect students with teachers through a social network. Another social network, yes, but with a twist.

The project differs from similar projects, such as the South African Obami, by offering students and teachers US$50 Android based tablets which they can use at free university Wi-Fi hotspots.

The project aims to bring offline notice boards, in-class announcements and word of mouth communication online and will cast the communication medium net as wide as possible, allowing correspondence through SMS, the web and email.

The pilot program launched in Q4 of 2011 at the University of Buea with about 1000 test users. Full roll-out is planned for March of this year.

Why is it brilliant? Some West African universities have 3000 students in classes intended for 500. Pulse is a fantastic, bold initiative aimed at improving normal and long-distance communication between students and teachers. The idea of offering US$50 tablets is great too and has been proven to be both feasible and successful in emerging markets. If you’re interested in helping the project gain traction feel free to check out Pulse’s fund raising page.

ForgetMeNot Africa – Zimbabwe

ForgetMeNot (FMN) Africa wants to bring all African mobile phone users online. The company provides internet type services to users who don’t have smartphones or data connections. Through partnerships with six mobile carriers in Africa, FMN allows mobile phone users to to send and receive email and Instant Messages on basic handsets without any internet connection through standard USSD and SMS services.

Think internet-free email, Facebook, Windows Live and Yahoo! Messenger. FMN also provides a platform that third parties can utilise to bring their own internet based services to those without data access. Its primary investor is LonZim, a UK company focused on investing in businesses in Zimbabwe and Mozambique.

Why is it brilliant? Thanks to ForgetMeNot Africa, cash-strapped consumers can opt for an inexpensive phone — as low as US$15 — and still access basic internet services, even on carriers with limited or no data infrastructure.

Iroko Partners – Nigeria

One of the company’s most compelling new projects is called IrokoTV. Launched in December 2011, it allows its over 100 000 registered active users to view films from Nigeria’s film industry for free. Well, at least until June of this year, it’s not exactly clear what happens beyond that, but the company relies mainly on advertising revenue to support its business, having initially made a living through streaming full-length Nollywood movies on its YouTube channel.

Iroko Partners is the only company with the sole rights to distribute Nollywood movies online.

Why is it brilliant? The Nigerian film industry is the second largest in the world and IrokoTV provides a robust service for Nollywood film buffs across Africa and the world to get their fix.

TruSpot! – Nigeria

Remember when Apple announced its social network for music, Ping? Remember when Spotify initially rose to fame? TruSpot! has been doing all of that since 2006. The African social music platform and streaming service, utilises its strategic partnerships with African record labels and artists to bring a free African music and music video streaming service to listeners. Through Afritunes, TruSpot! also allows for digital music purchases.

Why is it brilliant? TruSpot! offers one of the largest African music catalogues available on the web — for free.

Njorku – Cameroon

Much like Indeed.com, Njorku is a jobs-listing aggregator, but with an African focus. Njorku is based in Cameroon, and also covers Egypt, Ghana, South Africa, Nigeria, Kenya and Uganda.

Why is it brilliant? Instead of visiting and searching for job sites individually, Africans can go to one place to find jobs across many sites, for free. Apart from convenience, Njorku users have the ability to receive SMS and email alerts if new jobs matching their search terms become available. Njorku also gives smaller, boutique job sites that pop up from time to time, more visibility.

iSign – South Africa

Everyone should be using this. iSign allows users to upload and share documents that can be digitally signed by multiple parties. The actual signatures are done using the mouse and the signature doesn’t have to resemble your real life signature.

Digitally signing with a mouse is legal and the process that iSign provides carries more information and legal weight than traditional paper signatures as they authenticate signing users and keep an audit trail.

Documents uploaded to iSign are stored on Amazon’s S3 service and are encrypted with 256 Bit AES encryption.

Why is it brilliant? iSign reduces the need for tedious print-outs or faxing and makes signing for multiple signatories a breeze. Although there are those that would tout the eco-friendliness of the service, the more compelling aspect here is the insurance against loss or theft of important documents. Wills, legal agreements, investment records, and other sensitive information can be securely shared with a specific group of people.

Toodu – South Africa

This is so clever. Let’s say you’re looking for a new flat in your city’s CBD and you want to go on a trip to Bali in December. Instead of going to a rental agency site for your new flat and a travel agency site for your holiday, you create a single to-do or “toodu” list with two items, “Find a new flat in CBD” and “Book holiday to Bali in December”. Toodu then matches the entries in your list with service providers who can personally contact you via the site. The service providers are individually screened by by Toodu, which ensures high quality responses.

Why is it brilliant? Toodu is masterfully designed with a novel idea that can be really useful. It puts people in touch with relevant businesses who can help them get things done. This means businesses have a pool of customers who area actively looking for their services and products.

To test it out we added a toodu item for “Find best ADSL uncapped internet” and before long we started receiving messages from various service providers offering their service in our area — the messages ceased once we marked the list as item as “completed”.

For businesses, Toodu creates leads, but more importantly, it provides the opportunity for personalised customer experiences.

Kasha – Kenya

If you’ve ever been stressed about losing an important SMS, Kasha is for you. Kenyans can securely save SMS messages for later stage retrieval. After signing up for an account, Kenyans can forward any SMS message to Kasha for long term storage and view the messages at any time by visiting Kasha’s web site.

Why is it brilliant? Kasha is exremely simple and easy to use and helps protect against the loss of important SMS messages. For those who do not have access to cloud storage services or computers for SMS backup, Kasha is a really useful service.

Hummba – South Africa

If you find yourself alone in a big city, or just on holiday and in a mood to explore, you can hire a tour guide, do some research online or ask people for interesting places to see. Hummba makes it easy to explore cities with a free location aware iPhone or Android app. Using the app you can download and listen to over 100 free city guides from international guide publishers. The audio guides play automatically when you are in the vicinity of points of interest and you can also map the routes you’ve travelled and tag locations with pictures and share them.

Why is it brilliant? Hummba curates all the best places to see and essentially becomes your own free personal tour guide. The sharing aspects are brilliant for keeping up to date with friends’ traveling itineraries and for discovering new places — mapped and photographed — to explore.

SnapBill – South Africa

Small- and medium-sized businesses, rejoice. SnapBill is an online billing service, that aims to make recurring invoicing and payment collection simple. Send invoices, manage your clients and sell your services with automated recurring billing.

Why is it brilliant? The site is beautifully and intuitively designed and it provides a complete billing automation solution with eight payment gateways to collect recurring billing payments for businesses around the world.

Mocality – Kenya

Mocality is Kenya’s largest business directory. Users can search for businesses via the full website or their mobile phones – either via the mobile site or by using SMS commands. Features include geo-mapping, business profiles and contact details.

Businesses are able to sign-up and maintain their own profiles and contact information to ensure their details always remain accurate. Business owners are also offered a range of tools (such as SMS services, free mobile sites, free vCards and ability to maintain contact lists) to promote their businesses.

Why is it brilliant? Mocality gave many businesses their first online presence. It’s a great service, even Google agrees.

Nandimobile – Ghana

One of Nandimobile’s products called Gripeline caught our attention. Using Gripeline, businesses in Ghana can deliver real-time support to their customers via SMS conversations. The solution also delivers tracking of incoming queries in unique chat windows assigning them intelligently to support agents, as well as contact management for bulk messaging, real-time surveys and analytics.

Why is it brilliant? Real-time SMS customer support can save business and their customers money. Also, since SMS is intermittent, customers don’t have to be glued to their phones while they wait for a call center agent to answer the phone.

Future Mobile Technology – South Africa

If Cameroon has cheap, utilitarian phones covered with the X-NetPhone, South Africa has entry-level tablets covered with the Netsurfer Touch. The specs are humble. You’re basically looking at Android 2.2 FroYo running on a dual-core 533Mhz CPU, 7-inch 800×400 capacitive display, 512MB RAM, 8GB internal memory (with microSD card slot), Wi-Fi with 802.11n support and one 1.3mp front-facing camera. It has the usual things like Bluetooth, HDMI-out and 3.5mm headphone jack, but here’s the interesting part, it has a SIM slot for 3G connectivity and a bargain basement price tag of ZAR2000 or US$266. Check out our full review on Gearburn.

Why is it brilliant? You’d be hard pressed to find a good Android smartphone for US$266, let alone a 7-inch tablet with 3G SIM slot.

Infomob – Nigeria

The story behind this local business directory’s growth is brilliant. Instead of waiting for companies to come to Infomob (previously known as Gyst), Infomob employs a bunch of kids with camera phones who go door-to-door, manually collecting information from businesses.

Why is it brilliant? Though it’s not the only business directory in the country, Infomob’s grass roots efforts are fantastic.

Snapt – South Africa

Fee and open source software or FOSS was the inspiration for Snapt’s two products Snapt Squid and Snapt HAProxy. In an online world of dynamically served content, caching and load balancing have become key to sustaining web sites as they grow larger.

Snapt took a look at Squid, one of the world’s most popular caching solutions, and thought that it could make it better. So it did. Snapt Squid adds a front-end user interface to Squid that provides additional reporting, configuration control and authentication features.

Snapt HAProxy adds a front-end to the HA Proxy Load Balancer with additional features that include advanced reporting and powerful control over the configuration file as well as status alerts.

Why is it brilliant? Well, for one thing, NASA uses Snapt’s load balancer snap-on and on average Snapt’s user interfaces can save companies 60 times what they would normally spend on licensed software.

Eat Out – Kenya

This is so much more than a restaurant guide. The usual method of finding great places to eat is there, search by name, area, cuisine type or view restaurants in Kenya and Tanzania on a map. You also get restaurant reviews and detailed information like menus, wine lists, table plans and details of special offers.

It gets interesting when you realise that you can book a table at any of the restaurants directly from Eat Out. You can also make bookings by calling a number that ends in “EAT OUT (328688)” on any of the four major mobile carriers that operate in the countries. This means you don’t have to remember individual restaurant numbers.

Most intriguingly, Eat Out is working on a new system that will earn reviewers points which can be redeemed at restaurants for special offers.

Why is it brilliant? Eat Out is comprehensive. They have you covered from discovering and learning about restaurants to making the actual booking. Also, encouraging positive community participation — reviews, friend recommendations, registering — by means of Eat Out points, is a great idea.

Springleap – South Africa

Springleap is not just Africa’s version of Threadless, it’s a shot of adrenaline to South Africa’s textile industry. In a nutshell, artists’ designs are voted on by the Springleap community and the winning design gets emblazoned on t-shirts which go up for sale. There are also cash prizes up for grabs for designers and community members.

Why is it brilliant? Artists gain recognition, community members can grow to become tastemakers and the rest of the world can buy fantastically unique and beautiful t-shirt designs.

CrowdPesa – Kenya

For people in Kenya without bank accounts, mobile payment services such as M-Pesa, Airtel Money and MobiKash delivers some of the advantages of traditional financial services like money transfers and online payment. These mobile payment services have brick and mortar agents scattered all over the country and it’s here where CrowdPesa is helpful. CrowdPesa is a location-based service which helps customers find the nearest mobile payment service agent, financial institution, financial intermediary and retail outlet.

Why is it brilliant? Sure, you can get the location of your nearest agent from, for example, M-Pesa’s 3.4MB PDF document, or you can conveniently access a tiny mobile directory on your phone. As a bonus, if GPS functionality is available on your mobile device, CrowdPesa can show you where the nearest agent is in relation to yourself.

Bloovue – Nigeria

What immediately stood out with this Nigerian-localised ad network, is the lush design elegance of its UI. Both in terms of aesthetic and function, it’s brilliant. Bloovue guides small Nigerian businesses as they take their first steps towards advertising on the web. The ad network provides consulting and technical services to make customers’ advertising campaigns as effective as possible. Bloovue’s network stretches across five of Nigeria’s biggest websites.

Why is it brilliant? Harping on the functional elegance, Bloovue customers can also build ads on mobile devices, there’s no need to even own a computer to get your business advertised on the web.

Motribe – South Africa

Motribe is like Ning tailored for a 4-inch LCD. It allows anyone to instantly build their own mobile social communities. Ning has a checkered past, but it feels like Motribe has something special going on with its brand focus. Brands can launch campaigns with fully functional mobile social networks to keep customers and brand fans engaged.

Why is it brilliant? There’s something about having the power to create a Facebook competitor, in our pockets, that we find very, very cool and 500 000 (58% active) Motribe users agree.

Waytag – South Africa

Waytag is way ahead of its time. How do you share your location with someone? Do you give them your address? “I’m on the corner of 24th and and um… wait, I’m not sure.” Do you check-in on Foursquare or use Google Latitude or Find My Friends on iOS? What if the person doesn’t use Foursquare, Latitude or an iPhone?

With Waytag you create a tag like “!SamHome” which can be pinned to any location on a map. When someone asks you where you are, you simply give them the tag and boom, your location is revealed on the Waytag app or website.

Why is it brilliant? What if a pizza delivery service set its staff up with cheap Android phones and the Waytag app?

Skoola – Nigeria

Skoola is an example of a forward looking bunch of people embracing the age-old adage that knowledge is power. The website is a powerful hub where students, scholars and educationists can study and interact. The most compelling aspect of Skoola is its mock tests. The startup has taken several years worth of West African standardised tests and converted them into online exam preparation tests and exercises. The exam prep tests can also be taken on a mobile phone.

Apart from the tests, users can focus on topics of interest by joining “classes” which are hubs where users can post on-topic questions or tutorials and converse via chat rooms.

Why is it brilliant? Skoola’s prep tests based on several years worth of real life exam papers are fantastic. The startup also envisions a scenario where students won’t have to travel and register with public libraries for borrowing materials. Skoola plans to bring all the books and materials needed for education online.

Mobiflock – South Africa

There’s an ongoing debate among parents about the age at which a child should be given a mobile phone. Mobiflock makes it a little easier to decide by giving parents the ability to monitor and manage their children’s phone use. Mobiflock allows you to control who your child can contact and be contacted by, limit voice, SMS and data usage, as well as monitor and restrict online and phone activity — think sexting, cyber-bullying, playboy.com. It also allows you to track your child’s whereabouts with GPS, restrict access to phone applications and set alerts for things like the phone’s battery status. The application only works on Android and Nokia mobile phones.

Why is it brilliant? Giving your child a mobile phone has many benefits, but it also exposes them to the dangers of our digital society. Mobiflock may help parents sleep a little better at night.

3AL – Nigeria

What’s the best way to describe 3AL? It’s like… Etsy for businesses. In 3AL’s own words it’s a “business and networking site that connects you with friends, colleagues, business corporations and allows you buy and sell with ease.” That sounds about right. You create a Facebook-esque profile which you can use to friend other businesses/people, but the twist here is that you can also sell and buy products through 3AL. It’s pretty fantastic.

Why is it brilliant? 3AL is an epic amalgamation of businesses — think B2B — and customers or really, just people, coming together to socialise in the name of capitalism. The idea is very, very intriguing.

Ufahari – Kenya

There’s so much bad news. We wanted to end this article on an overwhelmingly positive note. Thanks to Ufahari, we certainly can. The site reports on the innovative and creative things people of the developing world are doing. Read about how in Mozambique, beer made from Cassava supports smallhold farms. Read about how Kenya’s digital natives are banding together to solve the country’s hunger problems or about the project that delivers glasses to underprivileged children in Mexico.

Ufahari aims to become sustainable by means of creating an online store where it can sell local crafts and other innovations at the price that the seller wants to sell.

Why is it brilliant? If you’ve lost faith in humanity, give Ufahari a read and it will be restored in no time at all.

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