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Everything you need to know about East African startup landscape [2017 Update]

Update: Are you a venture capitalist or an angel investor looking to invest in a company? Are you an entrepreneur looking for capital or other opportunities? Are you an aspiring startup owner looking for assistance? Well, you have come to the right place. Ventureburn presents an updated* guide to East Africa’s startup scene.

This article is the most comprehensive guide for anyone who wants to get involved with, or have a better understanding of, the region’s fast-growing startup space. It’s the second of our inaugural series, with others focusing on South Africa and West Africa.

With some insight from our friends at iHub in Nairobi, we have scoured East Africa’s entrepreneurial landscape and hand-picked some of the top players to get you started, looking at all sectors from education, investment (angel, venture capital, private equity), government, accelerators and incubators to media players.

As comprehensive this article is, with your comments and suggestions, we hope to create a clear overview of the people and organisations that influence and shape East Africa’s tech venture space. Please feel free to comment or tweet us any suggestions you may have.

Venture Capitalists

Venture capital (VC) is all about early-stage, high-potential, high-risk, growth startups. East Africa’s VC scene mostly consists of a mixture between a couple of local firms and international non-profit impact funds.

The US-based Accion Venture Lab is a non-profit investment vehicle with a scope that includes 32 countries on four continents. Founded in 1961, the organisation is on a mission to alleviate poverty by offering financial products such as micro-enterprise loans and business training. Some notable investments in East Africa include Kenya’s mobile payments provider Kopo Kopo and lending company Umati Capital.

Some of its Accion’s partners in Africa include: EB-Accion Microfinance, UGAFODE Microfinance Limited, Accion Microfinance Bank, GO Finance, Kopo Kopo, Pan-African Savings and Loans, Umati Capital, First Access and Akiba Commercial Bank.

With a similar focus to Accion, the Acumen Fund invests in companies that are changing the way the world tackles poverty. Targeting West and East Africa, Latin America, Pakistan and India, some prominent investments in East Africa over the past few years include Miliki Afya which provides affordable health care in Kenya, data analytics company First Access from Tanzania and Uganda-based SolarNow.

The investment arm of global tech giant, Intel Capital, launched in 1991 and claims to have invested more than $11.6-billion in over 1447 companies in 57 countries. Although, news is scarce of any significant investments made into the East African region as of late, Intel has been active in recognising developers and startups through various competitions and programmes. In 2015, Intel awarded three Kenyan startups with KSh1.3-million (around $12 000). In the same year, the organisation also launched the Intel Education Accelerator in Kenya which aims to provide guidance and a potential Intel Capital investment of up to $100 000.

Village Capital finds, trains, and funds entrepreneurs solving global problems. Its non-profit programme VilCap operates business development programmes for early-stage entrepreneurs in agriculture, education, energy, financial inclusion, and health. VilCap Investments — its affiliated, for-profit investment fund — invests in the two top-ranked graduates from each programme. In 2015, in partnership with the MasterCard Foundation, DOEN Foundation and Duncan Goldie-Scot, the initiative launched the Village Capital FinTech for Agriculture: East Africa 2015 accelerator programme which ultimately invested $100 000 in two local companies, Farmline and Atikus Insurance. In the same year, Kenyan agricultural business Ojay Greene won a $100 000 investment prize in an investment competition.

In 2017 Village Capital launched an investment readiness programme with PayPal called the Village Capital Fintech Africa 2015. The programme will culminate in two-early stage startups walking away away with $50 000 in investment funding.

The Mara Group is Mara is a young and dynamic pan-African investment group with operations in the following sectors: banking, real estate, infrastructure, and technology.

The group is currently active in 22 African countries and 25 countries worldwide, and employs more than 11 000 people through its investments and operations.

Clifftop Colony is described as an investment advisory firm focused on private and illiquid assets in emerging African markets. The firm focuses on developing and raising capital for private equity franchises, individual companies and venture projects. It usually invests in early-stage startups, preferring investments of R20-million and above.

Co-founded by one of the brains behind the renowned data company, Ushahidi, Erik Hersman manages the Savannah Fund alongside i/o Ventures‘ Paul Bragiel, Maryse Liburdi and Mbwana Alliy. The firm is a seed capital fund, specialising in $25 000 to $500 000 investments in early-stage, high-growth tech startups in sub-Saharan Africa. Initially focused on East Africa, the fund aims to bridge the early stage and angel and venture capital investment gap that currently exists in the continent as a whole. Its 2015 investments include mobile research company Djuaji Research, online store Podozi.com and bitcoin outfit BitFinance. In 2017 the fund invested in South African drone startup Aerobotics.

The Omidyar Network is active across the African continent, as it is around the world. Founded by Pierre Omidyar, the founder of eBay, the initiative has not only established itself as a leader in intelligence and advocacy in the region’s startup ecosystem, but has been funding a range of ventures from Lagos to Cape Town and Nairobi. Besides providing venture capital, the Omidyar offers human capital capabilities, from serving on boards to consulting on strategy, coaching executives to recruiting new talent. Some notable East African investments include Off Grid Electric from Tanzania and online news outlet HiviSasa from Kenya.

The Hong Kong-headquartered VC and incubator Nest expanded to East Africa earlier this year to connect local talent with Asian investors and networks. While operations have only recently started out, Nest noted that it plans to look to the whole continent for talent, especially Accra, Lagos and Cape Town. In 2015 the organisation partnered with co-working spaces Nairobi Garage and Cape Town Garage in order to give startups access to workspace in Hong Kong and vice versa.

1776 is a global incubator and seed fund that seeks to help startups transform industries, from education, energy & sustainability, health and transportation. The organisation’s 1776 Challenge Cup travelled to Nairobi in early 2015, with the country’s Twiga Fruits claiming the ultimate prize of $150 000 in seed funding. Earlier this year the same Kenyan startup managed to raise a $10.3-million Series A from investors that included 1776.

Seedstars World is a global startup competition in emerging markets. Startups from a growing number of emerging markets — including Kenya, Ethiopia, Tanzania, Rwanda and Uganda — are invited to pitch and take part in the international competition where they’ll stand a chance to win up to $1-million in equity funding.

Incubators

An incubator brings in an outside team to manage an idea that was developed internally and takes a larger chunk of equity in the resulting company.

mLab East Africa is a mobile incubation centre based in Kenya, formed through partnerships with eMobilis (see below), the World Wide Web Foundation, the University of Nairobi School of Computing and Informatics, and iHub (see below). For six to twelve months, selected startups in the virtual incubation programme become part of a learning and networking community.

Rwanda’s kLab aims to provide an open space for tech entrepreneurs to collaborate and innovate in the country’s capital, Kigali. It is open to students, fresh graduates, entrepreneurs, and innovators — it aims to provide them with somewhere to work on their ideas and projects to turn them into viable business models.

Based in Uganda, Outbox is a tech incubation, collaboration space and innovation hub that supports techies and provides further support for people to turn their tech ideas that utilise mobile and web into sustainable businesses.

@iBizAfrica business incubator carries out the entrepreneurship and incubation theme of @iLabAfrica. @iBizAfrica seeks to provide a nurturing environment that builds on the potential of the youth to develop ICT solutions and businesses that work for the common good in society.

Kenya’s NaiLab is a business incubator that offers an entrepreneurship program focusing on growing innovative technology driven ideas.

Accelerators

An accelerator does exactly what its name suggests — helps businesses accelerate growth. For the most part, an accelerator differs from an incubator in that programmes usually run for shorter periods, often ranging between three and six months.. The programme usually rounds off with a demo day where startups pitch their ideas to investors.

Sinapis Group is on a mission to empower aspiring entrepreneurs in the developing world — including Kenya — with innovative, scalable business ideas by providing them with a rigorous religious-centred business education, consulting and mentoring services.

The 88mph accelerator started in Kenya in 2011 and later moved to Cape Town where it merged with Google’s Umbono programme for entrepreneurs, and was subsequently called Google for Entrepreneurs. In 2015 the programme took a break from investing to focus on its existing portfolio. To date, 88mph has invested $1.7-million in 19 startups and run two accelerate

Angel investors

With more initiatives relying on the power of networking and consulting, East Africa’s angel investment scene is on the rise, albeit slow.

Some heavy-weight individual influencers, however, include Hilda Moraa, who’s the co-founder of Weza Tele, a tech distribution company that was acquired by AFB in 2015. Nailan CEO and co-founder Sam Gichuru has invested in digital jobs platform Kuhustle.

Based in Kampala, the Angels Initiative Uganda provides solutions that optimise enterprise growth in Africa. By leveraging the support of its partners, the initiative has been backing companies such as ViOffices, Care SMS and Sise Works.

African Business Angel Network (better known as just ABAN) is a pan-African non-profit association founded to support the development of early-stage investor networks across the continent and to get many more (early-stage) investors excited about the opportunities in Africa.

Private equity

Private equity firms differ from their venture capital counterparts in a fundamental way. Private equity is about taking a company at a later stage in its development and restructuring it to optimise its financial performance.

East Africa Venture Capital Association (EAVCA) was founded in 2013 to represent the private equity industry in East Africa and provide a voice for industry players to raise awareness and engage on regional policy matters. The association currently acts through advocacy, training, networking, and intelligence.

GroFin describes itself as a development financier specialising in financing and supporting small and growing businesses in Africa and the Middle East. In 2015 it launched a renewed $100-million fund, which follows an existing fully invested $170-million budget.

Fusion Capital Africa was founded in 2007 as a Kenyan SME finance house. The firm currently focuses on private equity as well as real estate investments. Some of its most well-known investments include a whopping $34-million in a shopping complex in Kigali and a $2-million into an aggregate mining company in Rwanda.

Emerging Capital Partners (ECP Investments) is a pan-African private equity firm that has raised over $2-billion for investment across the continent. Some of its investments include Maarifa Education Holdings and Algerian company Atlas Bottling Corporation.

Catalyst Principal Partners is behind a $125-million Eastern Africa-focused private equity fund that invests in emerging and mid-sized companies with strong growth and profitability prospects.

Networks, events, intiaitives and conferences

Similar to networking bodies and hubs, conferences are seen as key players in celebrating the startup space. These initiatives are often accompanied by pitching competitions, keynotes and networking.

@iLabAfrica seeks to provide an environment that promotes tech innovation and provides business support structures. The organisation is behind a range of initiatives with the most recent including the Holiday Boot Camp which seeks to encourage children partake and familiarise themselves in the ICT sector.

The Tanzania-based Kinu is about accelerating the country’s tech and social landscape. Apart from work space with high-speed internet access, the hub also drives competitions, webinars and the like.

Also based in Tanzania, the Buni Hub was founded in 2011, with the need to foster innovation and technology entrepreneurship through capacity building, mentoring programmes and community empowerment.

Hive Colab is an innovation hub based in Uganda. As noted on the site, the co-working space focuses on young tech entrepreneurs, web and mobile app developers, designers, investors, VCs and donors.

With the aim of empowering every African who has a great idea for a business or an application and to turn that idea into a reality which in turn can help their community, Microsoft’s 4Afrika initiative has made a lot of progress on the African continent. In 2015, it launched a dedicated hub for SMEs in Kenya.

iHub is arguably Africa’s most talked about innovation hub. Based in Kenya, the organisation acts an open space for the technologists, investors, tech companies and hackers in the area. The initiative is also behind loads of events, research, consulting and fostering a strong startup community in Kenya and the greater region.

A news source, networking hub and investment platform, VC4Africa boasts that it’s the largest online community of entrepreneurs and investors dedicated to building game-changing companies in Africa.

DEMO Africa was hosted in Johannesburg this year (2017). The pan-African startup pitching competition launched in 2012 on a mission to showcase the continent’s talent while providing opportunities for both investors and tech entrepreneurs.

After some delay construction began in November 2016 at Kenya’s Konza Techno City, dubbed “Silicon Savannah”. The techno city, which is being built by the government of Kenya will house early investors and innovators. The government has introduced various tax incentives to get investors to locate there. In addition the Konza Development Authority signed an agreement in 2016 with the Korean Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST) to build a university for postgraduate students. For more, read Ventureburn’s story on the initiative.

Education

As research in Omidyar’s Accelerating Entrepreneurship in Africa report suggests, management and other entrepreneurial skills should be fostered in schools.

Moringa School is a coding school based in the Nairobi Garage. The initiative offers a “world-class” curriculum that includes everything from Android, HTML and CSS to business fundamentals and presentation skills.

The Dev School started out in 2013 to help train young technology enthusiasts in Kenya & South Sudan building strategic partnerships within the tech community.

Andela is backed by the US-based Spark Capital with a mission to transform the global technology landscape by connecting top employers with untapped talent around the world. While it started out in Nigeria, it launched its programme in Kenya early 2015.

Emobilis was founded in 2008 and is touted as the first of its kind in the region, focusing on training individuals on mobile software development, as well as network infrastructure management.

Media

Without media, there’s no story. Along with the “African rising” narrative and more international interest in the continent as a region for investment opportunity, an increasingly large number of publications from abroad are interested in telling the country’s stories, amplifying their reach.

Ventureburn features written and video-based technology startup profiles, as well as news, analysis and opinion pieces on entrepreneurship from an emerging market perspective. If you want to get your business featured, you can fill out our startup questionnaire.

TechMoran is a tech news site that focuses on Africa’s disruptive technology scene. The site also runs the TechMoran Tour, which it says is “solely to stir innovation and entrepreneurship on the continent with a huge bias to entrepreneurs in high school, universities and colleges and those in innovation hubs pursuing their dream across Africa”.

Disrupt Africa aims to be the go-to source for all things startups, investments and innovation in North, East, West and Southern Africa. Alongside news articles, the site also focuses on interviews and stories on important stakeholders of the industry.

Banks

More and more corporates, especially major financial institutions and telecoms, are starting to support more startup on the ground. With major disruptors like M-Pesa on the tip of everyone’s tongues, corporates are keen to have a finger in the pie of East Africa’s growing fintech sector.

Chase Bank Kenya’s Kilele Planet is an interactive web-based portal and business club targeted at their growing SME customer base. As most banks of late, CBK has growing interest in the bubbling fintech space which prompted it to partner with mLab and iHub in 2015 to offer two local startups support and potential integration.

As the case in South Africa and the rest of the continent, Barclays this year started focusing more on startups. Apart from global initiatives such as Rise — which seeks to connect, co-create and scale fintech startups’ innovative ideas — in 2015 the British bank partnered with Nest and Moringa School to launch the Barclays Kenya Product Lab in the country’s capital to support local developers.

Equity Bank Kenya earlier in 2015 announced that it’s set to commit $200-million from the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC) to lend to youth and women-led SME’s over the next five years.

If you’d like to add your organisation to this framework or suggest an additional category, please comment below or contact us.

*The 2017 listing was updated by Ventureburn writer Daniel Mpala.

Featured image: Nairobi city centre by diaznash via Pixabay.

Author Bio

Jacques Coetzee
Jacques grew up in Stellenbosch, South Africa. Keen to take over the world, one word at a time, he has always been interested in both politics and development and studied International Relations (BA) at Stellenbosch University. With an interest in innovation and social change, he seeks to tell the... More