5 entrepreneurial lessons from 3 African tech innovators

West Africa

Africa Map

Africa has made promising leaps in the tech space over the past few years. Hubs in Kenya, South Africa, Ghana, and Nigeria are all priming the next generation of entrepreneurs to make a big splash on the continent and the world.

Those who have already succeeded provide lessons and models for others to follow. They will of course be adapted and changed, sometimes for the worse, but mostly for the better. And if entrepreneurs are looking for role models, they could do a lot worse than the likes of Sim Shagaya, Mbawna Alliy and Verone Mankou.

All three have invented, invested and inspired their way to noteworthiness over the past few years. Here are just some of the lessons we can take from their experiences.

1. Start local, think global
Nigeria’s Sim Shagaya isn’t short on ambition. The Harvard graduate plans to create the Amazon of Africa, “selling Lagos’s increasingly affluent consumer class everything from refrigerators to perfume to cupcakes”. He’s off to a good start too. His site DealDey is now the top-grossing ecommerce site in Nigeria, with 350 000 subscribers, growing at 20% month on month.

Although Shagaya, who is a Google South Africa alumni, started out small — DealDey began life as a voucher-comparison site, gradually moving to selling experiences, products and services — he clearly has his eye on the bigger picture.

You can’t dominate the world, or even a continent, unless you’re constantly aware that there’s a world out there.

2. If you have local knowledge, use it
While DealDey may be an ecommerce platform at the core, it faces offline challenges too: from a lack of credit cards and online payment fraud to high storage costs and poor transport infrastructure; even drivers being ambushed or robbed.

The site wouldn’t be succeeding in Nigeria, if Shagaya wasn’t profoundly aware of the challenges within one of Africa’s most populous nations and how to deal with them.

3. Travelling can be incredibly worthwhile

Mbwana Alliy has a career that most people in the tech space would kill for. He’s done everything from military flight testing to product management at Microsoft. His entrepreneurial credentials are also strong, having co-founded Tanzania’s first ecommerce travel portal, YellowMasai and then worked as an Entrepreneur in Residence (EIR) at i/o ventures- a Silicon Valley based accelerator and seed fund.

Returning to East Africa he now focuses his time on finding early-stage high growth technology (web and mobile) startups in Sub-Saharan Africa, most particularly with Savannah Fund, an Africa focused Technology Venture Capital fund. Savannah Fund is a seed capital fund that aims to bridge the early stage/angel and VC gap, with US$25k – US$500k investments.

The point is, Alliy might have been one of the founding members of a capital fund featured on the likes of TechCrunch if he’d spent his whole life in East Africa, but it isn’t as likely. Spending time overseas, in both the entrepreneurial and corporate tech space, means that he has knowledge that he wouldn’t have otherwise had. Combine that with his local knowledge of the East African startup scene and you’ve got a killer combo.

4. Don’t eliminate the possibility of a physical product
One of bug bears here at Ventureburn is that so few African startups are willing to enter the hardware space. Yes it’s risky but, as the Democratic Republic of Congo’s Verone Mankou proves, it can be worth it.

The 26-year old Mankou is the brains behind the Way C, Africa’s first real play in the tablet market. He designed and architected his touchpad entirely in Congo-Brazzaville, using a customized version of Android, priced at less than half the cost of a Samsung Galaxy and less than a third of what an iPad will set you back. After launching the Way-C in 2011, Mankou has now introduced his African smartphone, the “Elikia”, which means “hope” in Lingala language.

5. Pay it forward
One thing we were concerned about when the Way C launched was the fact that it was manufactured in China. How much would Manki really be helping the people in his country if the tablet was being made somewhere else?

Well it looks like Mankou is trying to change all of that. He is now looking for investment to build a production line for the Way-C in the DRC, while also developing a developer ecosystem and market for apps, and monetisation of content. His says that his next ambition is “to give all African households access to technology, and develop a new tablet for education priced at about US$100”.

Alliy, Mankou and Shagaya will all be speaking at the Tech4Africa conference which takes place from 31 October to 1 November this year.



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