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Startup sensation

Peter Hille / dbJuly 3, 2014

Unbridled enthusiasm for mobile phones, an up-and-coming Internet scene, a population where every second person is younger than 25 - all this represents fertile breeding ground for digital innovation.

Afrika Computer Cybercafe in Dakar 2013 NEU
Image: Seyllou/AFP/Getty Images

Paying for a taxi ride in Nairobi's business district is quick and easy - via mobile phone. On the road but have to transfer money to your mother back at home in the village? Pull out you mobile phone, and it's done in a matter of seconds.

Kenya's mobile phone-based money transfer system M-Pesa is a success story. Two out of three Kenyans use the electronic wallet. The idea has meanwhile spread from the African continent to Afghanistan and Romania.

This success story is seven years old, however - and Africa's tech startup scene hasn't been able to meet expectations for the "next big thing" for mobile phones and tablets.

Afrikan students playing on a computer
Global information is available at one's fingertipsImage: Alexander Joe/AFP/Getty Images

"The entire industry in Kenya, Nigeria and Ghana is still quite young," said Julia Manske. Speaking at the DW Global Media Forum in Bonn earlier this week, Manske recalled her impressions of Africa's digital scene during a recent visit on behalf of the Vodafone Institute.

Programmers in Kenya's capital Nairobi - also known as the "Silicon Savannah" - are particularly active, she said.

"But if you compare it to Silicon Valley in California, the universities are missing as supporters in the background," Manske explained, adding that there is also a lack of former founders who reinvest their profits in new ideas. In Africa, there is often a lack of capital, she said, and it takes many flops and failures "before some startups become established."

Julia Manske
Slow and unstable Internet in Africa remains a hindrance, Manske saysImage: DW/K. Danetzki

Rent comes first

Turning ideas into cash is particularly difficult for IT experts in poorer countries like Kenya. Many young entrepreneurs struggle to pay their rent and put food on the table, which makes it difficult to concentrate on business. "In some regions, Internet access is still slow and not very stable," Manske added.

As a result, failure is the rule and not the exception in Africa's Internet startup scene.

Manske recalled a startup that planned to sell clothes on the Internet. "That didn't work because in many African countries, there is simply no infrastructure - that is, roads and suppliers."

A second M-Pesa may still be on the horizon, however. Manske pointed to several African success stories: the Ushahidi open-source software, the Ubuntu platform, and the Brck router that aims to give people Internet access even in the middle of nowhere.

Symbolbild Smartphone & Kommunikation in Afrika
Not new, but it gets the job doneImage: picture-alliance/Robert Harding World Imagery

Postnatal messaging

African programmers may even find a future in the "mobile health" field. In regions with few clinics and fewer medical charts, a medical app could be an alternative.

So could the good old text message: "Text messages helped show me how best to care for my baby," said Melisa Ali, a new mother from Tanzania. She is one of about 400,000 subscribers to one of Africa's largest mobile health campaigns, the "Healthy Baby" service. Mothers and expecting mothers receive individually tailored information on their cell phone. "My husband told me about it; he registered first and passed it on to me," Ali said. "I registered after my child was born, as a new mother."

From Amsterdam to Arusha

The technology the service uses is European. Amsterdam-based social enterprise Text to Change developed the platform for interactive SMS campaigns.

"It's a partnership," said founder Bas Hoefman. The Tanzanian health ministry is at the helm, while many organizations are involved, he said, adding that "Mobile phone providers nationwide participate." Partnerships, he explained, are at the heart of such projects aimed at reaching large numbers of people.

Bas Hoefman
Hoefman thinks partnerships are keyImage: DW/K. Danetzki

Perhaps cooperation across continents between entrepreneurs, IT experts, and investors is the real recipe for success for the next big thing from Africa.

Because ultimately - thanks to newly-installed wide-band cables - Silicon Valley and the Silicon Savannah are only a few tenths of a second apart.