By Lillian Nduati
Photos By Joseph Mathai
Innovators come in many forms. Yet, there’s something about the tech innovator that inspires and offshoots across a people, across great distance and across culture. The first Africa DEMO conference brought together people, startups and ideas from all over the continent. Over 11 African countries participated, sending in 500 applications. Out of these, the Final 40 were picked to launch at the DEMO platform.
If DEMO’s aim, [partly] was to spark the linkages that would help deepen the startup and innovation ecosystem of targeted fast-growing African economies, then the partnerships formed between the participating Startups during the three-day long event was a great first step. However, it remains to be seen what global partnerships and investments these African startups are able to attract.
DEMO Africa is one of the flagship initiatives of LIONS@frica and aims to connect African startups to the global ecosystem. The most innovative companies from African countries came to launch their products and announce to Africa and the world what they have developed.
Contrasts and Highlights
Fourteen of the 40 startups came from Kenya, which is saying a lot about the fast-paced city in the sun, Nairobi.
Fourteen of the 40 startups taking the stage at DEMO hail from Kenya, giving this up-and-coming ‘Silicon Savannah” the true lion’s share of attention. These Kenyan companies are building everything from e-learning tablets to SMS-based job locators, document verification applications to e-commerce platforms, as well as mobile payment processors and mobile tracking devices. Read more.So, one would have thought that the prospects would have been quite bright for the Kenyans to emerge LIONs in at least some of the categories – well, at least the mobile category even? (Which incidentally went to Maliyo games from Nigeria).
Granted, the tech scene in Nairobi is more happening than in South Africa, we are ahead in many ways, we have been told. And we have shown. Taking much of the mileage buzz from media around the world. Yet, we still have much to learn despite our solid infrastructure that creates a brilliant environment for innovation and the business of tech.
So what Can Kenyan Techpreneurs learn from South African Techpreneurs?As an observer, one does get unique perspectives of a thing; like - the difference in applications that Africans in different parts of the continent are developing.
Enterprise vs Mobile?Most Startups from South Africa focus more on building enterprise type products, while their counterparts in East Africa are more onto the mobile bandwagon and mobile application type products. The applications from the south showcased at DEMO were riskier, in terms of conquering business needs that were not being tackled by bigger global companies.
There is nothing wrong with developing products for either side. Unless of course, we’re talking scalability and $$ returns. This is a battle that the tech pundits have been having with mobile app developers in East Africa, and with the tech bubble which they feel has stemmed from a perhaps too early baptized ‘Silicon Savannah’.
Mileage versus Hype?The stark truth is that while most of the South African companies were able to show numbers and returns already made, not to mention the resources they started with, (one startup, Rasello, had already raised $320,000 to date, and only has two staff, the two co-founders, yet they have 300 businesses with over half a million customers already signed up). These companies seem to have locked down what they were in DEMO for – expansion and exposure. Those from East Africa, were mostly just past idea stage and in their first months of operation – and sought seed funding.
Spirit versus Entitlement?The East African region has been a tad bit spoilt by all the competitions and grants and money up for grabs. Got an Idea, submit to competition, win and … ? The after the win is something several companies here have not been able to address. Questions have to be asked:
Where are the companies that have won? Have they invested further in their product? Were the promises made to them, such as mentorship and networking and investment fulfilled? What lessons have these winners won and that they can contribute learned insights to the eco-system?
The brothers south might have their fair share of competitions, but perhaps it is a lack of them that has not clouded their lenses when it comes to developing truly useable and scalable products for the citizens – businesses and individuals – that these users would actually pay for. In East Africa, there are very few, exception- to-the-rule products that users would pay for. We can lock it down to many factors, but one thing stood out – these products solved a real need in that country. Examples: TaxTim , PropMaven
Comparisons Between Demo Africa 2012 (Nairobi) and Demo Fall 2012 (Silicon Valley)DEMO Africa could have had more sponsors – and more speakers.
“Secure venture funding and establish critical business relationships, and influence early adopters.”DEMO is a technology Launchpad conference, held twice a year (October and April). About 70 companies get to pitch (6-minute pitches), slides are strictly prohibited, and only live demonstrations of the techpreneur’s technology allowed. (See DEMO’s success stories in its 22-year history.)
DEMO Africa is held in pretty much the same way. Except, there’s still much more to go in terms of achieving the spirit and vivacity of its US Counterpart.
Stark Contrasts between Nairobi and Silicon Valley:
Awards, Sponsors, Participating Companies
People’s Choice Award
S.V: Included a $1m (Kes 85 million) IDG Media Prize (The multi-faceted media package will consist of a six-month advertising campaign promoting the launch of the selected innovations across the most relevant IDG brands including CIO, Computerworld, InfoWorld, Macworld, Network World, and PC World, among others, as well as the DEMO and VentureBeat websites.)
Nrbi: Included a one-year’s worth of advertising on CIO East Africa. worth Kes 1.9 million