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African innovation

“With a laptop, $25 in capital, and no previous experience managing a company, Gabas started Saami Online, a one-stop shop that sells and delivers everything from books and cosmetics to clothing and home appliances.”

What do you think when you hear Africa? For many, it’s a thought worth pausing on. Do you think of need, or ingenuity? Poverty, or entrepreneurialism? Homogeneity, or diversity? Risk, or opportunity? It’s no secret that people at large hold deeply biased, partial or inaccurate views of the world. In the old colonial west, the mental shackles of unthinking dominance endure: permeating – as Dr Hans Rosling so brilliantly captures in his Factfulness – so much of the way we conceive our policies, our prejudices, our financial markets, our conceptions of morality and the axis of global power.

My long fascination and involvement with Africa affords me a view that has long sat at odds with dominant western stereotypes. And in recent months – first, in accompanying Theresa May and others on the trade trip across three African nations, and then in speaking as a delegate at the UN’s ‘Call to Invest’ in the future of Africa’s youth and launch the City of London Corporation’s Sustainable Development Capital Initiative –  I’ve been reminded how relatively new the western world is to the real Africa, with its multiplicity, youth, enormity, creativity, and resilience.

But this familiarity cannot come soon enough.  Africa is the engine room of global growth; the land of youth and, increasingly, sustainable opportunity. The barriers that remain – strong institutions, education, gender parity, the rights to property – are deep and complex, and have long held investors at arms’ length; but the power of innovation, of work and the global reach of technology is accelerating change like never before.

And so, in the spirit of myth-busting our own internal stereotypes, a quick review of some interesting and surprising business propositions that came out of Africa in 2018:

  • Blockchain is driving an energy revolution in Rwanda, transforming the lives of the 18% from the mostly-rural population who have regular access to electricity.
  • Mogadishu, Somalia – one of the last digital nations on earth, where 47% of the population remains unemployed – is now home to a small but successful start-up scene, as immigrants return home and locals take hold of digital opportunity.
  • Beyond its capital, 35% of Rwanda’s national blood supply is drone-delivered.
  • In Tunisia – long beset by chronic youth unemployment rates – entrepreneurs can apply for one year’s ‘Startup Leave’ from their company. Their government then pay their salary, based on their previous income.
  • SafeMotos is a Uber-like app for motorbike taxis in Rwanda, which are notoriously dangerous. The drivers’ app uses the phone’s accelerometer to rate driver safety.
  • Rera – an online poultry farm startup from Harare, Zimbabwe – is ‘like Kickstarter for chickens. You order, the farmer grows, you save 40% of retail costs.
  • The British company AgriProtein operates two fly farms in South Africa. 8.4 billion flies on each farm – which consume 276 tonnes of food waste and lay 340 million eggs each day – are dehydrated, flattened and used as animal feed. The company is worth $200m, and they’re planning to open 100 more factories around the world by 2024.