Post Arab Spring, African start-ups should be next in line for attention

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In Accra, the capital of Ghana, it’s not about who you know, what you know, which member’s club you belong to or even which school you used to go to. It’s all about which church you belong to.

Ghana is nearly 70% Christian and on Sundays anybody who is anybody heads off to church, not only to worship their God, but also to be part of the country’s biggest networking event. This is where business is done… and business is booming.

The country also has a sizeable Muslim minority, but relations between Islam and Christianity, unlike surrounding countries such as Nigeria, are cordial and are often mixed in with tribal beliefs. The country is also home to diverse religions such as Shintoism, Jehovah’s Witnesses and even Rastafarianism.

This diversity is matched by the country’s entrepreneurial sector that ranges from robotics to software houses and a buoyant mobile sector. In Ghana, like most countries in Africa, the mobile screen is the most important screen. Moreover crime is low and even this white man had no fear walking around on a recent visit to Accra.

I was there to moderate two panels at the Mobile Apps Ghana Showcase 2011 held at the Ghana-India Kofi Annan Centre of Excellence in IT. I was also on a mission to invite two of these companies to present as part of my Speed Session at the CTIA wireless trade show in San Diego. I wanted these companies to show Americans and Europeans what they could do, but more of that later.

Josiah Eyison is the Managing Director of the event who used to work in London for concierge company Quintessentially. He is passionate about the opportunities for entrepreneurs and investors in Ghana.
“Africa needs its own version of Jobs or Zuckerburg to get things moving here. All we get are investors interested in noble causes. Of course, pregnant African women find mobile health services essential, but they want entertainment as well”, he said.

Innovative companies such as Mobile Content and Nandi Mobile both spoke at the event I was moderating and the refrain was the same as anywhere in the West.

Investors too scared to take a jump, mobile operators acting as dictators and stifling creativity as well as taking 120 days to pay bills and a developer community that relied on Facebook for knowledge. Even Nokia with a 62% market share wasn’t helping because it had no ‘foresight’ in the African market.

Other companies spoke to me about the need to invest in local content such as Nollywood (Nigeria’s equivalent of Hollywood), biblical content, learning English programmes, ‘good times, not charity’ as one CEO put it.

Tony Burkson is based in London but visits Ghana regularly to promote the interests of African start-ups and act as a bridge between London and the continent.

“People in Africa want to make money as much as anybody else. They want to share ideas because African ideas are as relevant as any other. This market hasn’t even been scraped. Western financiers should come over here and see for themselves what’s going on,” he said.

That’s not to say that Ghana is doing it alone. The Meltwater Entrepreneurial School of Technology, The Indigo Trust, Ghana Angel Investment Network and Fidelity Capital Partners all support emerging companies and there is even a Mobile Monday in Accra.

So, what of my Speed Session at CTIA and the eight companies who presented there? What did the Americans think of the Africans? While there were great presentations from the likes of ON Voicefeed, Wapple and Layar, unfortunately there wasn’t an African company to be seen.

The reason for this is that African start-ups can’t afford to fly to California and show off their products. Even if they do have a travel budget, the chances of obtaining a visa are remote. That means a whole continent isn’t getting a chance to join the rest of the world.

Africa is the last frontier, there is more innovation here outside a church than there is at a technology park in the West or the East. This continent is the most exciting place in the world to be. It’s not all war and malaria, it’s fun and it is the future of the world.

So the gauntlet is thrown. How about CTIA or its European equivalent, Mobile World Congress, putting together a fund to help African companies and lobbying for Africans to be granted visas to come to big trade shows?

It doesn’t even have to be the mega shows that need to do it. To paraphrase a certain song, there’s a world outside your window and not enough people know about it. This is almost a duty for event organisers to perform.

As I left Accra vowing to come back in the future, I decided to do my little bit and give my battered (and prized) pair of Church’s brogues to a man who looked as if he could use a pair of shoes and then, smug with charity, went off to buy a newspaper.

It was only 7am at the airport, but there was a copy of that day’s The Times, fresh off the printing presses on sale for $6. But when I opened the paper I realised it had been printed out from the internet and I had paid more than £4 for a facsimiled copy.

Ripped off? Yes, but I kind of respected it. Much cooler than giving my shoes away anyway. TIA! This Is Africa!