Special Report:

Homegrown solutions will help Africa thrive online

Entrepreneurs say there is no point in waiting for global groups to take an interest

When Ebola hit Lagos, sub-Saharan’s Africa’s most populous city, Nigerian tech entrepreneurs Seyi Taylor and Bankole Oluwafemi were, just like everyone else, terrified.

As rumours spread in the streets and on social media about the disease that was killing hundreds in nearby nations, the two sat in the office of their start-up in the Surulere district and decided to put a tech solution on to the internet.

“We were concerned that it would take the government and health authorities ages to get info out to the people, so we wanted to contribute something quickly,” says Mr Taylor, 35.

The first website that he and his 28-year-old business partner launched, Tech Cabal, has in three years become a go-to forum for Nigeria’s growing community of tech entrepreneurs. They say the site, with original blog posts produced by just four core staff, has 1m page views a month.

So, using their coding skills and lessons learned from running their first website, the duo patched together EbolaFacts.com in 24 hours. The site’s colourful but simple graphics displayed basic facts about what the disease is and how to avoid exposure to it.

Clicking through led to emergency phone numbers, and — crucially — a PDF flyer that could be printed off to bridge the gap between Nigeria’s digital community and the millions who do not yet use smartphones.

The site received 1.5m hits in two weeks — the volume was so high that it crashed briefly in the early days before the two moved it to a different server. Perhaps the most useful part of the site was its application offline. Companies printed the flyer and hung it in offices to inform staff, while some members of Nigeria’s Youth Service Corps distributed the flyer in markets. Mobile phone carriers Airtel and Etisalat sent out texts with the link to their site, allowing subscribers to click and access it free.

Mr Oluwafemi called the reaction to the site an “epiphanic moment” that taught them lessons about how to reach web and smartphone users in a country of 170m.

This example shows how African entrepreneurs are finding solutions to local problems with apps and websites that fill gaps, solve practical problems — and often generate income — without any help or thought from governments which tend to be some steps behind.

From the well-established tech hubs of Nairobi and Cape Town to an emerging and rapidly growing scene in Lagos, African tech entrepreneurs say their start-ups resonate with locals because they are made at home, not conceived in Silicon Valley and “cut and pasted” into an African market.

Less than two months ago, Messrs Taylor and Oluwafemi launched another site, Zikoko, best described as Nigeria’s version of BuzzFeed. In the first month, the site had 100,000 page views. With exclusively Nigeria-focused clickbait, listicles and quizzes, the site is doing what BuzzFeed cannot do for Nigerians: “Telling you what’s happening here in Nigeria,” says Mr Taylor.

Nigerian web users have enthusiastically been tweeting the results of Zikoko’s quizzes and clicking through listicles on topics such as “Thirteen of the most awkward moments in every Nigerian’s life”. The site has drawn the interest of local companies, including banks, which are signing up to advertise on the site with short embedded videos.

“We think there’s a huge opportunity to make a digital-first community a profitable business model,” says Mr Taylor.

Across town in the financial district of Victoria Island, Nigerian Tunde Kehinde and his Turkish partner Ercin Eksin feel the same. The two broke away from Jumia, a pioneer in the increasingly crowded e-commerce space of “African Amazons”, to found Africa Courier Express (ACE), a consumer delivery system.

“We built our logistics platform from scratch . . . We designed it with the Nigerian market in mind,” says Mr Ercin. He says that though the online payment pro­cess is reliable, “trust is not there” — for now, payment on delivery is the model.

He says the ACE platform is designed to capture what they see as a huge opportunity in the next decade — “taking large offline players online”, or what they like to call “brick and click”. The duo recently built the online delivery system for Chicken Republic, one of the most popular fast food outlets in Lagos.

“We are getting more confident but we are still in the early stages of our research and development. There’s still not a lot of emphasis on creating, and this relegates us in Nigeria to relying on software built by others,” says Oo Nwoye, founder of the start-up Callbase, which makes it easier for SMEs to set up call centres cheaply and quickly.

He says that if Nigeria’s tech entrepreneurs are going to succeed in “using tech to solve our problems”, local developers cannot wait for models developed in the west to be adapted by outsiders. Mr Nwoye cites the example of China: “The lazy way would have been to wait for the Google search engine to work with Chinese characters.” Instead, developers built Baidu, now a behemoth in its own right.

He argues that waiting for a foreign company such as Amazon to replicate itself locally means Nigeria will miss out. “Because . . . those that create are the ones who control the world. It’s important to create that culture of creating and adapting our own solutions,” he says.

Ebi Atawodi, general manager of Uber in Lagos, adds: “In Nigeria, it is execution over ideation. Ideas are great and indeed you have the perfect breeding ground with a growing population, a fairly connected and mobile consumer and the sheer vivacity that is innately Nigerian for most ideas straight out of Silicon Valley to work in theory.

“In reality, however, Nigeria questions everything you thought you knew. The key is how you unpack that idea, execute . . . and make it work in Nigeria at exactly the same global standards,” she says. “Now that is real ingenuity.”

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