Feature Startups

“A different picture” – African startups and their way to build the future

Ruth Nabembezi’s story sounds inconceivable for someone who grew up under the sheltered conditions of West Europe. Ruth is born in Uganda in 1995. Her parents die early from AIDS and she grows up with her sister in an orphanage. One day, the condition of her sister, who was already born with AIDS, worsens and she rapidly loses weight. The neighbours blame this on a demon and bring her sister to a different site to exorcise the demon. She dies only a few days later. The early death of the sister could have been prevented with the correct medicinal diagnosis and treatment.

The 21-year-old Ruth tells me her story as I meet her at the end of March at the computer fair CeBit. The tragic beginning possibly contains everything which springs to the mind of us Europeans when thinking of Africa: a continent caught in a web of death, superstition and lack of prospects. A web which is intensified by civil war, violence and hunger and which seems indissoluble. However, this is only the first part of the story and what Ruth tells me further on, opens up a totally different perspective – optimistic, full of energy and inspired by the hope for a better future.  Ruth’s story takes a turn after she participates in a program of the Social Innovation Academy (SINA). This program was initiated so that people can utilise and overcome their traumatic experiences by developing positive projects for social changes. 
This is the initial impulse for Ruth’s startup “Ask without shame”.

“Ask without Shame” builds an app that makes it possible for teens and young adults to get accurate information about sex. Talking about sex is a taboo in most African communities and “Ask without Shame” provides anonymous and potentially lifesaving information. The app was launched on the 12th of December 2015, the first innovation-day in Uganda. Ruth and her colleges advertise with app with 2000 stickers in the public busses and since the launch they have answered over 10,000 questions from over 6,000 users with the help of the app. Ruth Nabembezi’s story draws the picture of a different, new Africa. An Africa, in which people want to solve their problems with the help of new ideas and technology. However, the used wording already indicates a problem within the European view on the developments in countries such as Uganda. We still speak of Africa as a whole and lose sight of the immense diversity of the continent. 54 countries and 1,1 billion people can only with difficulty be subsumed and analysed und comprised with the term “Africa”.
And at this point most people (including the author) will have to admit that they had to first of all search “Uganda” in Wikipedia in order to learn more about the location and situation of this country. When travelling northward from Uganda, one reaches South Sudan. This is a country which did not even exist a few years ago on the political map of Africa. This country is the home of Lou Koboji, founder of the Kajo-Keji Institute, the first private not for profit health training institute which was established by South Sudanese.

Lou Koboji spent 26 years of his life as a refugee in Uganda, where he completes his studies of biomedical laboratory technology, founds a family and is working in a well-secured job. However, in 2012 he is offered to temporarily work as a HIV/AIDS consultant in his former home country South Sudan. There, in the county Terekeka, Lou makes the acquaintance of Kiden and other expecting mothers who are being attended to by traditional birth attendants at home, rather than being in Health Centres with medically trained health workers as he would have expected. Upon learning that Kiden then dies during child birth and that this would have been preventable with sufficient medical care, Lou makes further inquiries and soon learns that South Sudan has the highest maternal mortality in the whole world with 2,054 per 100,000 live births with 16 women dying daily due to pregnancy related complications. Lou continues his consultancy work in the Upper Nile region of the country and comes across cases of Guinea worm, a disease which is eradicated in Uganda and most other countries.  All these signs of the lacking health care system of South Sudan lead to his decision of giving up his stable life style in Uganda. With his family, he returns to his country in order to make a difference and to help build up South Sudan by improving the health care system – he starts up his own health training institute.

It takes him 9 months of organisation, finding infrastructure and staff and completing administrative steps until his Kajo-Keji Institute is duly recognised and registered in South Sudan. He finances the initial founding with his own savings, supplementing the monetary situation with international financial support by the means of bootstrapping. In January 2014 the 60 first students start their studies at Lou’s health training institute and they are now due to graduate this year. Currently, a total of 208 students are being trained within the Kajo-Keji Health Training Institute. For each new class, either in “Medical Laboratory Sciences” or in “Clinical Medicine and Public Health”, the institute takes 5 students from each of the 10 regions of South Sudan. The aim is that the students will return to their home regions after completion of their diplomas, thus improving the health care coverage of the overall country. At the moment, Lou’s startup is still facing the struggles of the unstable political situation in South Sudan and the entailed problems such as inflation and the staff retention. Lou will continue visiting startup conferences, looking for support and expanding his institute in order to achieve his goal of saving lives in South Sudan.

Exactly the same as the story of Lou Koboji, the story of the startup BRCK shows that the problems in the African countries are solved best by their own people, in a way that could not be achieved so well by external development assistance projects.
BRCK is a tech startup that builds a rugged, self-powered, WIFI device that connects you to the internet wherever you are.

Kio Kit - Photo by BRCK
Kio Kit – Photo by BRCK

There are several use cases for this device, the most promising and obvious is education. And on top of BRCK they build an educational tool called KIO Kit. “We call it a digital classroom in a box. It consists of a box that has 40 tablets in it, it has 40 earphones and it also has a BRCK. So the main purpose for BRCK in the Kio Kit is to store content and it is also for connectivity to the internet.”, explains Alex Masika, manager at BRCK. 

With this framework, BRCK wants to carry education into the most remote areas of Africa and thereby addresses a worldwide problem. This solution can be best developed under the special circumstances found in Kenia.  “BRCK was founded on the premise of internet and connectivity challenges faced in Africa. Most of the solutions that are available right now are not built with the Africa infrastructure in mind. The founders of BRCK sat down and thought about why can’t we build our solution that addresses our needs by ourselves, as Africans. It is a demand driven product. It was built by people who understand the challenges Africa is facing.” And if it works in Kenia, why should it not work worldwide and why not in the European refugee camps and at the European borders in which education is not the top priority.

The fact that these ideas can be very valuable is also recognised by larger companies, such as for example Merck. In addition to its accelerator programme in Darmstadt, Germany, Merck is operating an accelerator site in Nairobi since April this year.
The Merck Accelerator in Nairobi is focusing on digital health solutions, so basically on mobile solutions in the health sector. The focus of the programs is on startups in the fields of Healthcare, Life Sciences and Performance Materials.
“The programs run for three months, so we provide support-funding. In Darmstadt it is at least 25.000 Euros, in Nairobi it is 15.000 US-Dollars. We also provide a mentor driven program for the three months. We support the startups with mentors from within Merck. So there are experts from the 40.000 employees we have at Merck worldwide.”, said Munya Chivasa, Innovation Facilitator at the Merck Innovation Center.

Karina Fassbender is working at the Merck Accelerator in Nairobi. Is there something like a African startup scene?

Munya Chivasa has insight into both worlds: Africa and Europe. Are there any differences between European and African startups?
“There are more similarities than people think. Most of the startups we find in Africa are very mission orientated. They all have a mission and they all are very passionate about coming up with a solution and getting it to the people. Sometimes the business model falls a little it behind what they are trying to achieve. But they have the same drive and the same motivation. They are aware that they need a unique selling point, that they have to provide something to the customer, they are aware that there is competition but they are very eager to collaborate.” said Munya Chivasa.

One of these young founders with a strong idea is Ako Gunn.
He is a young man from Togo who currently completing his Master in “Social Business and Entrepreneurship” in France but simultaneously is working on the launch of his startup “Proud Togo”. Having met other young people with plans to contribute towards changing at the world worldwide student’s organization called AIESEC in Togo and having grown up in a developing country with problems such as health issues and food insecurity, Ako decides that he too wants to contribute. He knows that despite all the problems surrounding food in Togo, his country is said to be of a high potential agricultural potential. He starts his own research and comes across the worldwide problem of food waste. In particular, in Togo about 40 % of the agricultural production is wasted and additional 10-15% are lost during processing, transport and storage. Ako’s idea now is to found a small and medium social enterprise which will re-evaluate crops which are left in the field, as they are deemed unusable. Through an innovative partnership between producers and local people, “Proud Togo” will collect, sort, and process these crops to make finished products such as juices, purees and jams. They will be designed for our different groups of customers, such as retail, communities, catering and receptive tourism. Ako aims to return home in December this year and step by step build a foundation of crowdfunding and feasability studies upon which to launch “Proud Togo”.

Ruth has already successfully mastered the founding step of her startup. Now the largest challenge, as with every startup, is: how can I make a living with my idea? Ruth is working on a viable solution.
“Our users are sharing information with us, which they do not share with anybody else. Many of them want to get treated or counselled by our medical team and we are testing our revenue model at the moment through partnering with a reproductive health clinic in Kampala to treat our users. We want to create a freemium model, whereby our platform is answering all questions related to sexuality for free but if users require offline medical treatment or further assistance, they can come into our own clinic to be helped. With the revenue from the clinic we want to sustain Ask Without Shame as a whole.”
It is her goal to found this clinic which is specialised in sexual medicine and health until the end of 2016 so that she can offer users the possibility of treatment there. Moreover, Ruth has received inquiries from people from Kenia and Tanzania which would like to use “Ask Without Shame” in their countries.  “However, we have just started prototyping this and are still relying on donations to be able to answer questions and especially to be able to create our Ask Without Shame clinic”, said Ruth. Thus she is using every opportunity to tell the world about her great idea. In July she will travel to to Global Youth Summit on Switzerland to find further supporters.
And one day she wants to be able to reach 250 million adolescents in Africa. These are the dreams that inspire founders such as Ruth. She will continue to write her own story, telling us of a new and different Africa.

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