Ruth Nabembezi’s story sounds inconceivable for someone who grew up under the sheltered conditions of Western 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 medical diagnosis and treatment.
The 21-year-old Ruth tells me her story as I meet her at the computer fair CeBit at the end of March. The tragic beginning possibly contains everything which comes 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 life takes a turn after she participates in a programme of the Social Innovation Academy (SINA). This programme was initiated to enable people to utilise and overcome their traumatic experiences by developing positive projects for social changes. This is the initial impulse for Ruth’s start-up “Ask without shame”.
“Ask without Shame” builds an app that allows 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 12 December 2015, on the first innovation-day in Uganda. Ruth and her colleagues advertise their app with 2,000 stickers in public busses and since the launch, they have answered over 10,000 questions from over 6,000 users with the help of this app. Ruth Nabembezi’s story draws the picture of a different, a new Africa, an Africa, in which people want to solve their problems with the help of new ideas and technology. However, the wording we use already indicates a problem within the European perspective on the developments in countries such as Uganda. We still speak of Africa as a whole and lose sight of the immense diversity of this continent. 54 countries and 1,1 billion people can be subsumed, analysed and comprised under the term “Africa” only with great difficulty.
And at this point, most people (including the author) will have to admit that they had first of all to look up “Uganda” on Wikipedia in order to learn more about the location and situation of this country. When travelling north from Uganda, one reaches South Sudan. This is a country which did not even exist on the political map of Africa a few years ago. 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 a 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 works 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 of Terekeka, Lou makes the acquaintance of Kiden and other expecting mothers who are being taken care of by traditional birth attendants at home, rather than being in Health Centres with medically trained health workers as he would have expected. When he then learns that Kiden had died 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 every day due to pregnancy related complications.
Lou continues his consultancy work in the Upper Nile region of the country and comes across several cases of the Guinea worm, a disease which has been eradicated in Uganda and most other countries. All these signs of a lacking health care system in South Sudan lead to his decision to give up his stable life 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 its health care system – he starts his own health training institute.
It takes him 9 months of organisation to find infrastructure and staff and to complete all the 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 can start their studies at Lou’s health training institute who 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 admits 5 students from each of the 10 regions of South Sudan. The aim is to encourage students to return to their home regions after completion of their diplomas, thus improving the health care coverage throughout the whole country. At the moment, Lou’s start-up is still facing the struggles of the unstable political situation in South Sudan and the entailed problems such as inflation and staff retention. Lou will continue visiting start-up conferences, looking for support and expanding his institute in order to achieve his goal of saving lives in South Sudan.
Exactly as the story of Lou Koboji, the story of the start-up BRCK shows that the problems in African countries can be best solved by their own people, in a way that could not be achieved as well by external development assistance projects.
BRCK is a tech start-up that builds a rugged, self-powered WIFI device that allows you to connect to the internet wherever you are. There are several application possibilities for this device, the most promising and obvious is education. Therefore they built an educational tool called KIO Kit on top of BRCK. “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 the help of these tools, BRCK wants to bring education to the most remote areas of Africa and addresses thereby a worldwide problem. This solution can be best developed under the special circumstances that can be 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 shouldn’t it work worldwide and why not in refugee camps in Europe and at the European borders where education is not a top priority.
The fact that these ideas can be very valuable is also recognised by larger companies, such as Merck. In addition to its accelerator programme in Darmstadt, Germany, Merck has been operating an accelerator site in Nairobi since April this year.
The Merck Accelerator in Nairobi is focusing on digital health solutions, basically on mobile solutions in the health sector. The programmes’ focus lies on start-ups in the field of Healthcare, Life Sciences and Performance Materials.
“The programmes 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 programme for the three months. We support the start-ups 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.
His colleague Karin Fassbender runs the Nairobi Merck accelerator.
Munya Chivasa has insight into both worlds: Africa and Europe. Are there any differences between European and African start-ups?
“There are more similarities than people think. Most of the start-ups 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.
Ako Gunn is one of these young founders with a strong idea. He is a young man from Togo who is currently completing his Master in “Social Business and Entrepreneurship” in France but is simultaneously working on the launch of his start-up “Proud Togo”. Having met other young people with plans to contribute towards changing the world at the student’s organisation 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 would like to contribute as well. He knows that despite all the problems surrounding food in Togo, his country is said to have a high agricultural potential. He starts his own research and comes across the worldwide problem of food waste. In Togo in particular about 40 % of the agricultural production is wasted and additional 10-15% are lost during processing, transport and storage. Ako’s idea is therefore to found a small and medium social enterprise which will re-evaluate crops that 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 turn them into finished products such as juices, purees and jams. They will be designed for different groups of customers, such as retail, communities, catering and receptive tourism. Ako aims to return home in December this year and to build a solid foundation ofcrowdfunding and feasibility studies upon which he can launch “Proud Togo”.
Ruth has already successfully mastered the founding step of her start-up. As every other start-up she is now confronted to the largest challenge: how can I make a living out of my idea? Ruth is working on a viable solution.
What does she need at the moment?
“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. 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 to get 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. She is using every opportunity to tell the world about her great idea. In July, Ruth will travel to the Global Youth Summit in Switzerland to find further supporters.
And one day she wants to be able to reach up to 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 about a new and different Africa.
Sarah and I were asked to write this article about African startups for the Falling Walls Fragments.
Here you could read the article “A DIFFERENT PICTURE” – AFRICAN START-UPS AND THEIR WAY TO BUILD THE FUTURE.