The potential and pitfalls of African tech innovation
THE fastest, and cheapest, way to zip around the hilly capital of Rwanda is to catch one of the many motorcycle taxis, or motos, that attract custom by hooting at pedestrians as they drive along. Grab a ride on one and you can nip from one end of Kigali to the other for less than $1.
Yet catching a ride is a white-knuckle affair. Drivers seldom expect repeat custom so make no effort to be nice (which can be a welcome respite from over-chatty London cabbies). Most want to finish the journey quickly to look for their next fare. So many of them race about the city as if in a grand prix: they speed around blind corners, brake sharply at the very last minute and take off from traffic lights quickly enough almost to unseat an inattentive passenger.
The solution, according to two entrepreneurs, Peter Kariuki, a Kenyan, and Barrett Nash, a Canadian, is an Uber-style app that not only allows passengers to hail a ride, but also gives them some hope of surviving the journey. Their firm, SafeMotos, insists that taxi drivers own a smartphone, which contains accelerometers that can determine if drivers speed or brake too hard, among other things. The data they collect score the drivers on safety. Only safe ones get business.
Uber, the car-hailing app valued at $51 billion, and local startups have launched similar motorcycle-taxi services in various countries from Indonesia to Uganda, but SafeMotos is more than just a clone. Whereas in many other countries drivers are comfortable using digital maps on their phones, SafeMoto uses a simpler system: directing drivers via a series of well-known waypoints until they are close to the final destination.
Yet the experience of SafeMotos also underscores some of the difficulties of establishing tech startups in Africa. Its founders say that the main problem many face is a shortage of skilled coders. There is no real ecosystem of tech entrepreneurs who can bounce ideas around, or inspire bright young people to quit safe jobs in the civil service and start their own companies.
This is slowly changing. Technology hubs, where startups cluster in shared office space, in Nairobi, Cape Town and Lagos are producing promising companies and attracting international attention. Last year African tech firms raised $186m in funding, says Disrupt Africa, an analyst, and it has finally produced a “unicorn”, or tech company valued at more than $1 billion. Yet plagued by power shortages, expensive and unreliable internet connections, and ruinous bank rates, the continent has a way to go.
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