Ghana: The tech startups scene
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Ghana: The tech startups scene

In an internet café on Accra’s sunny High Street on a beautiful Wednesday afternoon, a group of teens gather awkwardly around a computer screen, their faces beaming with excitement.

In a few minutes they alert the attendant that they are printing a few documents. Then the room erupts into a stream of “Let me see! Let me see...” as they run out the shop, crowding to get a glimpse of the piece of paper.

Kojo, the attendant, catches my eye and explains that the teenagers had come in to check their High School results. According to him, for only 5 cedis (1.55 USD), the anxious students can get a peek into their report before it is officially released by the regional examination council.

Hundreds of students finish High School each year in the country and a large percentage of them look to further their education in higher institutions. Understandably, this makes the process of securing admission into higher learning institutions quite competitive.

Kojo says getting this early insight into their performance enables the youngsters to prepare for the next stage of their lives without wasting precious time. “You cannot imagine the importance of things like this in the country today,” he explains.

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Locally-generated solutions

Next to forerunners like South Africa, Nigeria and Egypt, Ghana has one of the most active tech scenes on the African continent. Nonetheless, many commentators remain surprised as Ghana’s tech scene has quickly developed from the days when there were only one or two internet service providers and less than 200,000 mobile users.

Today, the mobile penetration rate in the country is very high and there is a palpably stiff competition between the international network service providers.

The recent surge in internet usage has been attributed to the growing competition as well as the rapid adoption of smartphones. The cost of getting connected still remains the main drawback. But the commercial explosion of affordable modems and smartphones, as well as the penetration of social media into the local culture, is quickly changing things.

Today, virtually all sections of the Ghanaian population - students, workers and retirees alike - access the internet easily and regularly.  This has made the country a fertile ground for online-based enterprises.

Over the past decade, several remarkable tech startups have emerged from the country. Although many may be relatively small and perhaps under resourced in comparison to their international competitors, these entrepreneurs have just as much passion and have displayed their ability to create world class solutions. They also have the advantage of knowing the local market better than their international competitors.  

Take Dumsor, a flashlight app launched only a few months ago. This app is particularly useful as it comes at a time when the Electricity Company of Ghana has had to resort to load shedding to meet the increasingly high electrical demands of the nation – which has since surpassed the national capacity. Although there are countless international flashlight apps, very few of them have been able to make any waves locally.

Dumsor is named after a colloquial term used to describe the load shedding exercise. The app was developed by KodeFusion GH - a small software startup in Accra. The group has announced plans to update the app with the official load shedding schedule to enable its users to prepare for the frequent power outages.

Dumsor is a classic example of a software solution specifically built for the local market, and it is expected to grow in popularity over time. But some say there is a risk of its appeal being restricted to Ghana.

Unlike Dumsor, however, some of the other software solutions developed in Ghana have actively targeted a global market. Reports indicate that many of these companies have built a swelling customer base outside of the continent. This is a testament to the quality of the solutions provided by these companies and their immense potential to grow.

Dropifi, a customer feedback monitoring tool, launched in 2011 by three Ghanaian entrepreneurs, has been widely accredited all over the world. Only a year after it was released, Dropifi won first place in the Global Startup Open Competition Foundation. Shortly afterwards, the Dropifi team was invited to participate in the 500 Startup Program in Silicon Valley.

One of the co-founders of Dropifi, Kamil Nabong, told us that more than 18,000 businesses around the world use the customer engagement tool today - and about 43% of these companies are located in the North American region. Others are in Europe, Australia and Asia.

While only 2% of the companies that use Dropifi are located in Africa, Nabong explains that this is a result of the fact that the company’s marketing strategies have not been focused on the continent.

“We’re however working to make Africa a strategic part of our growth in the coming years because of the numerous opportunities we see here,” he explains.

Support for tech entrepreneurs

Numerous tech companies have sprung up in the country in the past few years, and many individuals and non-profit organizations have, in diverse ways, supported these budding enterprises.

Institutions, such as Ghana-India Kofi Annan Centre for Excellence in ICT, 3 Day Startup Ghana, Meltwater Entrepreneurial School of Technology (MEST) and Mobile Web Ghana, have sought to support young tech enthusiasts by equipping them with the skills they need to become entrepreneurs and attain success.

The Meltwater Entrepreneurial School of Technology (MEST) is perhaps the most remarkable of the lot. MEST was opened in 2008 by the Meltwater Foundation, in partnership with Microsoft Bizspark, Amazon, Interswitch and Rackspace.

The school gathers about 35 of the best graduates from Ghana and Nigeria yearly, and takes them through a two-year long intensive educational program, which provides these students with both business and technical skills.

After this training, the entrepreneurs are tasked to develop a business idea. The winning ideas then go on to receive support from the MEST incubator program. This support package includes the provision of startup capital, technical support, advice and mentorship.

Some of the most renowned tech startups from Ghana, such as Dropifi, Saya, mPawa and many others, were created by students of MEST.

In August, Saya, a mobile messaging app, was acquired by US-based Kirusa. This is the second MEST startup to have been bought. Last year, Genkey also purchased ClaimSync, a software designed to assist medical professionals digitize medical records and claims.

Nabong, who is a graduate of MEST, says “MEST is the kind of opportunity that is needed to serve as a springboard for entrepreneurs especially in the developing world… Young African brains from our universities have the capacity to do great things right from their days in school. The one thing that is lacking is the [right] ecosystem.”

The Incubator Managing Director for MEST, Neal Hansch, told us that he agrees the organization has been successful in its goal to train the next generation of software entrepreneurs in West Africa.

“Now we’re working hard to help support and drive the success of the individual companies that have been launched coming out of our program,” he adds.

Besides these institutions, various technical hubs and programming labs have sprung up across the country. Experts say these hubs will provide tech entrepreneurs with the ecosystem, exposure and support they need to create world-class products and services.

There were some stale rumors about a government plan to create a tech park similar to Silicon Valley a few years ago. While many pundits have applauded the plausibility of this idea, not much has come out of it. For more details about the tech players and investors supporting the Ghanaian tech startup scene, please take a look at this report [PDF] by former IBM analyst Martin Grenberg.

Challenges for tech startups

According to many critics, the biggest challenge to growth in the country’s ICT sector is the lack of governmental support.

Hansch explains that MEST has not received any support from the government thus far.

“Though we hope they appreciate what we’re doing,” he adds. 

According to Hansch, negative stereotypes about Africa continue to hamper the growth of the continent’s budding tech industry.

“People outside of Africa and specifically Silicon Valley, still need a lot of education when it comes to understanding the emerging tech ecosystem in Africa. It's not a territory that they're familiar with or have seen many tech companies launch out of to date. That will change over time, just as it did for India and China.”

Despite these challenges, many entrepreneurs are convinced that the future of the Ghanaian tech sector is promising.

Bakorkor Kelldick, the founder of Orgaroo, says it is important to “Fail Fast. Get out of the building.”

According to the entrepreneur, whose app for schedule management has fared impressively, “The future looks great. The ecosystem is still young but it's picking up. Success stories from other startup entrepreneurs is catching up and focus from the Government, Industry and the international community on Ghana particularly Accra and parts of Kumasi is promising.”

Nabong, expresses similar views: “First we need to begin making a conscious effort to develop the culture of tech entrepreneurship among the youth in Ghana. The Senior High Schools and universities are a great place to start. Talent development is key to developing this culture and our educational system has to be the key driver of this. A perfect example is the initiatives by both the US and the UK governments to add coding to schools' curriculum from the early stages.”

“Also, there needs to be a conscious effort at promoting innovation in the continent. Governments have to recognize that tech entrepreneurship is key to economic development and rise up to the challenge of promoting it. They can do this by rolling out support programs to help startups get funding and mentorship. Make it easy for accelerators and incubators to set up and also attract investment into the continent,” he adds.

There are many ways the growth of Ghanaian startups will benefit the local population. As Hansch explains, MEST is “trying to prepare individuals to start and build software companies, thereby also creating jobs.” 

If things continue in this trajectory, don’t be surprised to discover that the next must-have app was designed somewhere in the heart of Ghana.

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K.O. Peppeh

K.O. Peppeh is a professional journalist and freelance writer from Ghana, West Africa. He is part of a new generation of writers leveraging technology to develop a new, powerful voice for the African continent.

Comments

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Mark S." Iowa" Nelson on February 06 2015

You paint a great literary picture of an "emerging tech ecosystem in Africa" Will you or have you written more about other countries or regions as emerging tech ecosystems in Africa? As a person considering, observing, studying and researching tech start ups, I appreciate your what appears to be current,clear,concise,informative,illustrative,and intuitively indigenous information about start ups in Ghana. Some challenges and opportunities for growth may universal, wherever.

no-images

Mark S." Iowa" Nelson on February 06 2015

You paint a great literary picture of an "emerging tech ecosystem in Africa" Will you or have you written more about other countries or regions as emerging tech ecosystems in Africa? As a person considering, observing, studying and researching tech start ups, I appreciate your what appears to be current,clear,concise,informative,illustrative,and intuitively indigenous information about start ups in Ghana. Some challenges and opportunities for growth may universal, wherever.

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