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Somtou: A Senegal startup for the global informal economy

More than 150 million young Africans make their living in the informal sector. This means that if you want to make an impact on African youth, the informal sector is where you need to focus.

Now one startup in Senegal is working hard to improve the efficiency, manageability and profitability in this area. Started in 2014, Somtou is a simple and instinctive software and hardware device that targets the informal sector and small scale businesses in Africa and the rest of the developing world. According to Ted Boulou, one of the two founders, the startup has a very specific mission “to help the informal and small scale businesses all over the world grow and make profit.”

Somtou is an easy-to-use management console for informal and small scale businesses. It includes a solar-powered central console with a tactile screen, a barcode reader and a connected mechanical scale, making it able to record all the different types of transactions that happen in small shops.

It therefore acts both as a point-of-sale, an inventory management system and a customer management device. These features are geared towards making the operator understand and record the shop transactions with ease.

Africa and other developing areas have had to contend with electric power shortages, outages and scarcity for a long time. The solar-powered console therefore makes it ideal for regions with inconsistent power.

Using the technology, businesses and shops gain productivity and increase revenues. This also helps them to access credit, as it produces clear data records. When these shops create and keep clear transactional histories, credit institutions are able to capture their credit worth and give them credit assistance. This has been a major advantage since many small scale traders in Africa and developing countries rarely had any records in the past.

The name Somtou refers to an Egyptian god and means ‘bridging two lands together’. In this way, the device is meant to bridge together the two separated spheres of developing businesses; the informal sector and modern technologies. “We went from a plain tablet down to the scuff. Then we imagined, designed and developed a fully committed device,” explains Boulou.

Part of the idea for this came about when the founders realized that more than 70% of small scale business owners and operators are illiterate. Yet you don’t need to read or write to use smartphones and other smart technologies. They also noticed the fact that the products sold on these shops are measured at very small amounts.

“Chocolate spread, mustard and even toothpaste are sold at a ‘spoon’ level,” says Boulou. In this way, they had to develop a device that puts all this into perspective.

“We had to come up with an out-of-the-box solution to the very specific issues that are [often] completely disregarded by existing software and developers,” asserts Boulou.

Though the startup is based in Dakar, Senegal, its market is spread all over the world. The informal sector in Africa is no different from informal sectors everywhere else. This means that the device is universally accepted by businesses which share the same features of size, finance, power failures and scarcity as well as low formal education on the part of the operators.

“We started from Senegal but our market is spread all over the planet,” Boulou concludes.

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Daniel Muraga

Daniel Muraga is an experienced online writer and communications professional based in Kenya.

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