What Amazon, Uber, and iTunes might look like if they were invented in Mali

The market scene in Bamako, Mali
The market scene in Bamako, Mali
Image: Reuters/Benoit Tessier
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The road leading up to the University of Bamako is lined with little improvements. Shacks overflow with old Xerox machines on which anything can be printed, copied or laminated for a few cents. There are stalls selling vegetables and stalls for repairing electronics. Students on foot walk along an improvised and slanted set of cracked steps to the center campus.

Bamako’s first ever Startup Weekend took over a corner of University Hill on a Friday night in late August. Most of the 40 or 50 participants were between 18 and 30 years old. Some ran small businesses or worked in one of the few tech companies in Bamako, Mali’s capital. (Half of Mali’s population lives below the international poverty line, but mobile penetration is reasonably high.) There were students of math, law, accounting and computer science. A few investors and consultants, also young, came to coach and observe. There were fast-talkers, shy newcomers, and an American who has taken an interest in technology in the city and was wearing a conspicuous Hawaiian shirt.

The pitch

Startup Weekend is a global 54-hour-long challenge to create novel businesses, and it begins with a burst of one-minute pitches. I sat among the investors and coaches, eager to hear what proposals would come from this never-before assembled group of entrepreneurs in Bamako.

Hearing the list was like watching the web that Westerners know unspool and re-invent itself in fast motion. “Reliable taxis are hard to find in this city,” said one, “I want to build a system to help clients find them”. A second pitch offered a broader version: “Finding anything is difficult in Bamako. I want to make a mapping service so users can see where restaurants, hotels and gas stations are.”

A room buzzing with ideas and orange hats.
A room buzzing with ideas and orange hats.
Image: Colin Baker

“Musicians,” another said, “can’t make any money because music is pirated,” so he proposed a pay-to-download music market. The next pitched an online magazine of women’s forums, while another suggested a network for people who want to make money renting or selling their possessions. There was a mobile-health platform to connect users with pharmacies and doctors, a plastic litter-recycling mechanism (urban Mali is covered in trash), a virtual art gallery and a translation app for Mali’s polyglot marketplaces.

It was like hearing about Uber, Google Maps and Translate, Spotify, iTunes, Craigslist, and more, just under different names, pitched by beginners. Had these ideas come for lack of awareness, lack of accessibility, or the gleam of a profitable remake?

It turned out, in chats with the pitchers directly after, to be a mix of all three. Uber was unknown; products like Craigslist and Gumtree exist here only as mailing lists for those with access; Google Maps has little useful metadata in Mali and loads terribly; iTunes is avoided and Spotify doesn’t work.

The 21 groups became 10. On the Saturday, coaches roamed tables covered with sticky notes and nine-column business plans. The hours ticked by and frustration laid bare the original problems. What premium would a user pay for a searchable taxicab over a normal city cab? About $1. How would an app explaining business law function on a feature phone far from internet service? A pre-recorded system that works with the phone’s menu. How would a music-vending website discourage piracy? Artist-loyalty programs. Saturday night was nuit blanche—no sleep—and by 4pm Sunday the proposals were finished.

By the final presentations, some teams showcased prototypes, others PowerPoints. The internet connection was unreliable in the hall so ready-to-boot mock-ups were used. The electricity cut briefly before the final round.

In the end, HelloTaxi had come to resemble the dispatcher models available in almost every city other than Bamako. That team’s best innovation was to not book the cars, but simply connect users with the phone numbers of premium taxis (albeit using an unspecified geolocation app). BamakoBusinessStore showed off a virtual marketplace for selling clothing, built within Facebook pages, and proposed using mobile money to pay for it (for many, the blue homepage of Facebook is the onramp to the internet). Each solution identified an available resource, isolated a missing component unknown in Mali, and added a service.

The winners

8pm arrived and the hall quieted. Third and second place went to a maker-space for tinkerers and the garbage-to-fertilizer recycling company. The online music and art marketplace won all-round, and will be housed at Nëlio8, one of Mali’s only incubators. Nëlio8 currently houses three startups, all of them finance-related, and has no website. (“Here,” said one of the investors in the hall, “most companies don’t have websites. It’s far more important to have a storefront or physical presence… It’s something we’re working on.”)

Some critics in the audience were nonplussed. One complained that teams didn’t seem to grasp the notion of risk and assumed that funds, resources and partnerships would simply follow an idea. Another said the jury was biased by traditional business models and had asked the wrong questions. To some, the ideas were not only too similar to existing products, but were beyond the scope of any one group to tackle.

Nonetheless, it’s entrepreneurship, even if on a small scale. The winner, 25-year-old Mohamed Dumbia, explained how developers in Mali approach problems. Musicians make little from their recorded work because pirate copies of songs are sold on the street via USB keys—a sort of Napster without the internet. But iTunes and Amazon may not work here, because few people use online bank accounts. Mobile money combined with a decent web site might be a better model, and that is what Dumbia proposes to build.

Take what’s available, add a layer. Solve an immediate problem because the bigger ones may never be fixed. This is the way most things work (or inch by) in Mali: be it a potholed road that’s filled with crushed rock monthly rather than paved, or a freelance ultrasound machine that arrives on the back of a scooter to provide imaging for obstetrics clinics. Renaud Gaudin, who is French but leads Bamako’s only tech co-working space, Jokkolabs, said, “we’ve never been this far [towards] creating actual businesses from scratch”. It’s an improvement, at least, where there couldn’t be more room.

Colin Baker is a video journalist and writer based in Bamako, Mali. Follow him on Twitter at @airlockben.