Africa’s ‘KINGS’ countries will drive the continent’s digital economy

People work on computers at the online store Jumia in Lagos.
People work on computers at the online store Jumia in Lagos.
Image: Reuters/Akintunde Akinleye
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“I wanted to be here because Africa is on the move…young people are harnessing technology,” were the words of president Barack Obama when he opened the 6th Global Entrepreneurship Summit (GES) in Nairobi, Kenya last year.

The “Africa Rising” narrative is underpinned by an “Africa Tech Rising,” jumpstarted by pervasive connectivity as a result of Africans leapfrogging from almost non-existent fixed lines to exponential mobile growth at the dawn of the 21st century. Despite the current commodities crush, the digital economy is picking up pace in Africa. “Andela Raises $24 Million From Mark Zuckerberg ” were the headlines ahead of the 7th GES in Silicon Valley earlier this month, which backs the idea that African ventures are attracting investment from the valley as they build their local digital economy.

Africa’s digital economy started in Cape Town, South Africa, in 1995 when Mark Shuttleworth built Thawte, a leading certificate authority, and sold it to Verisign in 1999 for more than half a billion dollars — Vodacom championed prepaid airtime that same year. The wave moved to Ghana in 2001 when, together with Mark Davies and others, BusyInternet was built — a multipurpose tech hub. Through BusyInternet, I started the Ghana New Ventures Competition in partnership with the MIT $50,000 Competition, bringing about — the most successful tech startup in Ghana with revenue last year of $10 million. It now has operations in Kenya, Cameroon and Nigeria. The tech wave is leaving Kenya where it has produced some of the continent’s leading tech innovations — including Safaricom’s m-PESA (made possible because of Vodacom’s prepaid airtime). Nigeria is next and then Ivory Coast — making the KINGS.

Just as “KINGS” (literally) represent leadership in the African society — they are the highest authority in the traditional economy, so do Africa’s tech KINGS lead the emerging digital economy — they are the countries on the forefront of the technological innovations spearheading Africa’s global leadership in the 21st century. It’s this digital economy of the KINGS that truly has the potential to fuel exponential growth. In a recent article, Quartz Africa pointed out “African startups are defying the global tech slowdown” and these countries received the most tech investments — this is the second criteria used to identify them.

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The third point that makes the KINGS standout is their vibrant telecom sector, which is underpinned by massive investments in tech infrastructure. Each of the countries have multiple submarine cables and satellite infrastructure built over the last decade connecting to their mobile networks to produce mobile broadband. There is active competition among their mobile operators, which is enabling mobile broadband prices to drop whiles speed increases — this makes up the fourth criterion used to identity the KINGS. The BBC submitted that Africa’s mobile boom is powering the innovation economy.

The availability of mobile broadband is enabling their digital natives and millennials to unleash their creative juices and entrepreneurial prowess to address social challenges and market gabs and pain-points using innovative mobile web technology — disrupting existing markets. This is happening within an enabling policy environment that is pro-innovation; for example, the M-Pesa innovation in Kenya happened because someone at the central bank turned a blind eye. The last criterion is they have multiple centers of innovation like the iHub and NaiLab in Kenya, Orange Fab and ADN factory in Ivory Coast, ccHUB and Leadpath in Nigeria, MEST and Servled in Ghana and 88MPH and Workshop 17 in South Africa just to mention a few.

These characteristics make the KINGS standout and they present examples that the rest of the continent can emulate.

Who are the KINGS?

Kenya leads the KINGS with its innovation in mobile money, which has become a global phenomenon. Mobile money is redefining how global transactions are done in the 21st century. Kenya captioned itself a “startup nation” according to president Uhuru Kenyatta when he opened the last Global Entrepreneurship Summit alongside president Obama. The summit, which was a resounding success, is a feather in the cap of Kenya, which has also produced amazing innovations like Ushahidi a platform for managing disaster globally and BRCK a robust remote Internet connectivity device just to mention a few.

Ivory Coast is the second country in the KINGS and currently growing at 8.5% according to IMF forecasts. Mobile penetration is currently at 90% and the creative economy is beginning to emerge in Abidjan suburbs like Plateau and Cocody. Stephen Cashin of Pan African Capital, an investor in the Ivorian economy recently said, “The government is doing a great job of separating business from politics so there is business continuity no matter the political situation in the country”. Airshop, a duty-free pre-ordering app from Abidjan allows you to pre-order your duty free items and pick them up as you board your flight out of the country, La Regionale delivers premium news content via an SMS activated subscription service and is an e-commerce platform that specializes in local and international brands that are not easy to access in physical shops.

Nigeria’s startup economy is recognized as the e-commerce capital of Africa with startups like Konga, Jumia, which is part of the African Internet Group (AIG) and is in other countries, Mall for Africa, which did $17 million in sales last year, and Super Mart which is specializing in grocery deliveries. iROKOtv — a platform for video on demand (VoD) content from Nigeria’s Nollywood — returned early investors 30 times their money. Attracting huge investments that have enabled him to start Spark — a company building other startups. Spark is enabling the next generation of startups like Interswitch, a leading Nigerian transaction processing provider, is mulling a potential listing on the London and Lagos stock exchange this year with valuation north of a billion dollars making it the potential second unicorn in Africa after AIG recently raised $245 million from a consortium lead by Goldman Sachs at a billion dollar valuation.

Ghana’s scene is led by MEST (Meltwater Entrepreneurial School of Technology), Impact Hub, Mobile Web Ghana, ServLed and iSpace — the hot spots for innovation. MEST has so far invested 15MUSD in over 20 early-stage companies, some of which are Retail Tower, Dropifi (the first Ghanaian startup to be accepted into the 500 startups accelerator in San Francisco), Namdimobile, Leti Arts, ClaimSync which exited to Genkey of Norway and Saya Mobile — acquired by Kirusa of the US. mPedigree and Sproxil are leading Ghanaian startups that have gone global with the technology that allows you to authenticate medication and other materials via SMS.

South Africa led the innovation space with the introduction of prepaid airtime by Vodacom but before that Mark Shuttleworth built Thawte and sold it to Verisign in 1999 for more than half a billion dollars, opening the floodgate of many exits to follow, with several from his investment vehicle. Fundamo, a mobile money financial services platform which was partly owned by Here Be Dragon (HBD), Mark Shuttleworth’s investment vehicle exited to Visa for $110 million in 2011. That year Twangoo, which was started by Dan Guasco and Wayne Gosling, sold to Groupon for an undisclosed amount. In January 2015, Garmin, the satellite navigation multinational bought iKubu, a backtracker bicycle radar technology company and in May, Automattic, the parent company of WordPress acquired Woothemes, a Wordpress plugin for $30 million. These exits are a proof that South Africa has long being building global technology companies making it the country with the most exits among the KINGS countries.

Eghosa Omoigui, Managing Partner of EchoVC — a Silicon Valley and Nigeria VC Fund, said, “our ideal entrepreneur has a Nigeria hustle, a Ghanaian integrity, and a Kenyan smoothness.” Allow me to add the Ivorian persistence and South African diversity — additional ingredients to make any startup successful. The KINGS countries are an embodiment of smoothness, persistence, hustle, integrity and diversity — qualities essential for entrepreneurial success. Africa is really on the move — lead by the KINGS.

This is an edited version of a post that originally appeared on Medium.