Watching Technology Trends Emerge In Africa

By Jake Bright

With so much happening in the African tech market these days, it’s hard to keep track. Here’s a handy guide we’ll try to put out every month on the biggest news in one of tech’s most exciting (and earliest) emerging markets.

The big story in January was Netflix’s Africa entry. CEO Reed Hastings turned the switch on for the entire continent at the company’s CES global expansion announcement. This surprised Africa’s existing VOD providers and much of the continent, as pre-announcement chatter only signaled South Africa would make Netflix’s new coverage map.

We dug into the expansion in this feature, with a briefer on Africa’s fairly nascent VOD market and input from Netflix and African digital entertainments platforms IROKOtv,, et al. Though Netflix’s entry could have long term impact on Africa’s IT ecosystem, its limited local content and Africa’s broadband woes could make Netflix much more a luxury good than disruptor to African VOD in the short term.

Moving to homegrown African tech, the continent’s first unicorn could be Nigerian fintech firm Interswitch in 2016. Sources confirmed to TechCrunch the Helios backed company is likely to launch on the LSE north of $1 billion in Q3 or Q4. CEO Mitchell Elegbe would not confirm or deny the 2016 IPO, but did tell TechCrunch the company is considering a public listing.

Elegbe also said the windfall from such an event could fund the firm’s further Africa expansion, heating up competition in other digital payments markets. Through an acquisition Interswitch recently launched its Quickteller payment app in Kenya, placing itself in the backyard of Safaricom’s M-PESA, Africa’s most successful mobile money platform.

Shifting back to VOD, Nigeria’s IROKOtv didn’t wait long to issue “a game on” response to Netflix’s entry on the continent. Two weeks after the Netflix Africa news IROKO CEO Jason Njoku announced his startup had closed a $19 million investment deal with Swedish fund Kinnevik and French cable company Canal+.

IROKOtv will divvy the funds up across business and technology development and funding new Nollywood content, as detailed here. By the way, Nollywood is Nigeria’s film industry, the most popular in Africa and second largest in the world by volume. However, it’s profitability and production quality have been hampered by distribution and monetization issues (i.e., massive dvd pirating) that VOD could solve.

Kenyan startup BRCK, which makes the BRCK wifi device, secured $3 million in funding from supporters Jean and Steve Case and the Ted Organization, as covered by CNN. The BRCK solar-powered gadget provides 4G internet and electricity for up to 20 connections.

Speaking to BRCK CEO Erik Hersman this week, he played down CNN’s suggestive headline that the company was “in a race [with Facebook] to connect Africa,” underscoring BRCK is designed for internet deadspots anywhere in the world, including the U.S. He also reminded me of BRCK’s slogan, “If it works in Africa, it will work anywhere.”–which is telltale for African tech’s ability to find local innovation adapting to local problems. If you just starting following Africa’s tech scene and aren’t familiar with Erik Hersman you will be. He is behind a growing number of African IT ventures: Nairobi’s iHub incubator, Ushahidi, BRCK, Savannah Fund, and recently launched design and protyping lab, Gearbox.

Uber in Africa showed signs it will adapt its model to local needs. Techcabal reported the company has rolled out a cash payment option in Nigeria, where many consumers are still attached to hard currency. For Nigerians privy to digital payments, Uber also announced a partnership with fintech firm Paga to pay using local debit cards. This is supposed to ease the FX volatility Nigerian passengers face when using cards in Uber cars.

Even after its adaptive do-gooding in Africa, Uber still can’t get away from controversy. This month’s local taxi driver opposition to Uber didn’t come from yellow cabbies in NYC, it was from Nairobi taxi operators, who are threatening attacks on Uber partners due to the company’s Kenyan pricing model, as reported in Business Daily Africa.

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