Embodying entrepreneurship and innovation like no other sector, Africa’s startup ecosystem is blossoming. Innovative thinkers are localising tools such as AI and edge computing, among other technologies, to develop their own solutions to uniquely African challenges, writes Celina Lee, CEO at Zindi. What separates this ecosystem from others are incentives to collaborate, to understand the importance of startups and data science, and the fact that Africa’s startup sector is wholly different to Western counterparts. With this, Africa paves a way forward for itself, and serves as a source of diverse, forward-thinking talent for the whole world.
Africa: Progress in progress
Despite emerging from a global pandemic and markets still in the process of recovery, 2021 was a landmark year for startups in Africa, having raised more than $4.65 billion in funding. With a 25% increase in the number of announced deals compared to 2020, South Africa, Kenya, Egypt, and Nigeria received the largest share of these investments, while a proliferation of fintech startups accounted for the bulk of the funds (62%).
This reinvigorated investment drive may signal the world’s interest in Africa, but finance is just one factor we need to consider. For one, Africa is identified as an adopter of Fourth Industrial Revolution technologies instead of a net producer, which means there’s potential for the continent to become more involved in the primary business of developing its own solutions. Another is that Sub-Saharan Africa’s working-age population is expected to double by 2050, becoming the largest in the world. With many other global populations aging, this source of workers could have a dramatic impact on economic outlooks.
These factors form the foundation for a market with new and exciting opportunities. People, and the ways in which they are working, are helping to distinguish this market, but so are the kinds of ideas they are pursuing.
It all begins with AI
We could spend days discussing the many ways data scientists define AI, but what’s more important is acknowledging how it manifests in the here and now. In the case of Sub-Saharan Africa, AI is being used in countless sectors, including logistics (assisting informal economies through smartphone-only applications), healthcare (diagnosing skin conditions), and finance (creating credit scores for female entrepreneurs).
In a 2021 survey, we found that half of Zindi users were considering starting their own AI business. This indicates an active desire among young data professionals to go on and establish enterprises that explore new data-driven frontiers. In the African context, the sector’s underdevelopment often means that these professionals and entrepreneurs have to be more innovative, as they can’t rely as much on powerful equipment to code, collate, or analyse. Resources and support come in the form of the community around them, resulting in solutions that are efficient and fit for purpose.
Collaboration, education, and commitment
Collaboration, a crucial element of data science, manifests in Africa in the form of associations and localised networks of data and AI professionals. Groups like Ai Kenya have been established to bring professionals together to share information and resources, and guide enterprises on how to implement new technological solutions in Kenya. On the education side, institutions like Blossom Academy in Ghana and the Moringa School in Kenya, offer comprehensive training programmes aiming to kickstart young people’s careers and help them create projects that answer societal challenges.
And then you have Zindi, which connects data scientists and potential employers, facilitates learning and networking opportunities, and hosts competitions that challenge young minds and help grow their skillsets and reputations. These are the kinds of entities that are bridging Africa’s digital divide, and creating fertile soil for new ideas and subsequent startup mission statements.
Institutional and support structures are essential for getting Africa’s startups off the ground, ranging from formal regulation and accessible operation and taxation conditions, stretching downwards to people who can advise them on best business practices. Whereas Silicon Valley has had decades to formulate an environment that best caters to aspiring startups, Africa is in a position to mold something unique and diverse from scratch. All it takes is sustained commitment from all stakeholders, both on and beyond the continent.
AI begins with people. Startups begin with people. With an abundance of talent on the continent, it’s only a matter of time before Africa begins to realise her true technological potential.