Tech innovation and social entrepreneurship can improve billions of lives.
This was the raison d’être of the 2018 Seedstars Summit, which connected innovators with investors and mentors to help them develop and scale up their new tech solutions in emerging markets.
An online platform to sell quality-assured medicines in Nigeria. A toolkit and software application to teach robotics and science to primary and secondary school students in Vietnam. Eyeglasses that wake you up if you fall asleep at the wheel in Azerbaijan. These were just some of the ideas and prototypes the entrepreneurs brought to the Summit.
Home to 84 per cent of the world’s population, and generating 59 per cent of global GDP, emerging markets provide an opportunity to invest for impact and resolve some of the world’s biggest problems.
Although the allocation of ‘impact investment’ is increasing, noted Alisée de Tonnac, CEO of Seedstars, she believes more can be allocated to emerging market startups. This requires better and more investment opportunities, relying on stronger innovation ecosystems, she said.
“Each one of these entrepreneurs are going to in due time, mentor, train, invest, work in a company and transfer knowledge …and that multiplier effect is going to have an increasing impact on these ecosystems.” — Alisée de Tonnac, CEO of Seedstars
Governments certainly have a crucial role to play in strengthening innovation ecosystems — for example, by developing skills, nurturing tech talent, making the internet accessible, or increasing the ease of doing business. But entrepreneurs can also contribute to promoting innovation in emerging markets.
Here is how:
“Success breeds success,” said Alisée de Tonnac. Successful businesses can catalyse innovation by becoming role models, investing, mentoring and lobbying for change.
Rebecca Enonchong, founder and CEO of of AppsTech, provides a perfect illustration of this.
After building a successful software solutions company in the US, Rebecca Enonchong decided to go back to her home country, Cameroon, to set up another branch of her business.
“It was so important to me to go back,” she explained. “As an advocate for technology in Africa, I was going left and right making speeches about how great Africa was, and what a great opportunity it was, but I did not have an office there.”
Although she arrived in Cameroon with high spirits, she soon faced many challenges, in particular low levels of trust in business, which prevented her from succeeding.
“So I took those lessons and disappointments and challenges asked myself what can I do so that young people and entrepreneurs after me can learn from my mistakes?”
She created ActivSpaces — African Centres for Technology, Innovation and Ventures, which are incubators for startups. She also created networks to invest in the startups, and started to develop the ecosystem in Cameroon, and across the continent.
Enonchong told Africa Business Insight that she has noticed some improvements in the Cameroonian and African markets in the past 10 years.
A few of the entrepreneurs at the Summit pitched clever tools aimed at mainstreaming practical Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) education, which they saw as essential for building the mindset and skills needed for innovation.
Truo’ng Vo Hu’u Thien was doing a Masters’ degree in Artificial Intelligence in Japan when he realized that traditional education in his home country of Vietnam was too focused on theory. “I wanted to change and make it more practical,” he said.
So he founded GaraSTEM, which provides learning kits to schools allowing students to build robots and other fun science applications. While kits like these are typically very expensive, Truo’ng Vo Hu’u Thien found a way to make them affordable. “We have an advantage in that we have factories in Vietnam that can produce things more cheaply than in other countries.”
The startup has been working with over 15 schools and the two biggest STEM teaching companies in Ho Chi Minh city. They have reached over 10,000 students in Vietnam.
Similarly, Junkbot is a do-it-yourself robotic kit that helps children to make their own robots and gadgets by recycling things around. “We want there to be innovators in every household,” said its founder, Ehteshamuddin Abdul Hameed.
Gifted Mom is a mobile health platform that uses low-cost technology to provide medical advice to mothers and pregnant women in many countries in West Africa. According to its founder, Alain Nteff, it has over 120,000 active users and 90% adherence-women respecting antenatal care vaccinations.
Gifted Mom’s innovative business model relies on many ‘win-win’ alliances.
Indeed, Gifted Mom expands and retains its base of users by incentivizing them to start and continue seeking health care. Alain Nteff explains: “We have introduced a token-based system, so moms who have adhered to care can gain coins and pay for health care.”
Gifted Mom also succeeded in securing USD 480,000 in advertising deals from Fortune 500 companies and other global brands, as the platform gives these companies a channel to reach consumers who would otherwise be unreachable.
Alain Nteff is now seeking to join forces with other e-health service providers inside and outside Cameroon, to aggregate all health services for pregnant women and mothers on a single application.
By getting buy-in for his novel solution from a wide range of partners, as well as visibility from well-known media like CNN, TV5, Jeune Afrique, and a number of global and local tech blogs, Nteff has surely helped to bring the value of innovation and entrepreneurship to the eyes of many.
Ahmad Hanandeh, CEO of Zain Jordan, a mobile and data services operator in the Middle Eastern and African (MENA) region, described how a successful innovation ecosystem built for a single market was replicated across markets.
He explained that since 50% of the population in the MENA region is below the age of 25, innovation was necessary for Zain Jordan to be more competitive, gain untapped markets, and better meet the expectations of users.
So Zain Innovation Campus was created in 2014, an offsite facility that supports and enables entrepreneurs in Jordan and the rest of the MENA region. In three years, the Zain innovation campus supported 129 startup projects, signed commercial agreements with 45 startups, and launched many new products with the entrepreneurs. “This way,” says Hanandeh, “we managed to create a culture of innovation in the organization, and communicated with youth in a better way.”
The project was so successful it was replicated in 5 universities, and will soon be implemented to serve all 8 markets in which Zain is operating.
The Seedstars community plays an important role in training, inspiring, and accelerating social entrepreneurs in emerging markets—providing them with the skillsets, methods, tools, and networks they need to succeed. Since Seedstars was created in 2013, it has supported some 1,500 entrepreneurs in scaling up their businesses.
But this does not take into account the multiplier effect, said Alisée de Tonnac. “Each one of these entrepreneurs are going to, in due time, mentor, train, invest, work in a company and transfer knowledge …and that multiplier effect is going to have an increasing impact on these ecosystems” — ultimately helping to drive prosperity and progress.