The coding behind success of African tech start-ups

Two years ago, Daniel Warui, a mathematics and computer science graduate and his two friends developed an app that uses lung sounds to accurately detect pulmonary tuberculosis, asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), a technology that could save millions of Africans.

They tested the app in about 250 health centres in Kenya but like most technology start-ups in Africa, Mr Warui, Erick Kirima and Lewis Wanjohi lacked the financial muscle and advanced skills to build their product into a Silicon-Valley kind success story.

They applied for a tech boot camp, organised by Google Africa, to learn more on how to refine the system into a market-ready solution, pitch to investors and raise capital.

Out of the hundreds of African start-ups that applied, their company, Tambua Health was picked, together with other 12 young tech-entrepreneurs. Four of them were from Kenya.

Google has been equipping tech start-ups with skills and right tools. The thinking at Google, Jola Aderemi-Makinde, the head of brand and reputation in Africa said, is that the company wants an Africa that builds its own tech solutions.

The tech giant has so far trained 35 start-ups, all at different stages of growth, and is looking to mentor about 60 of them and reach 100,000 developers.

“Africa is growing in finance, logistics, health, education … Why shouldn’t the technology for these industries be built here? We want to change this continent by training Africans and giving them skills so that they can be economically viable. Africa will only be changed by Africans,” said Aderemi-Makinde.

The three-month Google boot camp called Launchpad Accelerator Africa brings in successful serial tech-preneurs, artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning experts to mentor the start-up founders.

Days into graduating from the boot camp in Lagos, Nigeria, the three Tambua Health founders, all in their early 20s, were tweaking their system to use AI, which will produce more accurate results.

“When we joined the boot camp, we came in with the idea of using sounds in analysing the lungs but after working with the Google’s artificial intelligence team, we realised that we can use AI. We want to solve the misdiagnoses problem and reduce deaths. Sometimes people are given drugs for COPD yet they have tuberculosis,” said Lewis, who is still studying in the US.

Their product that looks like a stethoscope has a microphone that collects sounds and an app is integrated onto a computer in a health centre to give a diagnosis.

It ranges from Sh60,000 which Wanjohi said is cheaper than acquiring an X-ray and CT scan machine and high quality labs to verify the respiratory diseases.

Another Kenyan company in the Google accelerator programme was OkHi, an app that allows users to easily locate customers who do not have street addresses.

OkHi is one of the fastest-growing tech start-ups in Nairobi and has already struck deals with 20 locally-based companies including ArtCaffe, Java, Tile & Carpet and Hotpoint.

Timbo Drayson, one of the founder said theirs is a solution that links people to places.

“OkHi is a digital addressing solution that is a best told by a target user. Our target user is Juliet, a middle class who has no proper physical address in Nairobi. She doesn’t live on any road, she lives by a big tree at a corner after the speed bump at the green gate. So when an e-commerce company is trying to get Juliet food to her doorstep, a driver would get lost or keep asking for directions,” he said.

Companies pay a flat fee pay Sh10 to Sh100 per delivery to use OkHi.
“We have powered almost 500,000 deliveries in Nairobi. We have helped Java, Tile & Carpet among others reduce their delivery time by 20 percent,” he added.

In a city where many people use Google Maps, he figures Google Maps “is not a competitor but a partner.”

“The difference between OkHi and Google Maps is that we are focused on people and not places. With Google Maps, you cannot type in your name or your friend’s name and get where they live. A business cannot type in a customer and get where they are,” he said.

Google was Mr Drayson’s first job. He worked in the United Kingdom and the US for seven years before quitting to start his own tech company in Kenya.
“I quit because I wanted to experience a country that I did not know. I was travelling and then I met my co-founders,” he said. OkHi has been in the Kenyan market for five years now but Mr Drayson said he feels there is still more to learn to grow the tech company.

“As geeks, we usually run in our hamster wheel without necessarily stepping out to market ourselves. At the boot camp, we learnt to step from the weeds and talk about the business. We have also learnt a lot about machine learning and AI, and how we can use the Google tools to implement it,” he said.

Africa tech’s ascent to the world map is still on a bumpy path due to lack of venture capital that is the lifeblood of the start-up economy.

The start-ups said one of the challenges is hesitancy by wealthy Africans to invest in their own, adding that it is easier for them to get funding from foreigners.

Most of the 12 start-ups have easily received funding from the likes of Harvard University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and other American investors.

Mr Drayson’s company is one of the few that have received cash from Kenyan angel investors.

“We have raised $1.3 million (Sh1.3 billion) to date, which has been a mix of foreign and local investors. We have five Kenyan angel investors already and we closed some money from Nigerians as well,” he said.

Mr Warui of Tambua Health said most of their funders are Americans.

“There are few Kenyan investors willing to put money in start-ups run by young people. Those who show interest want to invest in an established and known business,” he said.

“We need more philanthropic wealthy Kenyans who are willing to take a gamble on younger founders,” he added.

Kenyan start-ups have been attracting international funding, surpassing their peers in Nigeria and South Africa, according to a report by a US-based investment firm, Partech.

Among the recipients was Twiga Foods, a food supply company in Nairobi whose founders were part of Google mentees four years ago.

One of the biggest benefits of the Google training, the start-ups said, it raises their profile and credibility even to investors. Maxwell Ogunfuyi of Scholar X, a Nigerian app that links over 100,000 needy students to scholarships, said, “investors who had ignored our pitches started calling us back immediately Google tweeted about us.”

Fola Olatunji-David, Google’s head of Start-up Success and Services said the programme helps the mentees to network and learn about new potential markets.

Lethabo Motsoaledi, a South African who cofounded with two partners is already looking for ways to make inroads into the Kenyan market.

“I did the coding for a programme that listens and gives feedback to consumers in five minutes compared to five hours,” she said.

“We are piloting the app with a Kenyan bank to help it manage customer complaints faster. Companies pay $99 (Sh9,900) for one of their employees to analyse the calls from their customers. If they need more employees they pay more,” said Ms Motsoaledi, an engineering graduate who is the chief technical officer of

It takes time, serial risk taking, self-confidence, mentors and investors for the tech community in Africa to build start-ups that will be beneficial to the economy. Embracing failure is one the topics the start-ups learn. Mary Mwangi, a co-founder of Data Integrated, which was founded seven years ago said she was forced to change her strategy after her first business model failed.

Data Integrated’s technology has now revolutionised the matatu industry, helping owners seal loopholes that allow looting.

“A 33-seater makes about Sh20,000 a day but the owner gets Sh8,000. Bus companies collect Sh200,000 to Sh500,000 but they lose up to 40 percent. We install tracking devices in a matatu to collect information on location, speed, trips made and number of passengers. All these information can be viewed on an app on a smartphone or computer. At a click, a bus owner is able to see how much money he made, trips made, sacco fees and loans paid back,” she said, adding that they have fully automated City Shuttles on Nairobi’s Kangundo Road.

The future of youth employment could be in technology. Francis Kiarie, who is software lead behind the Data Integrated matatu software, is humble about his achievements but he has done a lot for his age.

The techie worked on Visa, M-Pesa, Kenya Revenue Authority, Rwanda Revenue Authority and MTN payment integration solutions.

Kevin Amadiva, who studied electronics engineering joined Data Integrated when he was in third year in university. Now he is the hardware lead at the company that has 30 employees who are mostly in their mid-20s.

However, he said technology is not all rosy as the youth think.

“You have to be self-driven, passionate and ready to get your hands dirty,” said Mr Amadiva who wrote his first programme in high school.

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