In Africa, the use of technology is heating up the market and creating opportunities not just for African entrepreneurs, but also for foreign investors and venture capitalists that are looking for the next big thing in Africa.

By Moira Welch

Necessity is the mother of invention. Nowhere else is this truer right now than in Africa where technologies are being developed in response to clearly defined needs that have direct social impact on the continent as entrepreneurs try to solve the problems they see around them.

One such entrepreneur is Moustapha Kane, a Senegalese entrepreneur who created Amarante, an award-winning web and mobile application that permits users to purchase and share prepaid mobile phone credit from different operators.

Kane, who won the 2012 GIST Transformer top award and cash prize with his Amarante application, credits the Global Innovation through Science and Technology (GIST) West Africa Startup Boot Camp—a two-day intensive training, networking and mentoring experience event that he attended that year for providing him with the information he needed to take his startup to the next level.

The GIST boot camp, a part of GIST initiative that is active in 43 countries across the Middle East, Central and South East Asia and Africa, is implemented by CRDF Global and funded by the U.S. Department of State. LIONS@FRICA, a Department of State public-private partnership, provided support and facilitated the involvement of the African Development Bank, Microsoft, and infoDEV in the West Africa Boot Camp.

The program aims to promote and spread economic prosperity through science and technology innovation, encouraging and strengthening entrepreneurship through a variety of partnerships and programs.

The Boot Camp shows that not only are entrepreneurs rising to the challenge of developing content and technologies that are relevant to the local context—applications for the agricultural, fisheries and health sectors are prominent—and not waiting for people from other countries to develop them.

“As the African continent’s population becomes increasingly educated and affluent, and human and financial resources in the region only continue to grow, the awakening of the African economy provides an opportunity for global and African entrepreneurs and enterprises to form partnerships for mutual benefit,” said Thomas Debass, director for the U.S. Department of State’Global Partnerships. “Through partnerships like the The LIONS@FRICA, the Department of State and the U.S. government more broadly hope to usher in the next stages of Africa’s growth.”

In Africa, the use of technology is heating up the market and creating opportunities not just for African entrepreneurs, but also for foreign investors and venture capitalists that are looking for the next big thing in Africa.

Just ask Scott Hartley, a venture capitalist at Mohr Davidow; Valentin Livada, senior lecturer at the Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship; or Gibs Song, a Silicon Valley “business Angel.”

These American investors are just a microcosm of a larger group of investors, including representatives from Google, Microsoft, participants and experts from local and international companies, investors, mentors and established entrepreneurs that are scouting the continent for the latest investment opportunities, innovators or entrepreneurs in Africa.

“There is good infrastructure, high connectivity and a good education system in Senegal,” explained Kane. “Most of the factors for entrepreneurs to thrive are in place. The challenge isn’t a lack of good ideas; it comes in the form of the difficulties entrepreneurs face in obtaining funding to transform them into reality. Banks are skeptical about investing in a ‘concept’ and there is a shortage of venture capitalists.”

Experts agreed with Kane, noting that the lack of access to financing—seed financing and capital for startups in Africa—remains a major obstacle for many of the entrepreneurs. In Africa there are generally very few opportunities for networking among entrepreneurs and potential investors, which is one of the reasons why events and programs like this are so important.

With very few investors in the region funding startups, preferring more traditionally “safe” investments such as the food and beverage industries, entertainment and real estate, several of these programs have taken it upon themselves to addressing this issue and has become one of the areas of focus for several of these programs to help start-ups in Africa, and entrepreneurs get the funding they need.

“The LIONS@FRICA partnership understands the reality of resource scarcity for young entrepreneurs on the African continent,” said Debass. “As a result, through initiatives like DEMO Africa, learning workshops like AfriCoderDojo, and other roundtables and events, LIONS@FRICA helps bring attention and resources to the entrepreneurs and ideas that need them.”

Other entrepreneur-focused initiatives or programs like GIST, DEMO Africa, and President Obama’s Mandela Washington Fellowship have developed built-in programs that provide extensive opportunities for young African entrepreneurs to network and get supported with creation of a peer network, which encourages participants to share tools, build off each other’s knowledge and explore their different approaches to using ITC for development purposes.

African leaders are also beginning to see values in investing in their youth populations. Many have now launched entrepreneur-focused initiatives and programs that will help support entrepreneurship on the continent, including providing access to resources, seed funding, training, and networking opportunities. For example, Cote d’Ivoire’s special initiatives focused on youth, including a Young Entrepreneurs Competition and an “Alassane Ouattara Award for the Young Emerging Entrepreneur.”

Last month at the U.S. Africa Leaders Summit in Washington D.C., President Obama announced that the U.S. government will continue to provide funds and support.

Experts say when considering entrepreneurship in Africa it is also essential to take into account the existing societal values of a country like Senegal and other countries in the region.

“There is an issue of how to correlate the values seen to be associated with entrepreneurs with the traditional values of culture and community, such as sharing your wealth with your family,” said Yann Le Beux of CTIC Dakar, an IT Incubator. “This is why it was important to have local, established entrepreneurs at [programs like] the Boot Camp sharing their stories of how they achieved success while remaining true to their cultural values, and demonstrating that the two are not mutually exclusive.”

The opportunity to have one-on-one time with a high-level experts and successful entrepreneurs was very inspiring for participants like Senegalese Ndjido Ardo Bar and Aboubacar Sidy Sonko, to gain valuable insights from their mentor, a successful financier.

“He explained the importance of investing in the people around you as opposed to just the technical aspects of a venture, and being from Niger, he understood the context of working in the region,” said Ardo Bar.

Experts say this help many of these entrepreneurs to see more values in their work beyond monetary values and help fuel technological innovation that will deliver real social and economic gains to markets and communities.

Experts advice that investors looking for investment opportunities on the continent should consider looking beyond just getting quick real returns, but understand that by investing in startups, investors are not only supporting the development of these countries, but have the possibility of bringing in real returns as the markets are developing rapidly in this sector.

“Supporting innovation in Africa can take many forms—besides bringing much needed capital, investors and other interested parties can help in any number of ways, such as serving as a launchpad for emerging technology and trends, providing mentorship and amplifying emerging ideas, and coming together at convening events to share ideas and build partnerships and products,” said Debass.

Kane said the best part of participating in the program and winning the $4,000 cash prize was the opportunity he had to visit top techs companies and venture capitalist in Silicon Valley to showcase his application.

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