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Africa’s New Silicon Valleys

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Perhaps most famously, Route 128 and Silicon Valley in the United States developed around the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Stanford universities, while key European knowledge regions developed at the Sophia Antipolis high-tech park in Côte d’Azur, France, and the Leuven region in Belgium.

In Africa, however, it is a relatively new phenomenon. But some universities on the continent are working towards setting themselves up as catalysts of innovation and entrepreneurship. Notable mentions must go to the University of Nairobi and the American University in Cairo, but South Africa is leading the charge.

The likes of Stellenbosch University, the University of Cape Town (UCT) and University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) are focusing more than ever on equipping their students to be entrepreneurs, primarily in response to unemployment issues in the country. Almost 50% of those aged between 15 and 24 in South Africa are without a job, and some tertiary institutions are adapting by equipping them to become job creators.

READ MORE: Forbes Africa Under 30 Technology Entrepreneurs

Bakang Moetse is Impact Investing Project Manager at the Bertha Centre, a dedicated entrepreneurial unit within the Graduate School of Business at UCT. She says high youth unemployment had made the promotion of entrepreneurship an imperative for many African governments.

“Whilst government may be responsible for creating an enabling environment for the development of businesses, universities play a key role in delivering skills and expertise, as well as creating enabling environments for incubation of entrepreneurs,” says Moetse.

Universities also stand to gain. At a time when the relevance of university degrees has come into question due to the number of unemployed graduates and lack of employment readiness of those graduates who do enter the workforce, promoting entrepreneurship provides a way of ensuring universities continue to be recognized as key to the development of societies and economies.

“For universities interested in taking on a more active role in this regard, there is a competitive advantage to be gained in becoming leaders within this field of research, which can further bolster their credentials,” says Moetse.

Stellenbosch University runs its own incubator – LaunchLab – and also invests in some student-run tech startups. Head of Incubation Brandon Paschal says universities that do so will produce more employable and resilient graduates, and their reputations will grow as such.

“Also, with the current student fee climate, if universities are not backing and pursuing commercializing university technology, their financial sustainability and broader access to tertiary education is in jeopardy,” he says.

So how have startups incubated by universities benefitted? G-J van Rooyen was an associate professor at Stellenbosch, and launched his bitcoin-based anti-piracy startup Custos Media Technologies out of LaunchLab. He says it had been a great space from which to grow an early-stage company.

“At a startup, you’re constantly juggling concerns and issues. Being in a supportive environment where space and facilities are one less thing to worry about makes a huge difference,” Van Rooyen says. “Since LaunchLab is a hub for startups and investors, it directly impacted our fundraising efforts, and introduced us to our angel investor.”

Michael-John Dippenaar’s on-demand storage space startup Sxuirrel first encountered LaunchLab after winning a competition run by the incubator, earning funding and support.

“Amongst other intangibles thereafter, and in the period leading up to then and now, we gained help in the form of advice, community and networks,” Dippenaar says.

“We had support in finding lawyers, connecting to additional entrepreneurs to learn from, and access to soft-skill building resources.”

READ MORE: Investment Marketplace Coming To Africa

Training students – and professors – in entrepreneurial skills and providing them a safe space from which to launch their ideas in one thing, but universities also need to ensure they have solid links with corporates and funders to help incubated startups scale. This can be a challenge.

However, Tine Fisker Henriksen, Senior Project Manager, Innovative Finance, at Bertha Centre, says the credibility associated with university brands lends itself to bringing in new partnerships and streams of funding entrepreneurs on their own would not be able to tap into.

“We are seeing increased interest from the corporate sector to get involved in supporting entrepreneurship, and we have managed to establish partnerships that have been valuable in this regard,” she says.

“From our point of view, there is great potential to expand this beyond mere sponsorship of events and once-off fundraising, as is commonly the case, and move in the direction of more sustainable partnerships approaches for rising entrepreneurs.”

The initiatives at places like Stellenbosch and UCT are well developed, with a track record of helping startups launch and raise funding for their next stage of development, but are enough universities following their lead?

Paschal says there is some evidence of this, but it takes time to transform very traditional and conservative institutions. Part of the challenge is that “startup skills” are intangible, EQ-related things that you cannot learn in a classroom.

“The push for universities spinning out companies, and supporting startups and SMEs, is disrupting the traditional role of universities. The trend is going in this direction, but generally universities are battling to get beyond the academic side,” he says.

Henriksen agrees more needs to be done.

“We have seen the top universities develop more entrepreneurial courses, hubs and initiatives. But there is definitely room for greater involvement, and coordination of efforts in this space to create a synergized impact,” she says.

– Tom Jackson

Entrepreneurs

Why This 48-Year-Old Woman Is Building Ghana’s Biggest Solar Farm

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Chairman of UBI Group Salma Okonkwo. UBI GROUP

For more than a decade, one 48-year-old entrepreneur in Ghana has been quietly building up a multimillion-dollar oil and gas outfit called UBI Group. Salma Okonkwo is a rare woman to head up an energy company in Africa. “I don’t stop when the door is being shut. I find a way to make it work,” Okonkwo told Forbes. “That’s what propelled my success.”

She’s now expanding her reach across Ghana’s energy industry, working on an independent side project that may become the biggest in her career. Okonkwo is building Ghana’s biggest solar farm, called Blue Power Energy, slated to open in March 2019 with 100 megawatts of energy. It’s set to be one of the largest in Africa.

“Most of the multinational companies that come to Ghana don’t put in infrastructure. They operate a system where they invest very little and they take it away. They sell their products and leave,” Okonkwo says. “I’m hoping to provide employment and add to Ghana’s economy.”

Okonkwo grew up in Accra, one of 14 children born to a real estate agent and developer mother and a cattle dealer father. She often visited her grandmother in her family’s ancestral village. She’s a member of the Akan clan, whose women often sell products they make, like sandwiches or smoked fish, to make sure their children are provided for—and that left an indelible mark on Okonkwo. “The women didn’t know how to read and write, but they knew how to make a margin,” Okonkwo says.

After graduating from an all-girls boarding school with little running water, Okonkwo moved to Los Angeles for college at Loyola Marymount University. (Her family was able to pay her tuition.) She graduated in 1994 and briefly worked in California for a food brokerage company. Then oil and gas company Sahara Energy Group recruited her; Okonkwo returned to Accra in 2003 for the job.

Within a few years, Okonkwo realized that the firm could grow by opening up retail gas stations. She presented the idea several times over the years, but each time she was rebuked. Executives told her they wouldn’t change their business plan because it would be too political and would require too much of an investment in infrastructure.

At 36 years old in 2006, Okonkwo decided she’d heard “no” too many times and quit to try it herself, focusing on bringing liquified petroleum gas to the hard-to-reach region of northern Ghana, where many families still rely on burning firewood for energy. Because Okonkwo’s father was from northern Ghana, she knew firsthand how the business could change lives there. “It was just too hard to pass up the opportunity,” Okonkwo recalls. “It looked quite lucrative.”

But Okonkwo hit an early snag when she realized that she didn’t take into account a complicating factor: The North had few storage facilities for the liquified gas. To get it to the remote region, she’d have to build the storage herself, and she was already struggling to secure funding. So Okonkwo pivoted and started trading diesel and petroleum wholesale. A contract to supply fuel to Dallas-based Kosmos Energy came in 2007, followed by one with Hess in 2008. In the early days, she financed the operation by mortgaging some properties that her family and husband had inherited.

A UBI Group retail gas station in Ghana. UBI GROUP.

By 2008, UBI opened its first retail gas station. It soon owned 8 outright and managed another 20 through partnerships. That caught the eye of Singapore-based multinational firm Puma Energy, which had 2017 sales of $15 billion from operations in 49 countries. Puma acquired a 49% stake in two of UBI Group’s subsidiaries (retail gas stations and wholesale fuel distribution) in 2013 for about $150 million.

After the partial acquisition in 2013, Okonkwo says, she started developing her solar company. She estimates the company will spend about $100 million—financed by roughly $30 million in loans—to create 100 megawatts of solar power by early next year. Construction started earlier this summer. The plan is to add another 100 megawatts by the end of 2020.

Despite all the sunshine in Africa, solar power isn’t a prominent energy source on the continent. Most farms are concentrated in South Africa and Kenya. In 2009, Morocco announced plans to build one of the biggest solar farms in the world. The first of the project’s three phases opened in 2016. “I don’t know of another large-scale project like this in Africa that’s led by a woman,” says Arne Jacobson, who has been studying renewable energy with a focus on Africa since 1998 and is now the director of Humboldt State University’s Schatz Energy Research Center. “Power is fairly expensive in countries like Ghana. If they can keep costs low, this is will be a profitable venture.”

The project is also personal for Okonkwo. Half of the solar farm will be located in her father’s village in northern Ghana. The rest will be spread out throughout the North, which is Ghana’s poorest region, according to Unicef. The organization says the area has seen the smallest progress in terms of poverty reduction since the 1990s.

There are so few employment opportunities in the north of Ghana besides farming that most women migrate to Accra looking for work. Many can only find jobs as “kayayo”—working in markets carrying goods for customers, sometimes known as “living shopping baskets.” They live in slums and regularly endure harassment, theft and even rape. Okonkwo, aiming to create a better alternative for some of these women, says Blue Power Energy has already created hundreds of jobs in northern Ghana and that more than 650 will be created upon completion.

Okonkwo’s ultimate goal is to bring cheap energy to northern Ghana through the solar farm, which she hopes will incentivize companies to create lasting jobs there. In the meantime, she is opening a day-care center in Accra for children born to kayayo women, where, as she explains, they can “get educated and hopefully break the cycle.”

“I want to bring support to my people in the north,” Okonkwo says. “Then there will be more Salma’s all over the place.”

 

– Chloe Sorvino

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The Bloodless Battle Against The Malaria

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With Africa having a big share of the global malaria burden, technologists are developing new, cost-effective ways to detect the disease – minus the needle.

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Are ICOs Relevant In Africa?

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Initial coin offerings (ICOs) see companies create their own digital tokens and sell them to the public.

They are like initial public offerings (IPOs), but investors take no equity in the business, and rather invest in the potential value of the token.

They are proving attractive to firms and investors alike, with over 230 companies raising almost $4 billion in such a way in 2017.

“Initial coin offerings allow companies an easy way to raise capital while bypassing many of the regulations and requirements associated with initial public offerings. ICOs also allow companies to tap into the hype around cryptocurrencies and crowd-sourcing,” says George Etheredge, Research Analyst in the Digital Transformation Practice at Frost & Sullivan Africa.

But are ICOs relevant in the African context? It’s early days, but a number of startups have recently given them a whirl. Nigerian remittances platform SureRemit netted $7 million, while South African company and property investment portal ProsperiProp secured $200,000.
ProsperiProp founder Llew Morkel says ICOs offer entrepreneurs an opportunity to dip into a global source of capital without having to go through formal channels like banks or venture capitalists.

READ MORE: Why it’s in everybody’s interests to regulate cryptocurrencies

“Investor institutions require the entrepreneur to commit to a period of exclusivity while the funder conducts their due diligence. In the event where the application is rejected, the entrepreneur has to start over, often costing valuable time to market. This cycle is discouraging,” he says.

The lack of regulation in this space makes it easier to fund starved African businesses. But it’s also the main drawback of ICOs.

“It’s far easier for groups to set up ‘fake’ ICOs. The general hype around the crypto space may cause investors to be insufficiently diligent,” says Etheredge.
This is likely to mean the space becomes the focus of more regulation as time passes.
“One factor here will be those parties that currently make money from the way things are done at the moment will have powerful incentives to lobby for regulation. This is a pattern in most disruptive industries, just look at Uber,” says Etheredge.
Getting the legal ducks in a row was one of the challenges for ProsperiProp.

“It’s important for an ICO to move inside the guidelines of each country’s legal framework. The country’s framework not only protects the ICO investor but also the entrepreneur,” says Morkel.

READ MORE: Forbes’ First List Of Cryptocurrency’s Richest People: Meet The Secretive Freaks, Geeks And Visionaries

With all the noise around ICOs, and awareness of potential scams, marketing is key. Wala CEO Tricia Martinez says trust, transparency and community are key elements.

“We quickly recognized that in order to gain trust you must be transparent. And the only way to build a community is by being transparent. Once we gained the trust of the individual and were transparent our community began to grow,” she says.

Africa’s foray into the world of ICOs have been tentative thus far, but those that have made the jump expect more to follow. SureRemit co-founder Adeoye Ojo says they are about more than just capital.

“There needs to be a real utility for the underlying token being distributed. Many businesses are rushing to tokenise without a proper plan to sustain the new economy they are creating. This isn’t unique to Africa,” he says.

Martinez agrees.

“ICOs shouldn’t be used as a funding mechanism. Only if there is a real use case to build a token economy should an entrepreneur look at this as a potential channel,” she said.

Yet the potential for token sales to provide access to funding cannot be ignored.

“The good thing is that barring countries that have some strict financial regulations about ICOs, almost anybody can participate. This allows projects, including African ones, to have exposure to a diverse audience who can both back and be first users of the product,” says Ojo.

Eugene Mutai, bitcoin ‘miner’ and software developer, uses the LBRY web site at his home in Nairobi, Kenya. Photographer: Luis Tato/Bloomberg via Getty Images

This diversity, however, also means the usage of ICOs by African companies will depend on how these strategies perform globally.

“They are attractive in an African context as they can, for now, get past regulatory and bureaucratic red tape. However, Africa is some distance behind wealthier areas with respect to crypto adoption,” says Etheredge.

Yet all the signs are that crypto, in Africa and globally, is on the rise. Much of the future of ICOs in Africa may hang on the level of success experienced by first movers like SureRemit, Wala and ProsperiProp. For now, it’s a question of riding the wave and seeing where it goes.

– By Tom Jackson

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