Africa Day: Insights from THNKers on the ground

Madlen Popignatova 17
November 20th, 2018
Article by: Sophie Poulsen
Africa Day: Insights from THNKers on the ground

With a growing young population, a wealth of natural resources, a booming startup scene, and impressive entrepreneurial growth, Africa is one of the world's most rapidly growing economic regions. A report by the UN Conference on Trade and Development suggests that Africa might be the most profitable region in the world.


The THNK Community has 30 THNKers based in Africa. For Africa Industrialization Day, we reached out to a few of them to get their take on the opportunities in the continent as well as how their initiatives are making an impact.



Local solutions for local needs

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'It is important to learn, listen, and engage in order to elevate and empower the players in the market, rather than to come in with a solution in hand' – #THNKer @Mbergsma Click To Tweet

I can only speak to the places where I work (Ghana and East Africa). Creativity and innovation are thriving, which is exciting and also incredibly engaging. I see a lot of local initiatives and local ecosystems which are emerging, driven by young, creative minds who are not only looking to make money but also to make a change. There are a lot of opportunities to learn from what is happening: local solutions for local needs. The opportunities for foreign players are to see how you tie in, how you contribute to this ecosystem that is emerging. It is important to learn, listen, and engage in order to elevate and empower the players in the market, rather than to come in with a solution in hand.

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People’s Pension Holding operates in markets where pensions are not available to 90% of the population. We are not only launching greenfield ventures to provide pension savings products to this segment, but we are also engaging with regulators, sharing research, and engaging with the sector in order to build the ecosystem needed to ensure the market is served effectively. We know that we cannot build the sector by ourselves, so it is imperative for us to work with stakeholders in order to achieve our mission.

Scaling the impact of innovation

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'How do we drive inclusive and sustainable solutions at scale in various verticals such as food, education, healthcare, financial inclusion, and energy?' – #THNKer @OjeiCharles Click To Tweet

Africa is rising, purportedly. Significant investment in technology entrepreneurship as a driving force for socio-economic development is increasingly evident across the continent. Recently, we published an Africa Innovation Report, which provides an assessment of the ecosystem. There has been significant traction in the volume of startups and incubators in the continent, and significant interest from investors who have described Africa as this last frontier. We are still in the early stages and a lot still needs to be done by multiple stakeholders (private and public sector) to improve the productivity and results of the ecosystem.

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My organization, HYBR, is a pan-African innovation advisory firm and growth platform for African impact scale-ups. We scale impact solutions by working with entrepreneurs, corporates, government, academia, non-profits, and investors. We are working with companies like Coca-Cola to source innovative solutions to eliminate plastic waste in Nigeria. We are working with the UK government and Matter Innovation on a program to stimulate the township economy in South Africa. We have a blended approach of using business, humanities, and technology. With entrepreneurs, we have a five-year venture support program to help find, build, invest in, and scale early-stage companies.

Since July 2017, our flagship program, the Young Enterprise Scale-Up (YES) Bootcamp, in partnership with THNK, has enabled over 150 ventures from Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya, South Africa, and Angola to design their businesses for scale. How do we drive inclusive and sustainable solutions at scale in various verticals such as food, education, healthcare, financial inclusion, and energy? This is what keeps us awake at night.

Building the creative economy

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'Africa is considered to be the 'economic frontier' that is still largely untapped' – #THNKer @melmbugua Click To Tweet

Africa has for a long time been perceived as only a source of raw materials (commodities). However, because of its growing young population and signs of economic growth, that perception is shifting. The continent is now perceived to be a budding market for goods and services as well as a source of innovation that could lead to economic opportunities of the future. Africa is considered to be the ‘economic frontier’ that is still largely untapped. Early stage support for new ventures is growing because of this new perception.

Africa’s creative economy holds great promise for income generation and employment on the continent. My initiative is a boutique consulting agency that supports budding ventures in media and fashion to scale. We do this by providing strategic-level support for SMEs, investors, and ecosystem-builders working in Africa’s creative economy. We focus on surfacing information, forging relationships, and providing access to capital that enables ventures to scale. I began this company because I observed that while there is a nascent creative economy in cities like Nairobi, Accra, Lagos, and Harare, there isn’t much institutional support targeted at this emerging scene. Finance, business support services, academia… They aren’t looking at this scene – yet it holds so much potential for creating income and employment for much of Africa’s urban youth population.

The power of m-learning

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'Simple mobile phones can be used for building skills, entrepreneurship development, and unlocking the agriculture potential' – #THNKer Frank Bierens Click To Tweet

Africa is often called the last frontier of economic development. The economic growth is higher than in other parts of the world, although this is largely because of its extractive industries and one can wonder if the common man benefits at all. But no doubt, there are huge economic opportunities on this very large continent with 1.2 billion people – but also very many challenges that have to be addressed. Africa has a rapid population growth and a persistent – and growing – level of youth unemployment. Only 15% of young people entering the job market can find a job; others have to generate income in agriculture and the informal sector. Farming is more considered a lifestyle than a business and, as a result, it is not rationalized to enhance productivity. There is also a skills mismatch between what people are taught and the skills needed in the informal sector and in the job market.

Adult education is crucial as it trains and educates individuals with relevant skills that will raise productivity in agriculture and/or enable people to make a living in the informal sector. This way, people will be able to generate or increase income, which will result in an improved quality of life. The widespread introduction of ICT offers new opportunities to provide standardized distance education. Nevertheless, the rural youth doesn’t have internet access, is low-literate, and wants to communicate in their own local languages. Here, simple mobile phones can be used for building skills, entrepreneurship development, and unlocking the agriculture potential.

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My company, Simu+, is an interactive voice-based m-learning solution for anyone with a simple mobile phone. It is designed for the low-literate African marketplace, aiming to double the income of its learners. Simu+ uses legacy infrastructure, is imminently scalable, and generates tremendous impact. It has been launched in Uganda and will roll out to two other countries in East Africa in 2019.

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