From animal-tracking innovations to agritech solutions, Africa is flexing its tech-savvy muscle—and doing it all via mobile.
Africa Innovators 2018
Thanks to growing demand for solutions that help drive financial inclusion, secure direct markets for farmers and decentralize logistics and supply chains, innovation is taking root in Africa.
Although new innovators and tech start-ups have been much in the spotlight, traditional and well-established corporates and financial institutions have hardly been sitting idle. The race to find creative solutions has set African markets ablaze, boosted by a thriving e-commerce backdrop and the continent’s agricultural base.
Pan-African banking conglomerate Ecobank is easily the front-runner for our 2018 Financial Innovator—Africa. The bank operates in more than 30 countries in Africa and has been rolling out useful mobile applications one after the other, including smart-payments platforms.
Ecobank CEO Ade Ayeyemi believes that the bank’s innovations in Africa’s financial-services sector can meet the “rapidly changing demands” from the continent’s depositors. Most Africans are still unbanked, and financial institutions have had to innovate to tap these markets—especially at a time when governments are pushing for greater financial inclusion. Ayeyemi emphasizes the bank’s commitment to leveraging “innovative technological platforms” to deliver convenience and promote financial inclusion to the banking populace in Africa.
Other banks have followed suit, with South Africa’s Absa “seeing a shift toward banking on mobile devices” and more transactions on its banking application. “Whilst there has also been some shift in transactions from online banking to our banking app, we have found that online banking users use the app as a supplementary banking option,” says Craig Corte, chief digital and design officer for Absa and its parent, Barclays Africa Group.
But Ecobank has rolled out even more innovations in the past couple of months. The financial company recently partnered with mobile-firm MTN to link banks and mobile wallets in some of its markets. This arrangement allows for cardless withdrawals from mobile wallets at Ecobank ATMs in Africa and also encompasses lending arrangements.
Ecobank has also been asserting its leadership with its Ecobank Mobile App, Masterpass QR and Ecobank XpressAccount, which offer innovative digital solutions for its clients across Africa. By April, the Ecobank mobile-banking application had about four million users across Africa, company officials say, emphasizing that they’re focused on delivering further innovative solutions to enhance access to banking services.
Through another arrangement with MasterCard under the Masterpass platform, Ecobank allows depositors in most African markets to make online and in-store payments using their mobile phones. Ecobank is also working on allowing the mobile app to be used to open bank accounts in just a few easy steps.
In Nigeria, Ecobank has launched Ecobank Pay, which is aimed at addressing payments challenges faced by government and by small to large-scale commerce companies. The system enables mobile payments to be verified by account holders before the transaction is completed, to limit disputes and chargebacks. It allows for payments from any mobile user, unlimited by geography. Scan+Pay is another innovative banking solution, which Ecobank introduced in 33 of its African markets in 2017. It allows users to scan QR codes of products in shops and pay using their mobile phones.
Meanwhile, Absa has kick-started what it calls the world’s first social-media banking offering, called ChatBanking. Available on Twitter and Facebook Messenger, it allows customers to check their bank balance, get a mini statement, buy prepaid phone airtime and data, pay for electricity and other bills, and send money, among other functions. Absa “introduced reverse billing across all mobile network operators for its mobile-banking apps,” explains Corte. “It implies that our banking app no longer requires a customer to use their data to access their banking.”
New Ideas for a Diverse Continent
Banks are not the only ones working to cross boundaries and provide service—ecommerce, fintech, virtual currency, digital payments—to all Africans. Other innovators are breaking barriers too. One great barrier can be language, and few innovators are focused on understanding local languages—a key component for conducting business in a continent that has many diverse cultures and varying mother tongues.
Enter Nigeria’s Omolabake Adenle, who has developed an voice-recognition company that specializes in speech-synthesis software. Her tech start-up, AJA.LA Studios, is the most talked-about innovation in this area on the continent—making her our Individual Innovator for Africa. Adenle’s software understands local languages—and can speak them, too. It has been deployed for speech recognition and transcribing speech into written form, especially for the local Yoruba language in Nigeria.
The platform essentially digitizes African languages. This creates numerous possibilities and promises to open tremendous business opportunities for call centers and data centers, service providers, and those who rely on product feedback. “Digitizing African languages in this way allows Africans to interact with hardware devices such as mobile phones, and [improves] digital services, such as call-center applications, by speaking their local language,” notes the African Innovation Foundation.
It adds that Adenle’s software “can be integrated into a wide range of devices and third-party software applications,” and highlights that this innovation is pivotal for the African continent as there has “been very limited commercial application or academic research” for African languages.
Beyond the financial-services sector and language landscape in Africa, innovative entrepreneurs and organizations are revolutionizing how business is conducted on the continent, from agritech solutions to animal management. Tarisai Mhuriro, runs Value Chain Farming Africa, which helps secure “contract farming for farmers” in Africa. It has secured a $35 million funding facility to cover 700 farmers, mostly in Botswana. “Under the contracts, [the farmers’] produce supplies country, regional and global markets,” Mhuriro tells Global Finance. “We use a sophisticated irrigation system as a crucial part of our business, as it allows us to track water usage and management, and keep records of the same. We also use drones for spraying.” The company is now working on launching an artificial intelligence and Android-based platform.
Many other innovations are ready for adoption in Africa, and these are expected to transform people’s lives—and more innovators are crying out for incubation, guidance and financial backing. Thanks to growing attention being put on tech developers, the outlook for innovation in Africa appears to be on solid footing.