No. 91: Girls Killing the Technology Game

Andreessen Horowitz just posted a short interview with four high school girls who recently competed in Technovation 2015. (If you’re opening this in your email, click on the title so that you can see the podcast linked below.)

The winner of the competition was a team from Nigeria! All of the teams are really impressive. Check out their pitches.

No. 19: Entrepreneurship and Venture Capital: Brazil v. African Countries

Entrepreneurs across the African continent are developing highly innovative technologies that are meeting real needs and improving the ease of life for people from all walks of life. At this year’s MIT Venture Capital (VC) Conference, I sat in on a panel that covered Brazil’s VC space. Two things struck me as very different from how entrepreneurship is developing on the African continent and present a case for investors to pay more attention to entrepreneurship in Africa.

I was surprised to learn that Brazil’s entrepreneurs are more active in meeting the needs of the middle class by providing some of the technologies already available in the US like Groupon copycat, Peixe Urbano. In a year and a half, the company has expanded from Brazil to Argentina, Chile, and Mexico. Another Brazilian company, Vostu, is locked in lawsuits with Zynga which is arguing that the company is committing copyright infringement of its games including Farmville, a Facebook favorite.

In Africa, we are not seeing a lot of “copycat” or “geographic innovation” technologies as one of the panelists preferred to call them. We are seeing technologies like Paga in Nigeria that enables mobile bankers to use any bank they choose. We see Sproxil, a company that has developed technology which uses text messaging to confirm that the drugs you are taking are not counterfeit. These creative innovations are exciting developments and ones that increase the fundability of entrepreneurs across the continent from investors both inside and outside the Africa

The second observation that struck me was the presence of VCs encouraging entrepreneurs to try new things in bringing various technologies to Brazil – providing entrepreneurs with mentorship that can help them increase their success rates in the country. Earlier this year, Ndubuisi Ekekwe, an entrepreneur and scholar wrote a nice article on African entrepreneurs’ need for nurturing. Mentoring fell under this bucket. As entrepreneurs learn from the mistakes of their mentors to avoid those same pitfalls, stronger products enter the market. I am extremely happy for Tayo Oviosu, CEO of Paga and the access he has to a mentor like Tim Draper. I think we will see more mentorship as time elapses but the involvement of Brazil VCs in the growth of their companies bolstered my understanding of the importance of mentoring.

Two takeaways came from the panel – the African entrepreneurial market is more disruptive than the current Brazilian entrepreneurial market, while more African entrepreneurs are going it alone as Brazilian entrepreneurs more readily have access to mentorship. Both are interesting phenomena and ones whose evolution I look forward to tracking over the next few years as I believe the presence of venture capitalists and mentors will grow rapidly over the next two or three years.

The following are recent CNBC Africa conversations on entrepreneurship in South Africa and Africa as a whole:

Photo Credit: Afrinnovator

No. 11: Africa’s Agricultural Potential – What’s the Cost?

At what cost will Africa realize the economic potential of its agricultural industry? According to McKinsey & Company, about 60 percent of the world’s uncultivated arable land is on the African continent. A few months ago, NPR did a piece on how Brazil has leveraged science to establish the country as a breadbasket. While listening to the piece, I thought about the model Brazil presents for African countries. Initially excited, I then thought about the potential costs of producing genetically manufactured (GM) foods.

Embrapa, Brazil’s government-run agricultural research institute, has done significant research to find ways for various types of crops to grow in the country since the 1970s. This research has led to enormous economic output. According to the Economist, Brazil drove the value of its crops from $23 billion in 1996 to $108 billion in 2006. Furthermore, the country is only using 12.5 percent of its 400 million hectares of uncultivated arable land. The Economist article qualifies these figures with the caution that Brazil drove agricultural growth systematically, and that growth on the African continent will not come quickly. Brazil spent years improving its soil, in concert with seed development. These developments led to new farming techniques that have enabled farmers to significantly increase their yields.

One can imagine the implications of Brazil’s agricultural growth for the African continent. McKinsey and Company projects that by 2040, African countries can increase the collective value of their agricultural output from $280 billion to $880 billion. To do this, countries will have to bring more land into cultivation, increase crop yields, and replace low-value crops with high-value crops like fruits and vegetables. Furthermore, if African countries are not able to implement these key drivers faster than Brazil has, 2040 will not be the year that the continent realizes $880 billion in agricultural output. The celerity with which African countries have driven the boom of the mobile phone industry makes me hopeful that it will be able to implement agricultural growth at a faster pace.

My tension lies in Brazil being second only to the United States in utilization of GM crops. Proponents of GM foods point to the necessity of these crops in establishing food security and production levels for generations to come. Critics argue against GM crops due to their potential danger to humans, and the threat they pose to other plants. A number of African countries are already producing GM crops, and scientists in Brazil continue to develop new plant technologies and farming techniques. Scientists, farmers, and policy makers are going to have to commit to thoroughly vetting the costs and benefits of employing GM crops in pursuit of a robust agricultural industry on the African continent. The economic potential of agriculture on the continent is quite impressive and will be an obstacle to objective cost-benefit analysis of policy options. Decision makers must champion thorough research and holistic conversations in shaping the premise on which countries drive agricultural development efforts. Without this hard analysis, the realization of Africa’s agricultural potential could come at a significant cost to the continent’s one-billion people.