I have just completed a little under a week in Nairobi. It was a very enjoyable and enlightening experience — as well as being my first footsteps in East Africa.
After a quick tour of the picturesque Karen Blixen Museum, I met with a couple of local VCs to discuss opportunities in the region. I was curious to establish what sort of businesses were being started in East Africa, what the local risks were and to try to start building a picture of the investing landscape generally. In no particular order:
- Bitcoin & Mobile Money. Kenya’s M-Pesa is according to some reports involved in 70% of Kenyan GDP. Given the 1% merchant fee, this means its owner, Safaricom, might be generating gross revenues of 0.7% of GDP from this mobile payment system. Copy-cats such as EVC (by Hormud Telecom) in Somalia have pretty much replaced cash: that country may indeed (somewhat ironically) to all intents & purposes be the world’s first cashless society. These high penetration rates probably mean that bitcoin (via payment systems such as the excellent Bitpesa) are going to find it hard to break in, except for transactions such as overseas remittances.
- Economic Openness. Of the big economies of the region (Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia, Tanzania), Kenya probably offers the easiest path for overseas investors: it has been a relatively open economy for a long time, particularly compared with Ethiopia and Tanzania, so foreign investors can be fairly confident that what they put in, they should be able to get out again. Having said that, sadly there is still corruption so careful due diligence is key.
- China. Although this is changing, being less commodity-oriented than, say Zambia, the East African economies have been less adversely affected by the significant weakening of commodity prices. However, as with Zambia, China has made infrastructure deals locally that governments are already in some cases coming to regret. As in other African countries, when the Chinese offer money for infrastructure projects it turns out to be a bit of an illusion: they bring their own companies, who import Chinese workers & materials. Thus there is little or no “multiplier” effect (although clearly the local economy still benefits from the new road, railway or whatever).
- Logistics. Kenya’s not a small country: 45 million people covering an area a little smaller than Texas. Although it has some great roads, it also has some absolutely terrible ones. This means that getting raw materials & finished goods around the country becomes a significant challenge and represent a much larger cost than in Europe or the USA. Driving outside of Nairobi, I saw fully-laden trucks doing less than 10km/h – the road between Mombasa on the coast and Nairobi is, I hear, literally nose-to-tail with trucks crawling along. One study I was told about suggested that the most efficient form of transport here in some circumstances was still the donkey. Another study pointed out that small farmers in Kenya receive substantially lower prices for their goods than are available at the port or other main market-place — in some cases as much as 75% lower; but when these researchers investigated the costs for the farmer of actually getting their production to that market, they found little evidence that intermediaries were squeezing value from the farmers: transportation costs & losses due to theft, wastage, contamination etc were all far more important. This would suggest that there is massive scope for enhancing the incomes of small farmers by improving logistics — something that should not be beyond the wit of man.
- Education. As I mentioned in another post, Kenyans spend ~45% of their income educating their kids. Yet inconsistent teaching in public schools & very large class sizes means results can be very poor. Bridge International Academies, a company founded in 2009 and backed by Zuckerberg & Gates as well as Pearson has been seeking to address this problem. Bridge-trained teachers read scripted lesson plans & classes are much smaller than in state schools. Teacher absenteeism is substantially lower than in the state sector, too. The approach is not without its critics, as the WSJ article highlights: for example, many of the teachers are themselves barely out of school and the training provided is nowhere near as extensive as a ‘full’ teaching qualification. But the statistics speak for themselves: a 0.32 StDev gain in reading & a 0.51 StDev gain in mathematics.
- Agriculture. Kenya has 6 million small-scale farmers and agriculture represents more than 27% of GDP. Complex logistics are not the only problem: other issues include lack of price transparency, fraud & theft. It is difficult to quantify the impact these challenges have on productivity & farmers’ incomes; to date I have not been able to locate any studies that look at this.
- Manufacturing. Many Kenyans are self-employed or work for very small-scale enterprises making all sorts of goods including jewellery & other ‘craft’ type products. For some, this is subsistence-level whilst others may be substantially more successful. What they all have in common though is being limited in their access to markets. Given the existence of the internet and high local penetration for mobile money, there’s no real reason a Nairobi artisan couldn’t set up a Shopify shop and tap into global demand for ethically-produced, almost-unique items; yet in practice that doesn’t seem to be happening. What these artisans need is a “bridge” to the world.
I met with a number of businesses that are seeking to solve these problems, or helping other businesses solve them.
Many of my meetings were arranged by Growth Africa. They help early stage businesses hone their business plans, polish their presentation materials and raise working capital. I could not have been more impressed with the standard of the firms they’re working with and would recommend any young entrepreneur thinking of starting a technology business meet with them.
Below I feature the four early-stage companies I was most impressed by. Again, in no particular order. Although in some cases I highlight the positive social impact of these start-ups that’s not to say I don’t think they also all look like great standalone investments (subject to due diligence, of course).
Essentially, social selling. If you have a fan-base on Facebook, Pinterest or whatever, and you have products to sell (including digital music, event tickets or physical goods), why go to the trouble of setting up a separate shop on say Shopify (and risk losing the customer to a competitor) when you can sell direct from your FB page? Very smart, articulate founders; slick software; sensible revenue model. With 120 million Facebook users already in Africa, there should be plenty of scope for growth in this kind of application.
Soko offers jewellery from over 1,000 local artisans via a single portal; slick ERP software allows them to hold very low inventory of unfinished products. They can help artisans with training and also with working capital to invest in additional tooling. Finished jewellery is sold both wholesale & retail and the revenues are growing strongly. If you believe at all in “trade not aid”, this type of business is one NGOs should be taking a serious look at, as the positive impact on local communities can be huge.
By providing a platform that allows small-scale farmers to group together into collectives, tracking inventory levels, offering trusted transportation partners & connecting suppliers & consumers, iProcure is making the agricultural supply chain much more efficient. Again, the social impact to remote rural communities is potentially significant.
Although Uber exists in Nairobi as well (presumably) as in other African cities, there’s a problem. Star ratings for drivers are all very well, but the Kenyans don’t really trust them. Instead, they’d rather use their ‘usual’ driver. And if he’s not available, they’ll ask a friend if they can borrow theirs. Mara Moja has cleverly turned this into an app by using people’s social media profiles & relationships to highlight to a rider those drivers that are used by people in their network. According to their research, a Nairobi rider would rather use a 2-star rated driver with connections to their friends, than an unknown 5-star driver. Which is pretty amazing.
Investing in Africa has never been regarded as easy by most people; it still has significant challenges, but for sub-Saharan Africa excluding South Africa I’d say Kenya was a very interesting first port of call for anyone looking to play the “Africa Rising” story. Nairobi has certainly earned itself a reputation as the strongest local technology hub and from what I managed to gather over just a few days it is now spawning some very interesting ideas and startups.