How to be an African start-up: Beads, old tyres, scrap metal, and kitenge bow ties

Are there no African start-ups that require sophisticated intellectual capital, technological innovation; that are ‘thinking’ jobs?

AFRICA is the hottest place to invest right now, if all the international attention it is getting is anything to go by.

Still, there’s lots of anxiety whether Africa’s recent rise is “real”, how it is trickling down – if at all it is, and whether it can be sustained. Will the real African middle class please stand up?

But let’s leave those worries for another day.

We all know that a few short years ago, the main kind of stuff that would raise a blip on the international media’s consciousness coming out of Africa, really, was war, disease and disasters – always humanitarian disasters, none of the regular kind.

Today, there’s a whole new narrative, and there’s even a dedicated programme on CNN, ‘African Start-Up’ that casts the spotlight on African entrepreneuers and the innovative things they are doing around the continent.

But just looking at the kind of stories that get covered on “African Start-Up” suggests that it is not a new day, after all.

On the programme’s homepage there are links to 23 stories, featuring upcoming businesses from all around Africa.

Sixteen involve working with the hands in one way or another – crafting fancy coffins in Ghana, recycling old bicycles into furniture in Kenya, and several stories on fashion design from “African” fabric (also known as kitenge in East and Central Africa). And its never complete without bow ties made of some traditional material in a corner somewhere.

There’s one story which is posted under three different headings. This is normal - even smart - practice done twice, but posting the same story under very different headlines that many times is quite special treatment: “Turning old tyres into stylish shoes”; “Shoe making saves street kids”; and “Ugandan street kids reinvent the wheel”.

There are three stories on bakeries – one featuring a guy who bakes spinach into cakes to get people to eat healthier, another on a “godsend” bakery in Goma which is the only place that serves fresh, proper bread in that town. The place fills up with expats, the story says.

Among the sixteen includes one guy who can take you on tours around Alexandra township on a bike. And there’s one “shoe-shine king”.

The seven-odd stories that do not feature outdoor workshops of one kind or another include a couple of online education businesses, a chocolatier in Uganda, and surfing in Dakar, Senegal.

There is really nothing terribly wrong here; these are wonderful businesses that are doing great things. But are there no African start-ups that require sophisticated intellectual capital, technological innovation; that are “thinking” jobs?

Simple African art

It reminds me of an acerbic meeting I once attended a number of years ago in Nairobi. Kalundi Serumaga, a famous and equally contrarian Ugandan writer, playwright, and cultural critic had been invited for a workshop in Nairobi, to chair a seminar on African art in the global consciousness.

The audience was full of up-and-coming painters, sculptors and artists of all kinds, and a few had already attracted quite a bit of attention both locally and internationally.

Quietly, he began the session and asked, what was the common feature of all the art one sees in curio markets in African cities, the kind that get bought up by tourists?

The room was silent, from his demeanour, it was clear that the answer was not what we were thinking.

He said, you can tell “African art” from a mile away from its simplicity. Not in the clean, minimalistic sense but simple, as in unrefined, unsophisticated and rudimentary.

The crux of his tirade that there seems to be a consensus that “African art” must have some juvenile, even undeveloped element to be authentic, i.e. the cars made from bottletops held together by bits of string, scrap metal jumbled together to fashion a giraffe, and the mandatory unvarnished wooden sculpture.

By the time he was saying that some people in the room had been getting accolades not because they were brilliant, but because there was no difference between their so-called art and that of a five-year-old child, and that this is exactly what the Western market defines as African expression, I saw grown men balancing tears.

Needless to say, the meeting ended an hour before schedule, as the participants of the seminar angrily walked away.

There is another Africa

The point is; an African start-up need not feature the mandatory colourful beads, old tyres, scrap metal and a kitenge bowtie.

For example, if one keeps to the “small” stuff, there’s MERGIMS, developed by two Rwandans, an international money transfer service that is supported by a user-friendly phone application and website allowing for swift money transfers.

There’s myAgro in Senegal is helping small-scale farmers who are far away from banks to save for seeds and fertiliser, by using the familiar “scratch card” concept – farmers buy a scratch card and top up their myAgro account on their mobile.

At planting time each account is reviewed and based on the amount saved myAgro delivers seeds and fertiliser directly to the farmer’s village. 

There’s the massively successful e-commerce firms like Jumia and Konga, which are pulling off an incredible logistical feat involving coordinating thousands of online orders and running a fleet of hundreds of motorcycles and small vans to deliver goods in from warehouses in ten African countries.

There’s incredible scientific research going on in Africa, with real life applications, for example, the Moyo Waterfront Restaurant and Urban Farm in South Africa, consisting of a market arcade covered by an array of solar panels that powers the stalls during the day, it also doubles as shading device for the space below.

The market stalls are a cluster of pre-fab modular units, and the urban farm uses an aquaponic system, offering fresh off-the-wall greens, vegetables as well as tilapia fish for the restaurant. 

There’s Faso Soap, developed by students from Burundi and Burkina Faso, an innovative mosquito repellant solution made with natural, locally available ingredients. This solution, added to locally manufactured soap, provides an accessible, low-cost anti-malarial tool; the soap is enriched with a mixture of local herbs and leaves a scent that repels mosquitoes off the skin. 

There’s even a shape-shifting wheel that enables one to drive in all kinds of terrain, a one-size-fits-all solution for load-carrying carts, bikes or vehicles in areas with poor infrastructure that uses the principle of a scissor jack, and arraying a series of them around a circle. 

The wheel can either grow shorter and wider, or taller and narrower, as the mechanism is manipulated.

There are other ways of being an African start-up.


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