EA techies to watch By TREVOR ANALO | Friday, September 21   2012 at  18:10

Youthful innovators are providing homegrown solutions to long-standing problems around the continent. They see mobile phones not just as instruments of communication, but 21st century tools for fighting poverty in Africa.  

East Africa Tech: 20 bold young innovators to watch

“Across Africa, we have seen countless examples of people taking control of their destiny, and making change from the bottom up.” – President Barack Obama

Like elsewhere, Africa is full of innovators.

However, innovation is often the easier part. There are two very difficult things in the techology business. One is making money; a lot of money. There have been a few cash-rich digital innovations in East Africa, where the most successful mobile application (it is also among the most successful in the world) is Kenyan mobile operator Safaricom’s money transfer service, M-Pesa.

The second difficult thing in innovation is to stay the course; not to give up and keep trying, trying, and trying again until you succeed. Many have despaired, but East Africa has a core of young and dedicated innovators who won’t give up.

Just as well. Beyond entertainment and games, mobile applications tend to have different basic life-changing uses in Africa. Already, about 500 million young Africans, in a continent of 700 million mobile phone users, do business online.

Widespread poverty and inadequate infrastructure in health, education, finance and agriculture opens up possibilities for a whole range of new possibilities, beyond business, to transform Africa through mobile applications.

Youthful innovators are providing home-grown solutions to long-standing problems in the continent. They see mobile phones not just as instruments of communication, but 21st Century tools for fighting poverty in Africa.

Thus mobile apps could be  a game changer for Africa’s development. Software developers in Africa have seized on the chance to tweak the technology and unlock the potential of their communities by creating innovative mobile apps that can be adapted and applied by users in their day-to-day lives.

In East Africa, the technology scene is booming with techies who are making a difference in their communities through creativity and innovation. One of these individuals might just create the next big mobile app in the region.

We have compiled a list of 20 mobile app developers from East Africa who are highly like to make headlines in the months and years to come.

These individuals, driven by their sheer determination to be part of the solution to the challenges facing their societies, are developing incredibly life-changing mobile apps in health care, education, finance and agriculture.

JAMILA ABASS, Kenya – CEO, M-Farm

Jamila Abass quit her job as a database specialist with the Kenya Medical Research Institute to start a tech company of her own. She co-founded M-Farm, a mobile app that allows farmers to get real time retail price of their products, buy farm inputs directly from the manufacturers and find buyers for their produce, thus effectively cutting off parasitic middle men. Jamila showed her innately entrepreneurship tendencies since she was very young. “As a child in north-eastern Kenya, despite the harsh weather, I used to grow coriander and kales next to our well and sell it to the neighbours.”

SUSAN OGUYA, Kenya – Co-Founder, M-Farm

Eloquent and with a firm grasp of Africa’s development challenges, Susan Oguya is not the quintessential tech junkie. She quit her job with Safaricom as an app developer to help start M- Farm. Susan is driven by her sheer desire to transform the world through simple practical technology. “With all the co-founders quitting their jobs to make M-Farm a success, we love what we do.” It gives her a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment that her parents, who educated her from faming proceeds, use M-Farm to sell their produce.

 ERRIC MUTTA, Tanzania - Founder and CEO, Problem Solved Ltd

With an initial investment of just $27 in his flagship MiniShop app, the US Department of State awarded Eric $15,000 as winner of the Apps4Africa Climate Challenge 2011. MiniShop is a user-friendly accounting and inventory control system for small businesses. “It is transforming societies by empowering SMEs to maintain better records which they can then use to access credit,” he says. The software has been upgraded into a national grain supply chain management system that monitors the purchase, storage, distribution, and consumption of grain across the entire country. It is designed to ensure both food and economic security. “I have to figure out how to turn the $15,000 into $15 billion in fifteen years…and how to dominate the world of course,” he chuckles.                 

JESSIE GAKWANDI BENIMANA, Rwanda – CEO, Sail Ltd

“I think as techies, we ought to develop simple, sustainable, innovative and efficient apps, in order to overcome the everyday struggles of our communities.” Sophie sees her role in Rwanda as a change agent. She wants to contribute to the transformation of her country into a knowledge based economy, “people should be able to reserve tables in restaurants, buy electricity or pay school fees for example, by a simple click on their phones.” Her tech firm is behind Get-It, an app that enables restaurateurs locate their favourite eateries in Kigali, it’s a first of its kind in Rwanda. “I used to see a lot of people frustrated, especially tourists venting on travel blogs that they could not find Italian or Chinese restaurants in Kigali.”  She offered a solution.  

 

VICTOR MICLOVICH, Uganda – CEO, Kuyu Project

A programmer, an entrepreneur and a tech-teacher, he says; “I want to see a wonderful technology eco-system built up in East Africa. Technology can be used to build markets, encourage better integration as a society and improve livelihoods.” Miclovich has been down this road before, after having worked for an MIT professor, taught a mobile programming course for the UN in Italy and quit his faculty job at Makerere University, he is now back in the game with StorySpaces, a digital story telling portal that allows writers to get their voices heard. Victor’s app “builds on the age-old African tradition of storytelling.”

 

ERIC LWAMBURA, Tanzania - Founder, Crystal Interactive Systems

The government pension fund awarded Eric $3,000 for developing and implementing a mobile based information system. Currently, Eric is developing a mobile based partogram – a graphical record of vital data including cervical dilation, fetal heart rate and duration of labour – that will assist doctors in detecting problems during labour so that any deviation from the norm is treated accordingly. The app targets health centres that cannot afford sophisticated monitoring equipment. It requires the user to feed in key data, and the interpretation is done automatically to determine whether the progress of labour is normal or there is cause for alarm.

KARIUKI GATHITU, Kenya – Founder, Zege Technologies

As a young boy Kariuki wanted to invent a telepathic device. He now develops applications that can transfer money from Turkana to Lamu with the click of a button. Kariuki is one of the brains behind Equity Bank’s M-Kesho, an app that enables clients to transfer money from their bank accounts to M-Pesa. His latest development M-Payer, helps small businesses manage their payments. “The difference between small businesses and large businesses is not the product but the payment systems,” he says. Kariuki thinks techies are the game changers in Africa’s development “they will overturn the very basis of reason, and challenge the status quo, pushing the boundaries of innovation for the benefit of society.”

                

ESTHER KUNDA, Rwanda – CEO, OSCA Connect Ltd

Don’t let her smile fool you – she is all about hard core tech. Esther was a computer engineering student at the Kigali Institute of Science and Technology when the entrepreneurial bug caught up with her. She co-founded OSCA Connect with her classmates to develop mobile apps that would simplify many daily tasks with easy solutions. Her tech firm is behind Sarura, a mobile app that provides farmers with weather updates and agricultural advice. “We realised that normal seasons have been altered resulting in unpredictable weather which affects famers’ yields. Sarura dramatically remedies this situation,” she says.

BILLY BRANKS KAYE, Uganda – Founder & CEO, Crystal Interactive Systems

An Ericsson ICT Young Achiever, Billy has worked on software projects for mega corporations like Coca-Cola, Diageo and Vodafone. The tech community shouldn’t always be about money, Billy reasoned. They have a responsibility to give back to society. “East Africa has some of the world’s youngest populations, if we invest in education we can eradicate poverty,”  he says. Billy is helping disadvantaged children in Uganda get an education and basic essentials. His Somesha app enables registered charity organisations fundraise for needy children through mobile money. “Most donations made to Africa come from outside this continent, this does not mean that Africans who have do not want to give.”

MESHACK ALLOYS, Kenya – Co-Founder, MTL Systems

A USAID merit scholar, Meshack has been involved in the development of almost every major mobile app in Kenya. He co-founded MTL Systems when he was an engineering student at the University of Nairobi. This tech firm is behind M-Shop, an app that “brings the market to the people and the people to the market.” Through this app consumers can purchase goods and services and order for events and travel tickets using their mobile handsets. “The tech community will play a major role in helping Africa in the acquisition, adaptation and application of relevant mobile technologies to eradicate poverty,” he argues.

 

 SAMUEL NGODA, Kenya – Founder, Gorecycler

At only 19, Samuel has two miserably failed tech start-ups to his name. But what is remarkable about him is his sheer determination to succeed. He didn’t let any of that put him down. “Failure taught me many business lessons”, Samuel says. For him, failure is only a resting place, an opportunity to begin again more intelligently. The boy refused to throw in the towel and is now back in the game with Gorecycler, an innovative app that enables people to sell recyclable waste by locating recycling resources and institutions near them on a map. Waste management is “something beneficial to the environment, the economy, and humanity.” Samuel’s motivation is “to create a better life for someone, to solve problems and change lives through technology.”

CHRISTINE AMPAIRE, Uganda – Project Manager, Codesync

Kampala is a city plagued by fuel shortages and spiralling petrol prices. Christine decided to do something about it; she developed Mafuta Go, an app which helps users find the nearest petrol station with the cheapest prices and tells them how to get there. It was an instant hit, downloaded so many times until it crashed. Christine fixed the app which went on to win $10,000 at the 2012 Pivot East mobile app competition. She now wants to develop an SMS based Mafuta Go for the thousands of boda boda (motorcycle taxis) riders in Kampala whose phones cannot access the internet.

 

 JORUM KINUTHIA, Kenya – Founder, Infocentra Ltd

“I have been working closely with players in the dairy sector, which is replacing tea, coffee and horticulture as the cornerstone of rural economies in Kenya,”  says Jorum. Being a dairy farmer himself, Jorum wants to make life easier for small holder farmers in Kenya and in the region using mobile apps. Jorum’s Dairy Sacco app is part of his research for the University of Nairobi’s ICT for Development project. The app allows farmers to access information on the produce they have delivered to their local cooperatives, and use it to access credit. He says; “I strongly believe that we can develop local solutions for local issues that face us. Copy and paste does not work in most of our unique set-ups. Some tweaking is needed.”

MBWANA MBURA, Tanzania – Co-Founder, Niafrika Ltd

He got laid off when his employer ran into financial troubles. Short of cash and with a lot of time on his hands, Mbwana desperately needed something to do. Dar Price was born out of his laziness. “I am too lazy to go window shopping; I needed to do something about it.” Dar Price is a web and mobile based shopping portal. Mbwana stays up all night working on his software projects. “The mobile phone is probably the single most used piece of technology in Africa today, the tech community should tap into this opportunity and develop solutions to Africa’s development challenges,” he remarks.

 

 KEVIN KWIZERA, Burundi – Web Developer, AfriRegister

The skills set of a programmer and a musician have a certain amount of overlap. They both involve an abstract concept of “structure”. Kwizera is a great pianist, when not expressing himself through codes, he expresses himself through chords. Mobile app development in Burundi is still in its very infancy. There is a long way to go before the country catches up with the rest of the region. “There are virtually no mobile apps in Burundi; Ecobank just recently launched mobile money transfer services in the country.” Kwizera says the work ahead will be hard. He has his name on Burundi’s first online shopping portal Burundionline

 

MOSES KIHUMBA, Kenya – CEO, Partechs Solutions

“If we can make applications that can lift our people out of poverty, improve living conditions or make life just a bit easier for the African people, techies have a real shot at making a difference,” Victor believes. He founded Partechs Solution two years ago with a focus on health and financial applications. His work has been recognised by Africa Com Awards – the largest ICT gathering on the continent. Victor’s latest application, Mare-Mare brings back barter trader, but in a more sophisticated fashion. It connects traders and showcases commodities up for exchange. Unlike monetary transactions, barter trade is characterized by protracted negotiations, but Victor reasons this “encourages the creation of solid ties within the society. This is especially beneficial in societies burdened with negative ethnicity.”

 

THOMSON LUTTA, Tanzania - KINU Innovation

An-up-and coming app developer, Thomson is currently participating in the Google Apps Developer Challenge for the $20,000 prize.  “What’s amazing about mobile apps is that they can be tweaked to solve many problems facing our societies.” Thomson says it’s not all about money. He wants to play his part in easing the hardships Africa faces using apps.

 

 JACOB MWEMA, Kenya – Co-Founder, Fomobi Solutions

With a capital base of $60,000, this young man is going places. "My vision is to grow my start-up into a profitable business globally, and influence upcoming developers, in their passions, to develop relevant and effective solutions,” he says. Jacob is best known in the tech community for his SchoolBursar, an app that helps education institutions manage M-Pesa payments. It performs real-time analysis and generation of reports for each student, sends reminders to parents and guardians who have fee deficits and alerts administrators and principals of the same.

 

GIDEON ALFRED, Tanzania - Founder, The Bridge Ltd

Feeling cheated out of a lucrative app he developed by his employer, Gideon decided to quit his job in to start his own tech company. “To be successful in this business, you must be your own boss. You will be more productive than when you work for somebody.” He thinks mobile technology is just what Africa needs to drive growth in the next decade. “Five years ago, money transfer was a nightmare in Africa; look at what M-Pesa has achieved to get an idea of where the continent is headed.”  

 

LUTWAMA GEOFREY, Uganda – CEO, MLFocus (U) Ltd

Lutwama wants to help Uganda achieve one of the UN Millennium Development Goals.  He says his Saving Tomorrow app can reduce child and maternal mortality by an ambitious 75%-85. “We realised children die of simple diseases because there is no connection between mothers and doctors.” Saving Tomorrow captures the mother’s medical data and schedules her visits to the hospital and reminds her of her appointments. It also schedules immunisation and vaccination dates, and sends nutrition advice via SMS.

 

NOEL MAKUMULI, Tanzania – Co-Founder, Connect IT

Connect IT is a conference for the tech community in Tanzania where participants meet other peers in the ICT industry, share experiences, learn from other professionals, and build their network. The inaugural conference held last month was a success with close to 100 techies participating. Noel, currently based in Finland, has developed software for a number of corporations in Helsinki. He is now developing a site surveying software for Ekahau – a company providing real time location systems (RTLS).  The software will be used to survey coverage of wireless networks. Noel is planning on going back to mobile apps; and we shall also notice when he does.

 

*The author worked with Nation Media Group’s Africa Project.