Africa Tech Trends: Taxi app wars

Africa Tech Trends is a fortnightly column by Tom Jackson focusing on the most important developments in Africa’s technology industry and examining how technology is disrupting the way business is being done on the continent.uber250

Taxi wars

Africa’s taxi-hailing app industry is getting far too busy. Initially South Africa gained all the attention, with Uber taking on local incumbents Snappcab and Zapacab for customers. Uber won, Snappcab clung on, and Zapacab died. The taxi wars are now spreading across the continent. In Kenya, Uber has arrived to battle Easy Taxi, and the much-smaller Maramoja has picked the worst possible moment to join them. The same is happening in Nigeria.

The trouble is, rather like Africa’s e-commerce industry, the size of the market is just too small for so many companies operating in the same space. That isn’t to say it will always be this way, as more people own smartphones and become comfortable with using alternatives to cash. But right now it is the case, and with so many taxi apps launching there will be inevitable casualties. What is for certain, however, is that their deep, deep pockets mean the casualties will not be Uber or Easy Taxi. Competitors beware.

Tech for social change is firmly on the agenda

It is all well and good that tech start-up businesses are springing up across Africa, and occasionally seeing some success. But it has been satisfying in recent weeks and months that the ability of new technologies to cause social change and tackle major issues is back on the agenda.

This renewed focus hasn’t been at the expense of profits, either. Most of the new initiatives are looking to support businesses that can tackle longstanding problems on the continent but also reap financial rewards for their founders. At the end of last month, San Francisco-based Hack for Big Choices held its first event in Africa, in Accra, Ghana. The event ended up being the biggest hackathon ever seen in Africa, and produced potential businesses tackling problems related to healthcare, fires, and rural education.

The Spring Accelerator in East Africa is also on the lookout for sustainable businesses with solutions that improve the lives of adolescent girls living in poverty, with the accelerator aiming to help 200,000 girls by 2019. Profit for the companies involved remains a motive. In addition, the Smart Villages initiative has launched an Energy Innovation Challenge for young entrepreneurs.

The World Bank has gone predictably pan-African. The organisation’s Negawatt Challenge has been taking place in Ghana, Kenya and Tanzania, aiming to find solutions to a number of energy challenges. Again, sustainable businesses are being sought rather than unaffordable solutions.

Just when it looked like Africa’s tech scene had become as capitalist as it could, it appears there is work underway to make sure socio-economic benefits can be gained.

Kenyan government automation gathering pace after several false starts

When Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta was elected in 2013, he promised to bring his country into the technological age. This process has seen several false starts, most notably with the “laptops for schools” fiasco, still mired in controversy and delays. But there are finally signs of process.

The latest development is that the country’s immigration department will, from next month, allow passport applications to be done online. Application forms will be available on an online portal and can be submitted electronically. So committed is the department to automation, it will from the launch of the portal only accept online applications. Long queues at the department will become a thing of the past.

Other departments and organisations are moving in the same direction. The Kenyan Higher Education Loans Board (HELB) and Kenya Commercial Bank (KCB) have launched a student smart card to improve the efficiency of loan disbursements.

Meanwhile, the IFMIS e-procurement system is finally seeing the light of day after long delays. The government has started training officials from state corporations on how to use the system, which is designed to cull corruption in government procurement practices. On a smaller scale, the port of Mombasa is about to become an e-port, with all systems web-enabled.

As someone who spends large amounts of time in Kenya, I can say with confidence that any efforts to automate processes are very welcome, so long as staff are adequately trained and security provisions put in place. It is also positive news the often criticised Kenyatta is following through on at least one of his major campaign planks.