Tanzanian tech entrepreneurs gradually making their mark

Every Saturday more than half a million children in Tanzania tune into the country’s national broadcaster TBC to watch the locally produced cartoon show called Ubongo Kids. The edutainment series combines mathematical concepts with fun animations and catchy songs. It has become a hit beyond Tanzania and is now broadcast in seven African countries. Ubongo Kids is one of several success stories emerging out of Tanzania’s tech innovation space Kinu Hub.

Johnpaul Barretto

Johnpaul Barretto

The innovation hub, based in Dar es Salaam, was established to invest “in people, ideas and technology,” says co-founder Johnpaul Barretto.

Start-ups incubated at Kinu get access to a working space, internet, an app testing centre, coaching and coffee. Kinu also hosts industry meet-ups and events, training sessions and innovation competitions aimed at building the general IT ecosystem.

And it seems to be paying off. Tanzanian technology companies are gradually making their mark on the regional stage with some emerging tops in competitions and expanding their reach geographically. Barretto reckons Tanzanian technology start-ups are defying age old perceptions.

‘Slower brother’

“Tanzania is often looked at as the slower brother in the region,” he says. “It is great to have a space where teams can meet and compete, and then take on the region and show perceptions towards Tanzania are outdated. I would put Tanzanian coders against Kenyan coders any day of the week.”

Due to the success of mobile money platform M-Pesa and the proliferation of innovation spaces and tech start-ups, Kenya’s capital Nairobi has been dubbed ‘Silicon Savannah’. Kenyan tech entrepreneurs have attracted the attention of international media, investors and even executives of global IT companies like Google.

With the lens focused on Kenya, Barretto notes neighbours such as Tanzania have suffered the disadvantages of under-exposure. Accessing financing, for instance, is harder with most investors choosing to be based in Nairobi.

“It’s a lot harder for Tanzanian start-ups to secure investments,” he says. “That is one of the largest differences when comparing ecosystems in the region.”

Running a tech start-up in Tanzania is in itself a challenging feat. The connectivity infrastructure is vulnerable to outages, there is insufficient supply of electricity, and regulations hinder the development of start-ups, such as the need to pre-pay taxes.

But it is not all gloom.

“There is opportunity to tap into what is becoming a growing middle class, [and that] is a huge potential for growing companies,” says Barretto. “Consumers are very ready to take on solutions. As long as you show that you are solving a problem or making life more efficient, people are willing to use your service and engage with you.”

He however notes that start-ups in Tanzania hit the wall when they build services that companies have to buy.

“Larger companies are developing their own solutions so are not going to buy from start-ups. Smaller businesses on the other hand are hesitant to shift from pen and paper until you can actually show them that the system is flexible. So a lot of user engagement and education is needed,” says Barretto.

He illustrates the importance of consumer education explaining how a group working on an SMS healthcare project in rural Tanzania had to deal with an audience suspicious of messages from a shortcode.

“People wanted to see a long number to know that the SMS came from a person. There were all sorts of conspiracy theories. Now those are things that as a start-up you don’t consider, because in the rest of the world no one minds shortcodes.

“Here you have to think about the perceptions people will have. You have to educate them if you are hoping they will buy your products and services.”

With myriad challenges to solve, from healthcare to education, Barretto believes there are many opportunities for tech entrepreneurs. Investors too should plug in, but he warns them to bear in mind how Tanzania’s environment differs from other African countries.

“I think there are massive opportunities in Tanzania, but they cannot be harnessed in the traditional ways investment usually happens.

“Showing up with a bag full of money and saying ‘I’m here to invest’ is never going to get you anywhere.”