Whether Africa’s glass is half full or half empty, real businesses are being built

Lake Naivasha

Lake Naivasha, about 90km from Kenya’s capital Nairobi.

Sub-Saharan Africa’s rapid economic growth over the past decade or so has shifted the focus from the region’s problems to its commercial opportunities.

But after years of fast growth, many countries are facing headwinds in the form of falling commodity prices, less accommodative global financial conditions and a strong US dollar. Some commentators have even started to question the sustainability of the ‘Africa rising’ story.

However, during a visit to Kenya last month it was again encouraging to see visible signs of progress and examples of companies that have found real traction through innovative business models.

One of these innovations is M-Shwari, a paperless banking service offered through Safaricom’s acclaimed M-Pesa mobile money platform, in association with Commercial Bank of Africa. While M-Pesa only allows for the transfer of money, M-Shwari is a bona fide bank account. M-Shwari accounts are opened entirely through a mobile phone, without the need to visit a bank branch. Money is deposited and withdrawn via M-Pesa. Customers earn interest on their deposits and can even take out a loan, which needs to be repaid within 30 days. A 7.5% monthly “facilitation fee” is charged on each loan. Initial loan limits are based on a user’s airtime and M-Pesa transaction data. If the loan is repaid before 30 days, the credit limit is increased. A friend in Nairobi explained how she started out with a modest Ksh.500 (US$5) limit, but because of her healthy repayment habits this has been increased to Ksh.11,000 ($108). So far, more than nine million M-Shwari accounts have been opened.

While in Kenya, a colleague and I travelled to the town of Naivasha (about 90km outside of Nairobi) to visit a new shopping centre that was recently opened. The construction of the mall is part of a larger trend, seen in a number of sub-Saharan African countries, where modern retail developments are growing outside the commercial capitals into secondary towns. The small but slick Buffalo Mall features a Tuskys supermarket as well as a Nairobi Java House restaurant, among a number of smaller stores.

Driving through Naivasha I spotted a retail outlet of M-KOPA, a company that sells solar systems to rural, low-income consumers across East Africa. The energy kit includes an 8W solar panel, two LED lights, a USB phone charger, and a portable solar radio. To buy the system, customers need to make a Ksh.2,999 ($30) deposit, while the balance is paid off over a 12-month period in daily usage credits of Ksh.40 ($0.40). Payments are made via mobile money platforms, such as M-Pesa in Kenya. After one year, customers own the system outright and no longer have to make daily payments. GSM sensors in the equipment allow M-KOPA to regulate usage based on payments received. Therefore, if a customer stops paying and runs out of credit, the system ceases to function. To distribute its systems, M-KOPA uses direct sales representatives who collect the equipment at its retail outlets and then takes it into the rural areas. Through its innovative technology and distribution system, M-KOPA has managed to install its solar system in over 250,000 homes in less than three years. (See our case study about M-KOPA)

Eneza Education is another example of a start-up that has accumulated a large number of users. For a small fee, it offers school students (as well as adults) access to learning materials via their mobile phones. To date Eneza’s services have been used by over 450,000 people. “The scale of what we have been able to achieve with very little money is just phenomenal to me,” says co-founder Toni Maraviglia.

Of course one can’t generalise about an entire continent, and some countries are more conducive to business than others. But whether you believe Africa’s glass is half full or half empty, my trip confirmed that entrepreneurs, at least in Kenya, are finding the space to build real companies.

Jaco Maritz is based in South Africa, and publisher of How we made it in Africa.