Demo Africa a perfect launch pad

29 October 2012 - 02:06 By Toby Shapshak
Toby Shapshak. Stuff editor. File photo.
Toby Shapshak. Stuff editor. File photo.
Image: Times LIVE

A cellphone game that teaches you about the dangers of malaria by swatting mosquitos from Nigeria . a mobile recruitment site for blue-collar workers in Ghana.

A shopping portal that enables Kenyan craftswomen to sell their jewellery online . an Egyptian project that lets youngsters create their own TV content . South African technology that automates complex computer processes in the cloud.

These are the five winners of the inaugural Demo Africa event, held in Nairobi, Kenya, last week, at which I was a judge.

We've been hearing about how this is Africa's time. Once labelled "the hopeless continent" by The Economist, our beloved continent - with all its pain, problems and poverty - is the next great growth area in technology.

Last week was a defining pronouncement that this is true in the most sought-after of business and technology enterprises: the technology start-up.

Demo Africa is a renowned event that has been running in the US for the past 22 years and has been the launch pad for successful companies such as Palm, E*Trade, Salesforce, Webex, Tivo and VMware.

Having expanded to flourishing emerging markets such as China and Brazil, this was the first time it ran an event in Africa. There are similar events and organisations, but Demo Africa is the most respected.

South Africa and Kenya, as you would expect, given the depth of the tech industries in both countries, produced the most participants, followed by Nigeria and Ghana, Cameroon, Senegal, Egypt, Tanzania and Zimbabwe, making it a truly pan-African event.

Five companies were named overall winners, called "lions" in part because this event was the first project of a much broader initiative to promote Africa called LION@frica. They will go to Silicon Valley to pitch their businesses there.

They are not just tech companies with an idea for Angry Birds. They are all companies with a social conscience and ideas about how to improve the life of their communities.

This African innovation is more about survival and other important issues than mere entertainment or photo-sharing.

Tapping into the popularity of games by teaching youngsters about the problems with mosquito-borne diseases is the idea behind Maliyo Games' swatter app.

Not for executives, liked LinkedIn, blue-collar workers can use mPawa to find a job and employers can vet them for experience.

Sasa Africa lets craftsmen photograph their jewellery using a basic phone and upload the pictures, reaching a global audience.

Qabila, which means "tribe" in Arabic, grew out of the lack of suitable content for Egyptian youths.

Flowgar is a clever, drag-and-drop system housed in the cloud that lets businesses automate their processes. It was one of 11 South African companies that made the final 40 firms that pitched their ideas last week in Nairobi's eccentrically designed Kenya International Convention Centre.

Underneath a building shaped like a strange flying saucer, these hopefuls had six minutes in which to present their companies and their big ideas, and hope that the venture capitalists in the audience would want to invest in them.

Most of them could pitch their ideas in Silicon Valley and be comparable to the start-ups there, said Demo's organiser, Neal Silverman.

The South African start-ups all presented good ideas: Balefyre lets you use USSD on Windows phones such as Nokia Lumia and the iPad.

ExpenZa turns those credit card SMSes into a personal balance sheet and TaxTim makes tax returns easier. MobiFlock makes cellphones safer for kids. Firestring makes sense of the masses of unstructured data in businesses.

Evly lets brands and companies run competitions on Facebook. Gigham wants to help you find the best entertainment gig. Kuza is a smart way of getting small businesses online. Framework One makes business processes easier.

ComUnity makes it simpler to reach customers on multiple platforms and PropMaven mashes up building information with maps.

Space prevents me naming all the impressive Demo Africa start-ups, but Africa can be proud of them all.