1. ENEZA EDUCATION
For providing kids in rural Africa with a virtual tutor. The Kenyan startup, cofounded by two former members of Nairobi’s iHub community, creates educational content that kids in low-income rural areas can access on low-end cell phones. Through its “virtual classroom,” students between the ages of 11 and 18 can study subjects including math, science, and English, and take any of its 2,000 quizzes and more than 16,000 questions, with the option of a mini lesson if they score below 50%—all for the equivalent of 50 U.S. cents a month. They can also search Wikipedia by sending a text message, or ask teachers questions and receive a response within an hour. Teachers can also assign homework through the platform and receive reports on student performance. By the end of 2014, Eneza had more than 375,000 users across Kenya, up from 143,000 the previous year, including in northeastern Kenya, one of the poorest parts of the country. It hopes to reach more than 1 million students in rural Africa this year, and 50 million in the next five years in at least 10 different African countries. Its focus will be on what it calls “the very end of the last mile”—students who have dropped out of school, girls in extremely impoverished areas, and children who can’t attend school due to conflict.
For facilitating e-commerce in Africa. Having raised around $100 million in investment since it launched in 2012, Konga has the potential to become an African e-commerce behemoth. But that’s not exactly what founder Sim Shagaya has in mind. “We don’t want to be Goliath,” he says. “We think the future in Africa belongs to a small army of Davids.” Konga, in other words, doesn’t want to be another e-commerce company, but enable other businesses to do e-commerce. Since opening up Konga Marketplace to small- and medium-size businesses via its SellerHQ marketplace in 2014, more than 10,000 traders have registered on the site. Konga, whose revenue grew 450% from 2013 to 2014, also launched its private logistics company KExpress last year, after its third-party courier partners were unable to cope with the thousands of daily orders the site generated. In its own version of Black Friday, dubbed “Yakata,” sales passed $3.5 million, up 1,440% from its inaugural year of 2013. Konga plans to begin expanding into other sub-Saharan African countries in 2015, and raised more than $40 million in its latest financing round in October.
For changing the economics of Nollywood. As one of the first African video-on-demand companies to stream Nigerian Nollywood movies legally, iROKOtv has shown investors the potential of an industry that accounts for around 1.4% of GDP in Africa’s biggest economy. The company, which has raised $25 million in venture capital investment, purchases the licenses to Nollywood movies and generates revenue through advertising and subscriptions. With more than 10,000 hours of Nollywood content, it claims to be “the world’s largest online catalogue of African broadcast entertainment.” But iROKOtv isn’t just popular with Africans: Only 11% of its subscribers are in Africa, and it has subscribers in 172 countries. Last year, iROKOtv began widening its appeal further by introducing Hollywood and Bollywood movies, telenovelas, and Korean soaps onto its platform—moves that, in fact, are geared toward increasing its subscription base in Africa, where people love international entertainment. And a streaming service is far more affordable there: Pay-TV subscriptions can cost up to $40 a month, but an iROKOtv subscription in Nigeria costs about $3.50 a month. The bet seemed to have paid off, with the company recording a 457% growth in subscriptions in Africa in 2014.
For inspiring a generation of digital learners. On Ubongo Kids, an educational cartoon broadcast daily on Tanzanian national TV, young viewers are encouraged to “tumia ubongo” (use your brain) through problem-solving activities, such as finding a new home for thousands of rats or beating a monkey at jump rope. Edutainment startup Ubongo launched the show in January 2014 and grew its reach to 1.4 million weekly viewers in Tanzania in just a year. The half-hour show, which is broadcast in the Kiswahili language and available in 1 million more households in east Africa, teaches primary school math and science topics. Children can use basic mobile phones to answer multiple-choice questions via SMS and receive feedback from their favorite cartoon characters, including Uncle T, a rapping giraffe, and Mama Ndege, a feathered math whiz. “The demand is huge. We can’t keep up,” says cofounder and CEO Nisha Ligon. “The big complaint we get from viewers is that the show isn’t long enough.” An independent study commissioned by Ubongo last year also showed that students who watched the show once a month for six months had significantly better numeracy scores than classmates who watched an alternative noneducational cartoon. Ubongo plans to expand to 11 countries across Africa by the end of the year, release an English version of Ubongo Kids and add new platforms such as radio and eBooks. It aims to reach 50 million kids on the continent over the next five years.
5. LETI ARTS
For redefining entertainment in Africa. As one of the few interactive media studios in sub-Saharan Africa, Ghana’s Leti Arts is delivering entertainment content in largely unexplored genres. The startup, which received seed funding from the Meltwater Entrepreneurial School of Technology (see No. 6 on this list), develops mobile games and digital comics influenced by African history and folklore. In its flagship Africa’s Legends series, historical legends such as Ananse from Ghana, Wuzu the Masai, and Shaka from South Africa team up with fictional superheroes to battle crime, corruption, and dictatorship in Africa. The company hopes a new generation of African kids will obsess over its superheroes rather than Western ones, and plans to develop Africa’s Legends into a broader franchise encompassing merchandise, animation, feature films, and theme parks. Leti Arts has also created games and apps for clients such as Microsoft, Intel, and Vodafone. It developed a civic-education game during Kenya’s 2012 elections and a training game for nurses and midwives simulating real-life health emergencies. It’s currently in the early stages of developing additional games with NGO partners in health and education.
6. MELTWATER ENTREPRENEURIAL SCHOOL OF TECHNOLOGY
For training and investing in entrepreneurs. Described by tech blogger and Ushahidi cofounder Erik Hersman as a “finishing school for tech startups,” MEST trains future entrepreneurs from Ghana and Nigeria by putting them through a two-year program that blends an MBA-style education with training in software development. Founded by Norwegian software entrepreneur Jørn Lyseggen, the school also invests in the best business ideas and teams that emerge from the training program, providing developers with $50,000 to $250,000 in seed funding for their businesses. MEST selects around 40 top university graduates each year, representing less than 2% of the applications it receives. Since its inception in 2008, more than 200 entrepreneurs have graduated from its program, and it has invested more than $15 million in African startups. Two of its Ghanaian companies—Saya Mobile, which provides a WhatsApp-style messaging service for feature phones, and ClaimSync, which digitizes medical records—were acquired by foreign technology firms last year. In the future, MEST plans to develop a hub of incubators across the continent.
For making solar energy affordable for the poor. Since launching its pay-as-you-go solar-energy service in Kenya in 2012, M-KOPA has grown to serve 150,000 households in east Africa, adding 100,000 in the last year alone. M-KOPA aims to provide households living without electricity a cheaper, safer alternative to kerosene. While a typical off-grid household in Kenya spends $200 per year on kerosene, M-KOPA offers solar home systems for an initial deposit of $35, followed by 365 daily payments of 43 cents, which can be made through the M-PESA mobile payment service. “You can make solar affordable by making it a daily payment,” says M-KOPA’s cofounder and managing director, Jesse Moore. “Affordability to a low-income person is about very small amounts on a daily or weekly basis because cash flows are very tight. It doesn’t work to offer somebody a monthly plan.” M-KOPA is providing power to 500 new homes each day and aims to reach over 1 million homes in Kenya by 2018. It estimates that the global market for off-grid energy spending is around $50 billion per annum, with east Africa accounting for 7% to 10% of that.
8. ONE ACRE FUND
For improving the livelihoods of African farmers. Africa’s smallholder farmers are among the poorest people on the planet. Yet One Acre Fund is betting that the asset-based loans and training it provides its clients can help lift 1 million African farmers out of poverty by 2020. Instead of lending cash, One Acre Fund offers seed and fertilizer on credit to farmers living in remote areas. It trains them in agricultural techniques and helps them sell their harvests. It also offers flexible repayment, allowing clients to repay at any time in any amount throughout the year. At the end of 2014, One Acre Fund hit its target of serving 200,000 farmers across Kenya, Rwanda, Burundi, and Tanzania, and it expects to reach 300,000 by the end of this year. It has also seen high repayment rates, with 100% of farmers in Kenya and Burundi repaying their loans in full and on time last year. On average, farmers working with One Acre Fund realize more than a 150% return on their investment and double farm income from every planted acre.
9. PRAEKELT FOUNDATION
For empowering cell phone users at the base of the pyramid. The South Africa-based Praekelt Foundation uses open-source technologies to provide millions of cell phone users in countries such as Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya, Tanzania, and Zambia with free information on education, finance, and health. Despite growing mobile penetration in Africa—researchers predict a 20% increase in mobile phones in the next five years—many countries still have poor outcomes for maternal health, education, governance, and transparency, says Gustav Praekelt, who started the foundation in 2007. The social enterprise, which is backed by the Omidyar Network, partners with governments, NGOs, and UN agencies, enabling them to provide potentially lifesaving information. One of its tools, TxtAlert, sends reminders to patients on chronic medication and allows them to reschedule appointments when they have no credit using “please-call-me” messages. Last year, the foundation also partnered with the South African Department of Health to create MomConnect, which enables pregnant women to receive free maternal-health messages throughout their pregnancy, the first such program of its kind in the developing world.
For increasing access to job opportunities. Africa will have the world’s largest workforce by 2040, but high youth unemployment is currently the reality in many countries on the continent. Nigeria’s Jobberman, the largest employment website in sub-Saharan Africa outside South Africa, has 1.5 million registered users and aims to increase job seekers’ chances of getting hired by providing an alternative to recruitment agencies and old-fashioned word of mouth. More than 70% of its registered users are between the ages of 20 and 45. “Jobberman is addressing the massive unemployment issue in sub-Saharan Africa by leveraging the Internet to give job seekers free access to employment opportunities in a region that has historically had limitations on the flow of both information and people,” says cofounder and CEO Ayodeji Adewunmi. Backed by Tiger Global, the U.S. investment firm, and Seek, the Australian jobs site, Jobberman features jobs in Nigeria and Ghana, a market it entered more than two years ago. It also has a presence in east Africa through its sister company BrighterMonday. Last year, its revenue grew by 125% and it placed more than 70,000 people in jobs.
A version of this article appeared in the March 2015 issue of Fast Company magazine.