Africa is well poised to become the world’s next economic powerhouse, despite the struggles of some countries’ economies on the continent. About one third of the more than 50 countries in Africa countries has an annual GDP rise of more than 6 percent, making the continent the second highest in economic growth after Asia.
It’s also worth noting that Africa is the second biggest mobile market in the world (after Asia), with a growing affinity for smartphones. Not surprising then that much of Africa’s economic growth stems from investment in technology, with startups springing up in virtually every major city. “Africa is more and more perceived as the new frontier for investors and global economic growth. This new shift is fuelled by a steadily growing economy, uptake of technology and untapped markets with ready consumers,” notes Estelle Verdier-Watine, Managing Director for Jovago.com, the leading hotel booking website in Africa.
The tech trend in Africa has seen a rapid emergence of tech hubs, where young Africans with entrepreneurial minds can bring their business ideas and in turn access free workspace and Wi-Fi, along with mentorship by university professors and business leaders.
In no particular order, here are the Top Tech-Savvy Cities in Africa that are on the frontline of tech innovation on the continent.
Johannesburg, South Africa
With South Africa having one of the largest and most developed telecommunications industries in Africa, it comes as no surprise that the country boasts the highest number of tech hubs on the continent – more than 20. Within the context of this tech-savvy country, Johannesburg continues to be the engine room of South Africa, with tech hubs such as JoziHub leading the pack.
Johannesburg is slowly transforming into a free Wi-Fi city, with the municipality planning to roll out 1,000 hotspots by the end of 2015. The latest development in Joburg’s Smart City scheme is the recent launch of the Braamfontein Wireless Mesh project, which allows anyone within the Braamfontein suburb to receive 300MB of data a day per device. Over half of all libraries and clinics across the city’s seven regions already enjoy free Wi-Fi.
Mobile phone usage in South Africa has increased dramatically over the years, with the number of active mobile phones (over 66 million) now surpassing the number of people living in the country (51.8 million). Internet browsing through phones in South Africa now is now teetering at 40 percent. About 34 percent of phone users make downloads from app stores – an indication of higher smartphone adoption.
For a second year in a row, the Intelligent Community Forum recently named the Kenyan capital Africa’s “most intelligent” city, the only African city to feature on their shortlist of 21 cities throughout the world for 2015. Indeed, Kenya’s economy has recorded enviable growth over the years, thanks to their investment in technology.
The tremendous success of M-Pesa – a transformative mobile app for money transfer and financial services – is the vanguard of a success story, and has helped position Nairobi as the tech hub of the continent. M-Pesa’s success has changed economic interaction in Kenya, and led to the creation of a myriad of small businesses. In 2013, 43 percent of Kenya’s GDP flowed through M-Pesa.
Dubbed as the Silicon Valley of Africa, Nairobi is the embodiment of the wonders of technology. The city is bursting with start-ups and tech hubs like iHub, which has spawned 150 startups and created more than 1,300 jobs. From 2002 to 2010, the value of Kenya’s tech exports skyrocketed from $16 million to $360 million. In 2014, the tech sector accounted for about 8.4 percent of Kenya’s GDP.
With many cities in the continent striving to become as tech-savvy as possible, Wi-Fi availability has become a defining factor towards achieving that goal. In Nairobi one can enjoy free Wi-Fi onboard taxis, thanks to an initiative by the government in partnership with Safaricom, Kenya’s largest network provider.
When you think of Rwanda, the first thing that probably comes to mind is the 1994 genocide that will always be a stain in the East African nation’s history. Today, however, Rwanda has advanced significantly from a past plagued with ethnic divisions, corruption, and underdevelopment, and is crafting an economic narrative characterised by a tech revolution that’s transforming it into a middle-income country.
In 2000, Rwanda launched Vision 2020, a program that seeks to transform the country from an agrarian to a knowledge-based economy. The bold campaign is aggressively bringing change, and this is mostly apparent in the capital Kigali, which is home to several tech hubs, including K-Lab, Think, The Office, and Impact Hub Kigali.
These hubs are responsible for nurturing several successful companies, including TorQue, an award-winning startup offering customised software solutions to small and medium enterprises; and Hehe Ltd, which produces mobile applications and offers training on coding to youth.
To keep up with the demands of its growing middle class population, the Smart Kigali initiative was launched in 2013, making the capital the first city in East Africa to launch free Wi-Fi zones for its citizens.
Such initiatives help place the region front of Africa’s digital revolution. As Estelle Verdier-Watine points out, “East Africa is amongst the fastest growing regions in the world with a per annum GDP growth of over 5 percent. This growth contributes to the emergence of a large middle class. According to Standard Bank, the sub Saharan middle class will double in the next 15 years.”
Accra is in a bid to become a regional ICT hub and grow the West African country’s economy. Local technology manufacturer RLG has started construction of a $10 billion technology centre, one of Africa’s biggest projects. Named HOPE City, the project is slated to be completed in 2016 and expected to provide employment to about 50,000 people.
Its facilities will include an IT university, assembly plant for various tech products, business offices, a hospital, and housing and recreation spaces. HOPE City will consist of six towers, including a 75-story, 270 meter-high building – making it the highest building in the continent.
Ghana’s ICT sector is dominated by such Accra-based startups as Nandi Mobile, a mobile technology company, and Mobile Technology for Community Health in Ghana (MoTeCH). In 2013, the two companies won the World Summit Award, a global initiative that aims to promote the world’s best in digital content and innovative applications.
Ghana is among countries with the highest number of internet users in the continent, with more than 5 million users. The bulk of Internet users in the West African nation access the internet through cell phones, with the cost of data bundles ranging from 5 GH₵ ($1.30) for 200MB to 20 GH₵ ($5.20) for 1.5 of data.
Technology is gradually changing Uganda’s economic landscape. Over the past few years, Uganda’s technology sector has witnessed rapid growth, especially in the areas of mobile devices, and mobile and computer applications. Uganda’s ICT sector reportedly grew by 30.3 percent in 2011 and accounted for 3.3 percent of the country’s GDP. The growth changes clearly indicate that ICT is an important driver of economic growth.
Kampala, home to more than six tech hubs and incubators, is the centre of innovation in Uganda. One of the noted incubators includes Mara Launchpad, an offshoot project of Mara Foundation, founded by Uganda’s millionaire entrepreneur Ashish Thakkar.
Award-winning apps have been produced in Kampala. In 2012, three students of Makerere University designed WinSenga, an app that performs ultrasounds on pregnant women and can pick up the foetal heart rate. The app saw them win the Imagine Cup, the world’s premier student technology competition hosted by Microsoft.
Everyone (well, almost) has a cellphone in Uganda, which explains why the country has almost 10 million people who use the Internet.
More than ten years ago, after studying Africa’s largest city, Dutch architect and author Rem Koolhaas declared, “Lagos is not catching up with us; rather, we may be catching up with Lagos.” He was right.
Experts predict that Lagos’ population – which is estimated to be at 17.9 million – will double by 2050, adding an unimaginable strain to the country’s resources. The city knows that it won’t manage its growth without IT; and thus has already started preparing by establishing itself as a centre for smart technology.
In Lagos there’s a famous suburb called Yaba, which has been nicknamed “Yabacon Valley” as a reference to Silicon Valley. Yabacon Valley is the leading technology cluster and startup ecosystem in Nigeria, what with the likes of Hotels.ng, Paga, Konga, and OLX all calling it home. Six of Rocket Internet’s startups – including Hellofood and Easy Taxi – are also based in Yaba. Yaba is home not only to a cluster of startups but also an array of banking and educational institutions. “They’re all clustering in Yaba. The momentum is there,” CEO of Konga, Sim Shagaya, told Reuters.
Nigeria is a magnet for investors looking to tap into its rich market of more than 90 million internet users. Lagos was selected as a test bed for IBM’s Smarter Cities Challenge, which finds the IT giant working alongside city authorities to find ways of improving urban functions.
With a population of 90 million, 50 percent of whom are below the age of 30 and tech savvy, Egypt is emerging as one of the most digitally smart countries in the world.
The capital, Cairo, embodies everything about Egypt’s tech sector, which is characterised by more than 40 percent internet penetration, 103 million mobile phone users, and a massive e-commerce industry projected to hit the $46.4 million mark by 2016. Determined tech entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, and new-media moguls populate Cairo.
While the entrepreneurship ecosystem in Cairo is not yet fully developed, the level of innovation and growth is impressive. With start-ups like Instabug – a bug reporting app – which have penetrated the global and regional tech scene, it’s easy to see why the North African country is worth watching.
Instabug recently hit more than 25 million users in more than 100 countries worldwide. The startup has also won several awards and fundraised $300,000 in 2013.
There’s also Cloudpress and Simplex. The former is a cloud-based marketing platform that allows brands to create and easily share visual content with consumers, and the latter develops customisable computer numerical-control system for cutting and engraving industrial material.
All these three companies spun off from Flat6Labs, an investment venture that trains startup teams and provides them with seed funding.
Since it became the first country in North Africa to adopt 3G network, in 2006, Morocco has never looked back. Its hi-tech industry has grown so much that it’s expected to inject over $500 million (MAD4. 9 billion) into the country’s GDP in 2015.
With projects like Casablanca Technopark, it isn’t surprising that the capital Casablanca is morphing into a financial epicentre of Africa. Launched in 2001, Casablanca Technopark is a business cluster dedicated to enhance the development of IT in Morocco, with main focus on software engineering, e-learning, and ICT ventures. The cluster is home to over 170 ICT companies and has created more than 1,500 jobs.
Recent years have seen Morocco launch free Wi-Fi hotspots in every major city for its more than 20 million internet users. Hospitals, universities, mosques, railway stations, and other public zones in Casablanca serve as free-Wi-Fi zones.
Dakar’s tech scene is growing by leaps and bounds, thanks to incubators like CTIC Dakar. The company, one of the leading technology business incubators in sub-Saharan Africa, has nurtured more than 60 startups, generating around $5 million (CFA2.9 billion) in revenue.
Like many other tech-savvy cities in the continent, Dakar has started rolling out free internet to its citizens. Under the Dakar Digital City initiative, the government partnered with one of the country’s leading mobile operators Tigo, to establish free Wi-Fi zones in public arenas all around the capital.
Today, 83 percent of the Senegalese population has a mobile phone, 40 percent of which are smartphones. As more of the population gets online, the government is stepping up to meet the demand. Work has already begun on Senegal’s mighty digital city located about 40km away from Dakar. The $120 million (CFA70.9 billion) Diamniadio Technology Park will feature a broadband zone, data and ICT centre, higher education centres, among others.
Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire
The IT scene in Côte d’Ivoire has, in recent years, snapped into action, thanks to several Abidjan tech hubs and start-ups. The country is churning out startups that solve specific problems faced by Ivorians. Case in point: Qelasy, Africa’s first educational tablet. After noticing schoolchildren lugging heavy backpacks crammed with schoolbooks, 37-year-old Ivorian entrepreneur Thierry N’Doufou thought of a brilliant idea to close the digital gap in the local schooling system. The solution was to transfer the country’s entire education curriculum onto a digital format, along with sounds, animations and interactivity, and that’s how Qelasy was born. The government has already introduced the tablet to some public schools, while some private schools in both Côte d’Ivoire and Morocco are running pilot projects.
More and more people are starting to use the internet in Côte d’Ivoire with recent figures pegging the number at 5 million. The country’s mobile market grew from 18.1 million to 19.3 million SIM cards between 2012 and 2013 and then shot to over 22 million in 2014.