From mobile payments and asset management to money transfers and real estate, Ghana’s tech scene is building industry-leading businesses in West Africa and beyond
Until relatively recently, the tech scene in Africa was very much a Kenyan concern, with the bulk of the conversation around hardware, software or innovative fabrication centering on Nairobi aka Silicon Savannah. This is thanks in large part to Safaricom, the telecommunications giant that launched the now-ubiquitous mobile money service M-Pesa, as well as the Ushahidi digital demographic mapping app and Brck, a nifty solar powered 4G internet device. Of course the continent’s other regions have their own growing tech hubs with individual stories to boast about – from South Africa's WhereIsMyTransport to the work of the Co-Creation Hub in Nigeria. And now Ghana, with dedicated tech environments such as the iSpace Foundation in Accra and a new, faster paced and more dynamic business attitude in the capital in general, is developing its own scene with more tech collectives taking their global credentials seriously.
One such is Sika, a US and Ghana-based personal finance service that aims to innovate the banking world in Ghana. Falling under the umbrella term of FinTech, the idea for this software development came from co-founders Ama Marfo, Paul Miller and Klenem Fiadzoe. When faced with stark problems with a simple transfer of funds from the US to Ghana - the options were high banking fees or moving the money through the account of one of the Ghana-bound co-founders - the gap in the financial market was clear to them. “We’re giving users a new way to be a part of the global economy,” says Miller of their mission. “Personal finance and mobile payments don’t have to be clunky or hard to use.”
Having an internet enabled mobile phone or an email address and a bank account or debit card are the only criteria for using the Sika app – even when sending money to those without the app profile. Secure local and global transfers in Ghanaian Cedis, US dollars, UK pounds or Euros are the current currencies with more set to come. Transfers cost as little as $3 to send money abroad, which is bargain territory compared to traditional options.
The company fits into the growing tech scene in Ghana. Other exciting start-ups include StoreFoundry - the e-commerce storefront for digital merchants and business owners, meQasa for buying, renting or listing properties online, Swappaholics - an interactive portal for exchanging products, skills and services, and Carmudi, which is a platform for buying new or used cars. These game-changing operations are refiguring the landscape for legions of Ghanaians and Ghanaian diasporans. In essence, a business model that features entrepreneurs pooling their international resources to create ‘mother-country’ solutions is a positive move, but there are also foundational strategies for creating a robust African start-up culture.
The Meltwater Entrepreneurial School of Technology (MEST) was established in 2008 with the aim of training young graduates in software development, business and entrepreneurship. Students undergo a one-year programme as Entrepreneurs-In-Training (EIT) all within a collaborative environment that’s geared towards learning and sharing. Katie Sarro, managing director at MEST, says the process involves a community of trainees, founders, fellows, faculty and workers from around the world. “We ensure the trainees access as good an education as they could have gotten from any other top institution. With these resources, we prepare them for the next task ahead – to start their own global software companies right here from Africa.”
"We prepare students for the next task ahead – to start their own global software companies right here from Africa"
The programme involves student teams – which are Pan African and drawn from Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa as well as Ghana – who develop products, write business plans and craft their investment pitches. “The strongest and most promising concepts receive between $50k and $250k in equity investment to support the launch of these new businesses,” says Sarro, adding that once the investment is received, the teams then start their journey at the MEST Incubator where the support continues right up to the launch of their enterprise. “To date, the MEST incubator has invested in over 25 companies and backed more than 75 co-founders. The products churned out by these start-ups and their milestones are varied. Some are focused on reaching out to merchants in the US while others take pride in the revenues they rake in per month.”
Every year, there are a healthy number of MEST companies being acknowledged globally for their accomplishments. “Very recently meQasa raised follow-up funding from Frontier Capital to become the Zillow of Africa. And Kudobuzz (a social review tool) turned up very impressive cash flow figures,” says Sarro. Other success stories include mobile messaging service Saya, which was acquired by New Jersey-based developers Kirusa, and ClaimSync, which provides electronic claims for health insurance, was acquired by big player Glenkey.
The target consumers for any successful start-up are millennials, an often over-referenced group that sits within the middle class. Aspirational and more open-minded about the job market than previous generations, these mid-20 to late 30-somethings are tech-savvy and live in a competitive world, so any dips in usability or financial offerings from the likes of Sika could easily lead to a swift loss of clients who may be able to develop their own tech solutions.
But Sika’s team know what they’re doing, having been culled from organisations that include Discover, PayPal, Rakuten, ThoughtWorks, Chime, Yammer, Chase and Wells Fargo. Plus, conversations with a few Ghana-based banks have been forged to help both traditional institutions as well as users to understand the mobile space and push Ghana towards a cash light economy. Miller: “What we’re building is unique. There’s no payment service in Ghana that allows you to transfer money instantly. The quickest out there is 24 hours. With Sika, all transfers within Ghana or across borders appear in your bank account instantly.”
The start-up scene in this corner of West Africa is now teeming like-minded and revolutionary businesses with updates and movements happening on an impressively regular basis. Watch their space, or risk missing out.