East Africa’s Top 10 Startups to Watch

· @anneodengo ·

The world is looking at Africa. With its burgeoning middle class, innovative spirit, and young population, it’s no wonder journalists have dubbed it the “pioneering continent“.

Tech pundits praise the continent’s widespread adoption of technologies like mobile money. World-renowned incubators and accelerators, like the Unreasonable Institute and Impact Hub, are opening new offices in Africa. Even fickle investors are pouring funds into the most promising ideas and businesses.

East Africa’s tech hubs are among the continent’s finest and have put Africa on the startup map. Within those, a handful of game-changing companies are coming to fruition. These are the region’s most promising startups — the scrappy budding businesses poised to hit it big. They’ve got brilliant ideas, excellent execution, and big-time innovations.

Here are East Africa’s 10 most promising startups.

AGRICULTURE

M-Farm (Kenya)

Founded in 2010, M-Farm gives Kenyan farmers what they have been looking for: fair market prices and a direct link to the market for their produce via SMS.

Simply put, M-Farm provides smallholder farmers the opportunity to earn more money by cutting out the numerous middlemen, who normally profit at the farmers’ expense.

M-Farm has partnered with local communities to offer their service. The startup boasts some 10,000 farmers in its network and a steadily increasing number of buyers. One co-founder Amina Abass, is a fellow of the Unreasonable Institute.

Sound familiar? We’ve also featured M-Farm among the top grassroots innovations in the region.

EDUCATION

Eneza Education (Kenya)

The word “eneza” is Swahili means to “spread”, and that’s exactly what this startup is doing with education. Eneza Education was founded in 2011 to provide children in marginalized areas in Kenya tutorial support for school.

Some 400,000 students across Kenya now have access to educational interactive quizzes, mini lessons, and live chats with government-approved teachers via SMS. This information is accessible through an SMS short code (a shortened phone number) on simple feature phones from as little as Ksh10 per week, depending on the payment module a parent can afford.

Eneza plans to expand to Ghana, Rwanda, and Tanzania this year.

Eneza Education has been listed as one of “The World’s Top 10 Most Innovative Companies of 2015 in Africa” by Fast Company, and co-founder Kago Kagichiri is among Forbes’ “30 Under 30 Social Entrepreneurs” of 2015.

ENERGY

Karibu Solar Power (Tanzania)

This 2013 Demo Africa finalist and United Nations SEED winner, is bringing affordable and sustainable energy solutions to marginalized Tanzanians.

Karibu Solar offers consumers the opportunity to own solar lanterns at the cost of kerosene. Karibu uses a rent-to-own payment system, so customers can purchase the lantern in manageable installments.

Karibu Solar is working to expand to Cameroon and Nigeria, with the aim to bring solar lighting and affordable mobile phone charging to 1 million people within the next five years. The startup is a 2014 Cornerstone International Business + Social Good winner and has received US$25,000 from an angel investor.

FASHION

Soko (Kenya)

Soko may be Swahili for “market” but it’s quickly becoming synonymous with a rising fashion accessory brand. This e-commerce enterprise links East African jewelry and accessories artisans and designers directly to the marketplace.

As a fair-trade enterprise, Soko is committed to sustainable business practices, and the hand-crafted jewelry is made mostly from organic material and reclaimed metals, with the artisans benefiting directly from the purchase of their wares online.

Co-founder Catherine Mahugu was among Forbes Africa’s “Most Promising Young Entrepreneurs” in 2015. In 2013, Soko won Young Entrepreneur’s Startup of the Month and received US$800,000 from Rio Technology Partners to expand across Africa and Latin America.

FINANCE

Inforex (Uganda)

Forex trading is complicated stuff. But it gets even more complicated without timely information on the currency market. This is where Inforex comes in.

The 2013 Pivot East finalist provides a mobile-integrated platform for forex bureaus in Africa to communicate. In a nutshell, Inforex allows forex bureaus in a country to view each other’s exchange rates in real time and trade currencies. This startup provides a much-needed link between forex bureaus, financial institutions, and governments.

A Savannah Fund beneficiary, Inforex now works with over 65 forex bureaus. The startup is eyeing expansion into Kenya and Tanzania.

TECHNOLOGY

Card Planet Kenya (Kenya)

Card Planet is the first Kenyan start up to be accepted in 500 Startups, a top American accelerator. The spot earned them US$100,000 in capital, expert mentorship, and a chance to woo some of tech’s top investors.

Founded in 2011, Card Planet uses smartcard technology — where cards are integrated with an information-capturing microchip that communicates with the Internet. These cards can be used by institutions ranging from universities to big companies to identify members and run rewards programs.

Some analysts say the technology also has the capability to transform how African governments store data on their citizens, and how retailers engage with their clientele. It’s such a big deal, that the founders have given lectures at Stanford University in the U.S. on mobile banking and entrepreneurship.

TorQue (Rwanda)

TorQue is an award-winning Rwandese startup offering customized software solutions to small and medium enterprises to help them grow.

Their flagship product, Workspace, provides wholesalers in Rwanda with an efficient cloud-based inventory system. TorQue won Rwanda’s best startup in the 2014 Seedstars World Competition.

The budding company has seen exponential uptake of its software since it launched in 2014. Some 40 distributors and 17 warehouses have signed on, including Heineken’s primary Rwandan distributor and Prime Insurance.  The startup plans to expand to 200 warehouses after just one year of operation. In 2014, they pulled in $30,000 in profit and plan to push that to US$500,000 in 2017.

HeHe (Rwanda)

Hehe Ltd is a mobile tech startup founded in 2010. The name means “where” in Kinyarwanda — it’s a fitting moniker for a startup that’s going places.

HeHe pioneered the two-way SMS feedback solution in East Africa. Their work caught the attention of Rwanda’s leading mobile network, which partnered with the platform to engage their subscribers.

HeHe has since pivoted and now produces mobile applications and offers training on coding to youth interested in producing their own mobile applications. Their goal? To help transform the country into an information society. They’ve also partnered with the Girl Hub program, which aims to “unleash girls’ potential” worldwide. Girls from all over Rwanda sent 10,000 text messages with their feedback on the program through the HeHe platform.

In 2012, HeHe’s co-founder, Clarisse Iribagiza, won the first season of East African reality show Inspire Africa and US$50,000. She’s appeared on Forbes’ 2015 “30 Under 30” list of Africa’s top entrepreneurs. Hehe is also a 2013 winner of the Transform Africa prize of US$7,500.

TRANSPORTATION

Tugende (Uganda)

Tugende offers Ugandan motorcycle taxi drivers (also known as boda boda operators) the opportunity to own their own bikes, as opposed to renting them from unreliable owners. Using their own bikes, drivers get to pocket more of their profits too.

To help drivers buy their bikes, Tugende provides low-interest loans, which are paid back on a weekly basis over an 18-month period.

The startup began with just three motorcycles in 2010. Now, more than 1,200 boda boda drivers are active in the program and paying off their bikes, while another 370 have already paid for the vehicles.

Unreasonable Institute fellow and Tugende co-founder Michael Wilkerson is no doubt smiling bright after securing US$780,000 from investors in 2015. The business has more than US$1 million in capital after receiving an earlier round of US$300,000 in 2013.

Safari Yetu (Tanzania)

Safari Yetu, Swahili for “our journey”, has the potential to make travel across East Africa much, much easier. They provide a mobile and online solution to booking and purchasing bus tickets, saving travelers time and money.

Customers simply punch in their destination of choice, select their ticket, and receive a confirmation message all via phone or computer. The process means travelers only have to go to the bus station once — on their day of travel.

Safari Yetu claimed top prize at The Next Web Startup World Competition and also walked away with first place in 2013 at the Global Innovation through Science and Technology  (GIST) Boot Camp competition in East Africa.

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