Innovative Start-ups Make Africa an Ideal Investment Destination

August 6, 2021




Economic and social disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic have created opportunities for stronger partnerships with local start-ups across Africa, over 230 participants at the Plenary Session 4 of the 3rd Japan-Africa Business Forum were told.



Organised by the Japan External Trade Organization (JETRO), Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) under the theme, “Africa Innovates: Embracing the Power of Start-ups”, the session aimed to showcase local business innovations representing the five sub-regions of the continent which could promote Africa as an attractive investment destination. 





According to Ms. Ahunna Eziakonwa, the Regional Director of the Regional Bureau for Africa at UNDP, despite the pandemic's impact on small and medium-sized enterprises and the informal sector, entrepreneurs including youth and women have demonstrated resilience, passion, and ingenuity by providing innovative solutions to the continent’s ongoing challenges. “At UNDP, we take home-grown innovations seriously and see them as fertile ground for youth-led large-scale development,” she emphasized.



Among the range of business models presented at the session was the manufacturing of a portable ultrasonic device for maternal check-ups. The start-up addressed one of the greatest challenges, maternal mortality in Africa: the World Health Organisation estimates that more than 800 women die daily from preventable causes related to pregnancy and childbirth, with more than half of the deaths occurring in sub-Saharan Africa. 



“Our cost-effective and easy-to-use portable ultrasonic devices make home-based maternal check-ups possible, unlike the bulkier and power-intensive traditional ultrasound machines at health sites, which were also hard to reach for pregnant women in remote areas,” said Mr. Menyo Innocent, CEO and founder of the Mobile Scan Solution in Uganda. 





Ms. Betelhem Dessie Asnake, CEO of iCog Anyone Can Code, said start-ups would create jobs and contribute to the economic growth, while impacting on the realization of the Sustainable Development Goals. “Most of these start-ups were born out of necessity and not usually out of convenience. They were trying to solve basic problems that exist within African societies by bringing a new thinking to it.”



Based in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, iCog Labs is a team of software professionals dedicated to advancing the frontier of artificial intelligence research and applications to deliver quality products to customers across the globe.



Much like how M-Scan has simplified traditional ultrasound technology to make it more accessible to women in remote areas, Ms. Asnake said the role of start-ups was crucial in reinventing technologies that were used around the world to suit the urgent needs and local contexts of African populations.



BioMec, a Mozambique-based company that manufactures low-cost mechanical prostheses from plastic waste, demonstrated its ability to reuse 20% of plastic waste from some of the most polluted beaches in Mozambique to ensure some 4,000 amputees can access prosthetics limbs and a more productive life by 2022.



“An estimated 4,600 sea turtles die annually due to plastic ingestion in Mozambique. While 90% of amputees do not have access to prosthetic limbs,” explained Ms. Marta Vânia Uetela, CEO of the BioMec.



Other innovations included the development of cheaper storage solutions for agricultural products. Ms. Ndèye Marie Aida Ndieguene, CEO of Senegal-based EcoBuilders, said loss of good crop yields due to poor or no storage remains a concern for much of the continent. 



“For example, in Senegal, 70% of our active population are farmers but each year we lose a third of an otherwise lucrative harvest due to poor storage. Our solution uses waste and natural materials and can safely store crops for up to six months without electricity needed for cold storage,” she said.



The EcoBuilders uses recycled tyres, bottles, plastic bags and natural materials to create storage facilities that can store onions and peanuts for up to months, and potatoes for a three-month period without using energy.



Mr. Jeffe Fouejio Koumbou, a business consultant at Forbes Afrique, highlighted that start-ups were increasingly becoming the new business model for Africa’s economic development as the older business systems are struggling to meet the continent’s new reality.



“The commercial relationship between Africa and international investors is changing and start-ups are part of the reason for that change. For instance, in about 10 years they [start-ups] will contribute at least 50% towards Africa’s economy,” he estimated.



Two other start-ups also presented utilize digital technologies to address the SDGs challenges: a platform that collects data and calculates water needs for irrigation purposes in Tunisia, as well as a digital e-learning tool that offers online quality content in Cameroon.



Addressing the impact of climate change on water security and the lack of proper irrigation systems among small- and medium-sized farmers, Ms.  Amira Cheniour, CEO of SeaBex, a Tunisian platform that provides tailor-made irrigation recommendations through artificial intelligence, said uninformed irrigation decision-making continues to cause massive losses in agriculture.



“Lack of access to expertise and up-to-date data necessary for irrigation decision-making causes 10% to 50% inefficiency, leads to instability of yields, overuse of available resources, and loss of profit for small-and-medium farmers,” said Ms. Cheniour.



The innovation behind Seabex is modelled to integrate other tools and platforms, making it the central point of truth that mines data from multiple sources (climate, satellite, soil, crops and user data) for better irrigation recommendations, thereby calculating scenarios for better productivity and resource management for farmers.



With the need for innovative e-learning and home-based education increasing amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Mr. David Kenfack, CEO of Dastudy, a digital learning platform that offers online playback and downloadable quality content that is category-specific, highlighted the e-tool helps to address the growing need.



“To solve the problem of access to quality knowledge in order to enable professionals and students to develop their skills, we have designed the web platform (, which offers  more than 15000 free books, tutorials and quality software in more than 500 areas of African society,” said Mr. Kenfack.



Acknowledging the range of ingenuity presented at the session, JICA expert Naonobu Fuwa who moderated the 90-minute discussion said it would be an ideal time to examine the positive economic and social impact that start-ups would have on the continent and accelerate partnership with the Japanese private sector. Through interactions with the five start-ups presented, he supported the audience to understand the comparative advantage of the business models and entry points for partnerships. 



“As we prepare for the 8th Tokyo International Conference on Africa’s Development (TICAD8) in Tunisia in 2022, it is time to advocate for the promotion of innovation in order to mobilise and engage wide-ranging stakeholders to create momentum toward facilitating business partnerships between Africa and Japan.”



UNDP’s Director of the Regional Bureau for Africa, Ms. Ahunna Eziakonwa, stressed that reliable and capable partners are a critical missing link. “Africa is ready. Our challenge is to accompany the continent to seize this window of opportunity,” she stressed.