A Unicef report recently proclaimed that “The future of humanity is increasingly African.” The report estimates the African population will more than double to 2.4 billion people by 2050.
The clogged roundabouts of Accra, ruined roads of Congo and dangerous highways of Uganda are the day to day reality for most Africans. The dream of being the next space age Singapore or quirky Portland seem unattainable as a flood of urbanization into cities built for a fraction of their populations makes transportation in Africa worse and worse.
While traffic congestion is decreasing the quality of life in more and more African cities, with a forty mile trip from the Benin border to Lagos taking twelve hours, the danger of inadequate traffic infrastructure is even more insidious. Today, due to poor safety regulation and lax driving standards 612 people die every day across the continent from road deaths. Road deaths are set to surpass tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS to become the greatest killer across the continent by 2030.
Africa’s streets need to become less clogged and more safe. New and innovative thinking of city design, modes of transportation and behavior of motorists need to be brought to life so that Africa with its exploding population avoids the pitfalls that sees India suffocating beneath 53 cities that have more than one million people and Chinese cities covered in a fog of pollution.
What is exciting is that instead of being a lesson in idealism, things can progress differently in Africa. The Director of Carnegie Mellon University in Rwanda, Professor Bruce Krogh, speaks of the benefit “Of present African infrastructure being largely a blank slate. We are building on a green field and don’t have to deal with the legacy systems of the past, instead we can use the best technological opportunities of today.” Rural villages are getting access to the internet faster than they are getting access to electricity, smart phones are more pervasive than televisions and online freelancing services give entrepreneurs the ability to work from anywhere.
My company, SafeMotos, benefits from this new techno-generated era of possibility. We are making motorcycle taxis safer, which is important since they account for 80% of traffic accidents in Rwanda and 50% in Kenya. We are doing this by equipping drivers with smartphones which gives us telematic data from the phones accelerometer, gyroscope and GPS data. We know if the driver is safer or more dangerous than average and let customers use an Uber style app to hire drivers by their safety ranking.
To accomplish this we rely on pervasive high speed internet, cheap and powerful smartphones and the Uber business model. When I first arrived to the continent of Africa in 2007, the area I was living in Ghana didn’t have 2G internet connection, the original iPhone hadn’t been released and Uber was years away from even being thought about.
It is exciting to be on the forefront of a new chapter of innovation. The business models and new ideas that could unlock success in Africa are business models that don’t exist yet.
SafeMotos is fortunate to be based in Rwanda, a place I would highly suggest as a base for any group looking to innovate in Africa. Many people choose to be in Kenya or Nigeria, they are large markets with many consumers. However, they are also very messy to run a startup or pilot in. Corruption is endemic, infrastructure is shoddy and bureaucracy a cruel form of punishment. By the time you actually are able to launch a product or service more time will have been spent playing chess with leviathan than product development or research. Rwanda, on the other hand, has the second lowest corruption rate on the continent, perfect highways that crisscross the tiny country and is a leader worldwide on ease of doing business with the ability to set up a company free of charge in less than thirty minutes.
Rwanda is like a laboratory for the continent where innovative ideas can be tested before they are brought to the rest of the continent. For myself when I started SafeMotos, I was able to secure an ICT entrepreneur visa, register my business while I waited for a coffee and be able to work for free from the local tech hub kLab.
I feel privileged to be working in an area with both such need and such opportunity. I believe that SafeMotos will be using technology to save lives and that our success will be a part of the story showing that Africa is open for business. I believe that it is possible for a radically better future for Africa and would say that anyone who cares about positive impact, innovative thinking or high growth markets should be hopping on planes to Kigali to begin the creative process of imagining just how much is possible.