Africa House at SXSW: Connecting the continent to the world

Dylan, Tuesday January 23rd 2018

2017 proved an exciting year for MEST. We brought another 12 companies into our portfolio, launched incubators in Lagos and Cape Town and saw our portfolio companies gaining investment, forming corporate partnerships, and acquiring competitors.

Now entering our 10th year, MEST portfolio companies are moving from startup to scaleup, and our activities in 2018 will reflect this by exploring partnership opportunities across the continent and the world. For this reason, we are excited to partner with the Africa Expert Network to help bring Africa House, taking place at top global festival South by SouthWest (SXSW), to life.

Within the MEST portfolio, companies are proving that African innovation does not have to cater only to the African market. Kudobuzz, which helps businesses generate authentic social reviews to build trust and improve customer conversion rates, currently has 25,000 clients, 80% of whom are in the US. Founder and CEO, Kena Amoah says,

'We are seeing a proliferation in the number of African tech companies finding success beyond their borders in other African markets and around the world. We have moved beyond the point where innovation on the continent is local only, which is exciting in terms of the total size of the addressable market we can look to capture. It doesn't matter where in the world you are, the reputation of your business is important and we built Kudobuzz knowing that it if we did it right, there are no limits on our growth.

Kena adds, ‘Initiatives like Africa House are fantastic in that they offer African founders the opportunity to promote themselves on a global stage as well as the opportunity to learn about the latest innovations in their space.'

We spoke with Akinyi Ochieng, Director of Strategic Partnerships at the Africa Expert Network and a lead on Africa House, to understand how this initiative came to be, and why this is an exciting moment for African companies looking to go global.

What is South by SouthWest and why is it a great opportunity for African tech companies?

SXSW is one of the largest tech, media, music and film festivals on the planet. It enables a truly unique confluence of the creative and tech spaces and allows attendees to learn about the very latest innovations in technology from around the world. This ability to physically touch, experience, and learn about new technologies up close is key to breaking down barriers for companies on the continent who are looking to scale globally.

How did Africa House come to be?

Africa House is borne out of the realisation that there is so much innovation happening on the continent, but it is not always visible in other parts of the world. We want to connect the innovation leaders in Africa with opportunities beyond the continent, and Africa House provides the perfect forum to showcase why the world should expect big things from the ‘digital first’ continent. We’re lucky enough to have the support of our headline sponsors Temple Management Company and the U.S. African Development Foundation as well as companies with a strong footprint in Africa such Covington and Burling LLP and Locus Analytics in making this event a reality.

What outcomes do you hope to see come out of Africa House?

We hope to see this initiative changing perceptions of African innovation and fostering investment, partnerships, and excitement about new opportunities across the continent.  According to the UN, more than half the population global growth between now and 2050 will occur in Africa, and 1 in 4 people globally will be African. African innovation can and must be included in the global conversation. From experience, I know that there is a great deal of interest in the burgeoning tech ecosystem in African markets, and this event will help provide a foot in the door for anyone interested in learning more. We’ll have panels, interactive workshops, networking events, performances, and more. We're lucky enough to have the support of our headline sponsor Temple Management Company as well as companies with a strong footprint in Africa such Covington and Burling LLP and Shoreline Energy in making this event a reality

Who should get in touch for partnership and sponsoring opportunities?

Anyone who is interested in being at the forefront of the African tech narrative or looking to find out where they should invest. There is so much change happening in cities across the continent, even beyond the larger more established economic hubs like Nairobi and Johannesburg.

Accra, for example, is developing quickly into a leading West African hub, which is why we are excited to partner with an organisation like MEST, which has been operating there for ten years, and has experienced and contributed to this growth first-hand.

What African tech companies operating in the US are most exciting for you at the moment?

iRoko TV, a web platform that provides the world’s largest online catalogue of Nigerian movies, continues to be interesting to me. The company is nearing 8 years of growth, and is continuing to explore new avenues of growth through in-house production of films. What Netflix is to Americans, iRoko is to Nigerians and, increasingly, Africans from across the continent and diaspora.

While solar-powered wifi device BRCK is providing Internet connectivity solutions for Africa, it could easily have applications in rural dead zones in America. Through Africa House, we hope that more people see that technology transfer goes both ways, and Africa has lessons to share with the U.S. and Europe. M-Pesa, which catapulted Kenya into a global fintech hub, is proof of that!

Finally, what are the gaps in the African tech ecosystem in your opinion that closer collaboration with the US might eliminate?

I think the biggest and most obvious one would be the funding gap, but I also think this gap has contributed to a hidden strength in the African tech space.

Can you elaborate?

Well, if you look at African tech companies, unlike those in Europe or the US, they cannot be assured that funding exists to help them grow their business. As a matter of course then, they fund their businesses with the most reliable capital available: revenue. This means they are forced to become profitable more quickly than their counterparts and build robust teams that are able to creatively work through challenges that might cripple businesses elsewhere. I think this has in turn created not only robust companies, but a globally competitive talent pool on the continent.

And there you have it! Africa is going to SXSW. If you are interested in getting involved, partnering or looking to attend Africa House at SXSW, get in touch with the team here. We look forward to seeing you all there!