What undeserved emerging markets achieved through tech: Success stories from Seedstars Global Summit

Announcing the winner of Seedstars USD $500k grand prize (Image via Seedstars)

Switzerland was named the fourth happiest place on earth by the United Nations.

This European country is home to one of the best transportation systems in the world, with buses, metros, and trains taking you to the high Alps mountains, down to the old-architectured cities, and to any place in between, or even outside the country. In 2016, and for the sixth year in a row, Switzerland was named the most innovative country.

So why would such a beautiful place be so keen on solving emerging market problems?

On April 12, over 1,000 participants, investors, startups, and enthusiasts gathered in the Swisstech Convention Center in Lausanne, Switzerland to attend Seedstars Global Summit.

“[Switzerland wants to jump on that train and not wait until things pass it by,” said a representative from Swiss accelerator Innovaud, explaining why the country, and Seedstars more specifically - which was born there - want to extend support to emerging markets.

Swisstech Convention Center at sunset. (Image via Reine Farhat)

Seedstars World is a global startup competition focused on emerging fast-growing markets. It hosts around 80 local competitions, organizes five regional summits before convening in Switzerland every year for the global one. In its fifth year, it gathered startups from over 65 countries including the MENA region (Lebanon, Bahrain, UAE, Egypt and other) for the chance to pitch and win the grand prize of $500,000 of equity investment. Twelve startups were chosen to present their final pitches during the day for the chance to win the prize.

The winner of the grand prize was Ghana-based Agrocenta, a startup that helps poor farmers sell their produce to food companies.

Francis Obirikorang from Agrocenta celebrating with participants and the Seedstars team. (Image via Seedstars)

We take you in our coverage through some of the startups that participated in the summit, to get to know what’s happening in and outside of the MENA and what can be learnt from other emerging markets.

Empowering the poor farmers through technology

Cofounded by Francis Obirikorang and Michael Ocansey in August 2016, Agrocenta is trying to fill a big hole in a highly demanded need.

“The northern part of Ghana is less developed than the southern part so a lot of the farming communities are really underdeveloped and a lot of the farmers are poor and don’t know how to read or write,” explained Ocansey in an interview with Wamda. He went on to explain that these farmers can only do a maximum of one acre (around 4,000 meters), enough to feed their families and sell whatever is left to a middleman for cheap prices, hence remaining poor.

To solve that problem, Agrocenta has elected 30 local agents on commission basis in each area, to register the farmers on their application, upload their stock volume, buy the produce at fair prices, and sell it to food companies. Since the latter usually demand high quantities, the agent often buys produce from different farmers, said Ocansey.

“Last year, we gave them [farmers] seeds, fertilizers, and other services. The vision of Agrocenta is to improve the financial livelihood of every farmer and help them move from one to three or more acres and have more commodities to sell.”

Currently, the startup is working with 12,000 farmers and hoping to increase that to 50,000 by end of 2018. Their core team is seven people with offices in Accra, the capital of Ghana. The team has already received a commitment of $230,000 from an investor, and they wanted to raise a total of $750,000. Thus, winning the first prize enabled them to match the amount they needed, according to the cofounder.

Commodity transportation has been quite expensive for Agrocenta because it takes around 12 hours to move from northern to southern Ghana. In the future, they want to make the data entry for agents more automated so they can scale quicker within Ghana then to Nigeria beginning of 2019, and work with local partners who can do the agents’ work and the quality assurance.

Teaching robotics using junk

Straight out of the UAE, Junkbot Robotics - one of the 12 shortlisted startups and the public vote winner - was also among the startups that stood out. It allows kids to use paper cups, paper, old CDs or any other type of junk to build a functioning robot and learn the basics of recycling, STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art and mathematics), and think outside of the box. The core difference of Junkbot is that it helps kids build robots using anything around them. The startup aims to scale to Kuwait and Saudi Arabia and is currently working on an interactive platform so users can compete with each other. Junkbot partnered with Dubai Electricity and Water Authority (DEWA) to distribute 500 Junkbot kits to schools in the Emirate. Few of the partners who used its product in staff workshops include Microsoft, the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Finance and PwC, said Ehteshamuddin P A, the cofounder and CEO, in an interview with Wamda. “From the UAE market alone, we have generated a revenue of $600,000 dollars and we have a pipeline of a million dollar. Through DEWA, we are working with 300 schools and we are now expanding our model through the gamified platform,” he added. 

Junkbot CEO (left) accepting his public vote prize. (Image via Seedstars)

A walking stick robot for visually impaired individuals, a happiness robot, and other projects built using Junkbot were showcased during DEWA Robotics, a competition held in 2017 by DEWA to foster innovation among youth.

“One of the students built a charity bot that will go and talk to people and tell them they are raising fund for a specific charity and they could give the money to the robot itself. Recently, friends of a cancer patient were using Junkbot to promote child cancer awareness,” he said. To do that, they partnered with the Ministry of Education in Sharjah to distribute the kit in schools and ask kids to come up with an invention to explain how cancer works, the symptoms, and how to detect them through sensors.

Fighting medication fraud in Africa

One in 10 medications in Africa are fake or substandard, stated Vivian Nwakah referring to a report conducted by World Health Organization (WHO) in 2017. To solve that issue, Nwakah developed a curated online medication marketplace called Medsaf, which sells high quality medications to hospitals and pharmacies in Africa. The platform works with legitimate manufacturers and conducts quality assurance in its own warehouse before making the products available. “75 percent of medical facilities in Nigeria are owned by one person,” said Nwakah - who won the Woman Entrepreneur Prize - hinting at the real cause of fraud.

Using feature phones as an education tool

Claire Mongeau’s mother is a speech pathologist and works with special education students in New York. She grew up seeing how impactful the combined collaboration between teachers, students, and parents can unlock new opportunities for people who have special needs or are under resourced and who may have been forgotten 15 years ago. In 2017, Mongeau launched M-Shule in Nairobi, Kenya, an adaptive learning platform which uses basic text messaging to teach students how to master certain skills and deliver them customized content. Parents can sign up their kids, even the ones who have feature phones, and mention what sort of needs they have then the M-Shule team will deliver them targeted content through SMS.

99 percent [of people] have a low income in Sub-Saharan Africa and less than 20 percent have access to a smartphone and an internet connection. While in other parts of the world you have artificial intelligence and adaptive learning [techniques in schools].

“We take insights on their performance and share them in reports with the teachers and the schools so they can better set up lesson plans to address the kids’ needs," she added. 

A networking session after the award ceremony. (Image via Reine Farhat)

M-Shule connects to schools directly. “Schools are really desperate for things like this. The majority of them are working with low income and low resources, and because the government is not pushing for the value of digital learning, they are fighting against a lot of challenges,” she commented referring to the adoption rate of schools, adding that they were very open to working with her because they have very little resources and it’s an opportunity for them to be part of digital learning. Today, M-Shule works with 70 private schools and is currently making revenues by charging parents a $1 platform subscription fee, and that gives them around five hours of tutoring each month.

These stories are only a specimen of the many participating startups we spoke to and listened to their pitches at the event. They all share one common aspect: Living in an underserved community and using technology to improve their societies.

Seedstars organized several workshops on the days leading to the global summit, to prepare startups for pitching. It also featured several prizes that were announced before the grand prize: transforming education prize won by EDVES from Nigeria; Africa Energy Prize won by Solar Freeze in Kenya; healthtech prize won by EMGuidance from South Africa; best woman entrepreneur prize won by Medsaf’s Vivian Nwakah from Nigeria; innovation prize won by alQuilando from Argentina; and the public vote prize won by Junkbot from the UAE. 

The day also featured an ongoing startup exhibition and several talks including surviving the nineties as a black female woman in tech.

The ‘women in tech’ struggle is real

In 1999, Rebeca Enonchong launched AppsTech in Washington DC to sponsor organizations that support entrepreneurs in Africa. In an exclusive interview with Wamda, she told us that she did not write her job title on her business cards, fearing that potential clients would know she is the founder, a black female founder, and would refuse to partner with her. “I hid behind my company. I could be an engineer or a salesperson if I needed to, and I never put forward that it was my company, and people treated me like an employee of a big corporate.”

Rebeca Enonchong sharing the challenges of being a black woman in tech during the nineties. (Image via Seedstars)

Africa is not built for young innovative entrepreneurs. There’s nothing for them. They have to fight to get recognition and financing. But there’s so much innovation that can happen in that type of context. In hardship there’s so much creativity. In the US they say thinking outside of the box. In Africa, there is no box.

Perhaps the most memorable moment during the event was the closing speech by eFishery founder and CEO, Gibran Huzaifah, who won the global competition in 2014. His Indonesian startup, a smart farm fish feeder, is now working with 22,000 farms and making $1 million in revenues, he said in his speech. Growing up in Jakarta, a slum area in the country, his parents were poor and struggled to get him a decent education. He saw an opportunity in fish farming and decided to take it. “One of the biggest problems is food security. We have nine billion people in the world. Fish need less water, carbon, water and food. After China, Indonesia has the biggest aqua agriculture.”

Huzaifah was featured in Forbes 30 under 30 Asia in 2017.

So what can emerging entrepreneurs teach the world? “Resilience, grit, lack of comfort,” concluded Enonchong.

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