For the few Algerian startups commercializing Internet of Things (IoT) products, starting out was hard.
Just two years ago, the mere concept of IoT was new to Algeria. There were no coworking spaces available for hardware startups, and no training sessions or talks on the topic.
Today IoT seems to be everywhere in the small Algerian startup ecosystem. But is it just talk or is something actually happening?
Algeria's IOT landscape
Mustapha Lakhdari started his company Goutra in 2010. It took him years to develop his smart water saving faucet as there were no makerspaces available, no structured assistance, no knowledge exchange with other makers, and definitely no funding options for such a venture.
“It was very hard at the beginning, I was forced to put together my own little amateur lab at home and ask prototyping companies abroad which costed us too much,” he said.
Iman Malek launched water pollution detector Aquasafe after graduating from university and met the same issues.
Even for a seasoned entrepreneur like LVSC Méditérranée’s Karim Brahiti, going into the hardware sector was tough.
When he started in 2007, his company developed fleet management software. After a few years, they began developing their own hardware to better exploit the software and in 2014 they started commercializing it. What this hardware consists of, however, is not clear as the company did not respond to questions nor does it mention any equipment on its website.
Now they’re working on an ambitious autonomous GPS beacon network to be installed across whole cities.
No 3D printers to be found
Lakhdari believed the lack of development equipment was part of a bigger problem: the absence of a hardware ecosystem. He lacked prototyping and R&D labs and companies, development and production mentoring, and components.
Today, there are two semi-public makerspaces in the country. The Ooredoo incubator has a makerspace called Innov Lab, mostly for its incubatees. Recently-opened coworking space Sylabs also kicked off GE Garages, a free makerspace with GE that is open to entrepreneurs, researchers and artists working on specific projects.
“People are really curious to discover the machines and what they can produce,” Sylabs founder Abdellah Mallek told Wamda. “Algerians showed a great interest for 3D printing and making.”
The open day brought hundreds of people from very different backgrounds, including high schoolers, electricians and doctors.
Probably because it’s still so new and small, the IoT scene in Algeria benefits from a strong sense of giving back. Mallek and Brahiti told Wamda that after having to create their own makerspaces in their offices, they opened them up to fellow entrepreneurs.
Training the next generation
Hardware entrepreneurs are active in evangelizing IoT to the small Algerian entrepreneurial scene, and introducing children to the topic.
“People were really interested in the event. There were more than a hundred of people,” said The Address communication and event manager Majda Nafissa Rahal, and encouraged a lot of students to start an IoT project.
Events are increasingly focusing on the sector now as well. Last year, Iman Malek co-organized an IoT hackathon called Hard Innovation at the Cyberpark with web agency Eblink, and Algeria’s big tech event Algeria 2.0 made IoT the theme of its last day.
Ooredoo’s application and mobile solutions competition Oobarmijoo chose IoT as theme of last year’s edition. There were 130 participants who benefited from tech and business training, and had access to Ooredoo’s Innov Lab. Six projects won the competition, but as far as we know only one has been developed to become a market-ready product.
And in April, Mallek launched Prototype-it @Sylabs with the help of GE, a mentoring program for engineers with a hardware project about to finish their studies. He received roughly forty applications in a few days.
Eight student projects have been selected for this program. They were able to use the GE Garages makerspace for free. If Sylabs also offered tech mentoring, very few needed it as they were all pretty advanced. From April to June, eight prototypes have been made. One project, a robotic operating system for a drone, took 30 hours to print.
The IoT sector at a crossroads
Having access to the proper equipment is a first step. Equally as important is funding.
More than any other sector, IoT innovation needed adequate funding because of the increased amount of research it required before launch, Brahiti said.
“The funding of research is generally outside of the law of market because it can’t guarantee a profitability in the short or mid term and therefore attract investors in the classical sense,” he said.
Luckily, he thought Algeria was receptive to the need for IoT.
He told Wamda that people realised the economy was going badly and had to rethink it, and saw that innovation was the way to do this. “We can’t build our future with tools of the past, and notions such as automation and optimization are starting to emerge.”
Lakhdari agrees. “With the fall in oil prices, the Algerian state has limited importations, this leads local industrials to develop, and this development requires solutions usually based on hardware and IoT, which is a real opportunity for startups.”
Brahiti’s IoT project is doing good thanks to experience as an entrepreneur, the financial results of the company’s other activities, and the reputation and contact book of LVSC Méditérranée. Things are tougher for Aquasafe and Goutra who have recently started to commercialize their first products in small editions as they seem to struggle to convince clients.
“[Companies] are not ready to trust younger companies,” Lakhdari said. “They trust companies based on their sales, previous clients, etc, which makes it tough for young companies.”
Now, entrepreneurs in Algeria have access to tools and training, but it’s their ability to develop the right product and find market fit that will make the difference