The future of tech is in 'cities across Africa,' says start-up CEO

Key Points
  • Africa has 300 tech hubs in 93 cities across 42 countries.
  • Andela is one of the startups accelerating the continent's tech evolution.
  • The Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative led Andela's series B funding round last year.
Nairobi, Kenya skyline
Walter Zerla | Cultura RM | Getty Images

Silicon Valley's days leading the tech revolution may be coming to an end, according to one optimistic observer who believes the future of technology lies much further abroad than San Francisco.

The future of tech "will be written in Lagos, Nairobi, Kampala and cities across Africa," Jeremy Johnson the CEO and founder of Andela told CNBC. "We believe that Africa is going to emerge as a very significant player in the global tech scene," he said.

Andela connects Africa's top 2 percent of developers with jobs at companies globally. "We created a platform that enables the best and brightest to basically scale their abilities as technologists, and in the process ... also solve the problem that many companies around the world are facing, and that's just a shortage of technical talent," said Johnson.

Today, there are 300 tech hubs in 93 cities across 42 countries on the continent, compared to none just a decade ago. Nigeria and Kenya are both centers of start-up activity, and among the fastest growing of the innovation hubs on the continent.

A trip to Nairobi opened Johnson's eyes to some of the opportunities and challenges that face Africa's growing tech ecosystem. "I just had almost no exposure to the continent and was kind of blown away by what I found and the people I met," said Johnson.

Companies are increasingly comfortable with teams that are widely distributed, he said. "That's a major trend in the tech industry that I think is flattening out the world even more. It has also gotten a lot of people interested in Africa," said Johnson.

Andela developers collaborating in newly opened Nigerian Headquarters.
Source: Andela

Last June, the Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative — founded by Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan — led Andela's series B funding round. It was then Johnson realized how much Zuckerberg cares about the space. "You can tell by the fact that he wants to understand it," said Johnson. "Mark and Priscilla want to dive into the details and really understand what's happening and why because they care about the impact they can make," said Johnson.

Andela has about 400 developers in its 6 month immersion program that operates out of its offices in Lagos and Nairobi. The start-up recently announced its third office in Kampala, Uganda.

Gertrude Nyenyeshi has been an Andela developer for a little over a year. She recently started her own company, TechInPink, a blog to inspire other female developers.

"After university it was very difficult for me to get an opportunity working as a software developer, which is what I wanted to do for a long time," Nyenyeshi told CNBC.

"In 2000 Kenya had 200,000 out of the 2 million people in the country online," said Nyenyeshi. Today, about 77.8 percent of the population has internet access. Increased internet penetration, mass urbanization and growth in smartphone adoption, combined with rapid population growth, has made Africa very attractive to investors.

In 2016, there was a little over $366 million invested in startups across Africa and about 2/3 of that went into Nigeria, South Africa and Kenya. "You have a lot of activity taking place in those ecosystems," said Johnson. Then there are the mega deals like the $211 million raised by the e-commerce platform Jumia, over several rounds from 2013-2014.

Jankara market, located on Lagos Island and the skyline of Lagos, Nigeria.
Derrick Ceyrac | AFP | Getty Images

While ecommerce and mobile money companies are leading Africa's tech race, solar technology and agriculture are also big sectors there. Ignitia, a startup based in Accra, Ghana has developed a weather model to help small-scale farmers in West Africa better predict water availability in order to manage their daily activities, optimize food production, and improve yields.

"Ignitia's forecasts are twice as accurate as global forecasts, and are only improving. They are created based on remote-sensing data and the process is 97 percent automated, which means that we can scale geographically without the need to build expensive infrastructure," Lizzie Merrill, account manager at Ignitia, told CNBC.

"Entrepreneurship is native to Ghana, and now, with an influx of resources, an increasingly educated population, and access to technology — new businesses, start-ups and social enterprises, are emerging en masse to try and solve some of the challenges here," said Merrill.

"There are still gaps however: Funding is not available at all levels, and local entrepreneurs sometimes struggle to attract international awareness and funding," she added.

As the tech scene in Africa continues to evolve, the continent's biggest obstacle is keeping up with the rapid pace of technological innovation and adoption. "Technology in Africa is not where it should be but we are getting there," said Nyenyeshi. "When it does, Africa could use technology to tell its story."