Picture: #MESTAfricaSummit. (IOL).

CAPE TOWN - On Tuesday and Wednesday 19 – 20 June 2018  The Avenue Conference Centre in the Waterfront, played host to the third annual MEST Summit.

MEST, Meltwater Entrepreneurial School of Technology, is currently celebrating their 10th year investing in, training and incubating tech entrepreneurs in Africa. Formerly known as the MEST Africa Tech Summit, this year the Summit went Pan-African in honour of their 10-year milestone. 

The Conference brought together top entrepreneurs, investors and executives from Africa, Silicon Valley and Europe to network and discuss trends, challenges and opportunities affecting markets across the continent under the them this year: The Year of the African Scaleup?

The Summit spanned two full days, the first of which was mostly devoted to intensive panel discussions. The final day of the conference saw an incredible pitch battle take place on the main stage where 4 of the very best tech startups in Africa competed for a $50 000 investment prize from MEST.

The team from MEST would like to thank their incredible sponsors for making this event possible. The event is anchored and endorsed by heavyweight partners Facebook and MTN. Secondary partners include Merck, Covington, Dalberg, Kenya Airways, Distell and QWB & Allies.

Over the span of the two-day Summit, a dynamic team from Africa-focused communications agency The Loudhailer interviewed several of the high-profile speakers, the MEST team and Accounteer, the winner of the $50 000 equity investment prize.

Reflecting on the experience Jo Griffiths, Managing Partner at The Loudhailer, states: “It’s been absolutely incredible being at the MEST Africa Summit for the past two days. We as The Loudhailer are dedicated to amplifying change for Africa and being at a Summit like this helps us connect to other influential ecosystem players to tell the African innovation story consistently as a continent.”

UNITED NATIONS OF TECH DEBATE

The first discussion of the morning was a heated and lively debate on The United Nations of Tech, where several ecosystem players from across Africa debated why their country was the best place to launch a startup.

Jason Njoku, co-founder and CEO of iROKO, advocated for businesses to think Africa. He argued that people need to look at the African market as a whole and not just South Africa.

“Necessity drives opportunity,” stated Njoku, furthering the idea of Nigeria as the centre of focused entrepreneurship, underlining the fact that tech is enabling people to develop in the business space even though they don’t have the educational background.

Lungisa Matshoba, Director of Tech and Product at Yoko, was equally focused on pushing the SA market. He came to Cape Town not because it was the best market but because “Cape Town had the right ingredients to foster and develop my business.”

FEMALE FOUNDERS

An insightful panel followed the heated discussion of the early morning, when six powerful and inspiring women took to the stage to discuss the role and importance of female founders in tech.

“Innovation by women is starting to be taken seriously, the tech space is starting to accept us,” is how Baratang Miya, Founder and CEO of WomenInTech Academy, kicked off the discussion.

“We need to step away from the segregation between women and men,” comments Ellen Fischat, co-founder and CEO of InnoCircle, “Women need to start investing in women, the misconception is that you need to be big to invest. Females need to empower other females, and men will follow.”

“The best project managers are female because they understand how to multitask from raising kids, to taking care of husbands, to building businesses,” added Lexi Novitske, Principal Investment Officer at Singularity Investments.  

The advantages of hiring females are that they are aware of their skills and the strong female leaders on the panel advocated the Find Your Tribe idea - women empowering and investing in women. The future of tech is female.

DIGITAL CITIES

Sub-Saharan Africa's urbanisation challenges is daunting. The continent's population is likely to double to 2 billion by 2050, and 57% will be expected to live in cities. These changes are taking place amidst rising urban inequality. This panel discussed how tech can help create inclusive African cities.

Katie Hill, Advisor at Omidyar Network, stated: “We need to be discussing how we are enabling African cities to grow to twice their size with half the resources necessary and still ensuring quality of life.”

Two of the panellists on the Digital Cities panel head startups that are focused on more formalised physical addresses as key to driving inclusion and using tech to ensure the majority of the population that currently resides in informal or unplottable housing, has an address and therefore identity as well as inclusivity.

FINTECH FOR FINANCIAL INCLUSION

Arguably the biggest tech sector across the continent falls in the category of FinTech. This is a vertical which continues to receive the greatest amount of funding and proven cases of disruption.

FinTechs are the solution the traditional banking sector has been looking for.

“The traditional banking model is not suited to the average consumer,” commented Nvalaye Kourouma, Chief Digital and Innovation Officer of Barclays RoA, “FinTechs need to start looking at specific needs in the finance industry and how to address them.”

Reflecting on the panel, guest Stuart van der Veen, Nedbank CIB Head of Disruption and Innovation, said “The financial inclusion discussion needs to progress to focus on accessibility and how this can be facilitated at scale.”

CREATIVE MEETS TECH

The final panel discussion for Day 1 of the third annual MEST Africa Summit focused on Creativity in Tech and the link between two concepts such worlds apart.

The panel kicked off with a discussion on how technology can impact the distribution of local music as well as improve royalties earned by musicians.

The problem in the music value chain is that 73% of all revenue generated goes to 3 record labels. We need to change this. We need to build platforms that channel money back into the artists.

Africans and creatives in Africa should understand that people will pay for music they like. Subscription models have been proven to work in Africa. What we need to understand is that the artist ecosystem in Africa is not formalized, there is no formalized way of collecting money – and this is where the tech opportunity lies.

Thanks to tech we as a continent are now able to start asking the right questions and telling the right stories that aren’t limited by continental borders.  

AFRICA AND BLOCKCHAIN

2017 saw a surge in investments into cryptocurrencies, as Bitcoin went mainstream. After a sudden and thus completely unexpected crash, the general populace became sceptical of crypto as an investment strategy.

However, the use cases of the blockchain continue to show promise in everything from proving your identity, to land registry and a means of raising capital.

The discussion centred around the difficulties surrounding Africa adopting blockchain as means of transaction and the role financial institutions and FinTech play in this ecosystem.

“94% of all transactions in Africa are still happening in cash, due to the fees financial institutions charge,” is how Tricia Martinez, CEO of WALA, kicked off the panel, “Zero fees is how we’re going to solve financial inclusion.

“In the context of Africa and the blockchain, we got going with tech because we saw the need to connect, especially people in rural parts of Africa,” commented Jason Griessel, Head of Business Development for BlockMesh, “As we all know there is this concept of the global village. We need to share ideas and without being able to do this we are in trouble. We need to start improving tech. We need tech and blockchain to seamlessly connect Africa and the world.”

“Blockchain is borderless,” added Gareth Lai, Partner at Lumen, “By using tech if everyone holds an Ethereum address you can directly send money anywhere with no fees. It empowers people and financial inclusion.”

The panel discussion concluded with a hot debate on whether or not blockchain will replace traditional banks.

“I believe cryptocurrency is what will drive the financial revolution in Africa, but I don’t think banks will be part of that. I think banks will become obsolete,” was Martinez’s opinion.

RETHINKING SILICON AFRICA

The discussion started with a bang as Julien Decot, Head of Platform Partnerships, EMEA, at Facebook, alluded to the ever-elusive tech unicorn and whether finding the mythical creature will help Silicon Africa compete on equal terms with Silicon Valley.

“We should forget about unicorns that don’t exist and focus on our gazelles,” countered Keet van Zyl, co-MD of Knife Capital, immediately, “My view is that from an African perspective we generally build a different type of company than the typical Silicon Valley company. Embracing failure and getting third or fourth or fifth time lucky and throwing money at problems is simply not possible in Africa due to limited funding.”

Jorn Lyseggen, CEO and Founder of MEST and Meltwater, added: “The hunt for the unicorn is a very flawed obsession across the world including Silicon Valley. The search for the unicorn is very destructive. And everyone that tries to copy Silicon Valley is going to fall very flat on their face. Every market has unique attributes and should be treated as such.”

“The interesting thing about Africa is that the opportunities are so big. Every little opportunity in other larger ecosystems like Silicon Valley is so crowded. In Africa the opportunities are endless. The overall conditions for startups does not only include capital and expertise. The biggest challenge is actually opportunity, and in Africa there is an abundance of it,” Lyseggen concluded.

CRACKING THE CORPORATE CODE

The final panel discussion on Day 2, ahead of the startup pitch competition, attempted to “crack the corporate code” by discussing incubators, accelerators and the relationship between a startup and corporate.

It is evident that to make a success of their business and scale rapidly, startups need to partner with corporates. They need to be able to walk the line between being a creative and dynamic innovator doing their own thing making a difference in the world, and being a cog in the corporate machine.

“I think we are living in an era where centralised organisations are dying,” stated Christophe Viarnaud, CEO of Methys and AfricArena, “Innovation is key and you cannot thrive and succeed if all your resources are inhibited from producing great innovation. Companies are going to work as a network of teams and innovators working together, in the future. The ability for corporates to integrate that method of innovation is what is going to make them successful. A corporate wanting great innovation needs to use startups. Challenging boundaries and looking for the next partner is key.”

“I see a lot of rapid evolution in this space,” continued Viarnaud, “In Africa there is a lot of opportunity for this. Corporates can’t innovate without startups in Africa.”

As a reflection on the panel, audience member Rudi Visser, Head of Innovation Acceleration at RCS, said: “For both corporates and startups in our experience, readiness is a two-way street. Be ready to engage with corporates in the way that is required, and while the opportunity is there to challenge the way that things are done to ensure that there’s acceleration, be mindful of what needs to be followed. With that being said, I do think that there’s a new way that is required. It’s not just the corporate way or the startup way, in the coming years there’s going to be a new way of operating to create these solutions that will have impact.”

NIGERIAN STARTUP WINS $50 000

The highlight of the event was the inaugural Africa Challenge pitching competition that rounded off the final day.

Accountter emerged the winner after four regional winners took to the stage to pitch to a live audience. The startup walked away with $50 000 in equity investment.

Niyi Adegboye, Business Developer for Nigerian smart cloud accounting startup Accounteer, an accounting and payroll management software startup, handled the pitch and accepted the prize.

POST A SUCCESSFUL SUMMIT

The third annual MEST Africa Summit, which hosted the inaugural Africa Challenge for startups, was a phenomenal success. Panel discussions highlighted the key challenges faced in the tech industry as well as touched on important subjects such as women in tech, financial inclusion, and the corporate-startup innovation model. The future of Africa lies in tech and innovation and we need to embrace this.

“Africa is unique, Africa is different, Africa has huge potential in this space,” concluded Ryno Rijnsburger, CTO of 4Africa Academy at Microsoft.

-BUSINESS REPORT ONLINE