African tech startups: obvious problems, clone entrepreneurship and not caring

L.S.M Kabweza Avatar

entrepreneurshipThe internet is such an amazing tool. It allows us to create stuff. And to have that stuff become useful to other people. And if we’re lucky, we can stumble onto entrepreneurship success. But not often does it go according to plan.

Ideas are a dime a dozen yes, but in Africa (I really just mean the 4 countries I’ve been to on the continent), they are free. If you look around, you’ll see many problems that have already been solved with technology elsewhere. Places like Silicon Valley. Or even China.

You will also find that the problems have been solved so much that one can get software built  specifically for these kind of startup ideas. You can even find open source software for it. The fruit hangs so low, picking takes no effort. An example is classifieds and business directories. Another is blogging and news. Music too is, whether streamed or offered as downloads. Lyrics. Video/Movie streaming platforms. Payments (internet and mobile) have also emerged as one such solution.

They are obvious problems because the state of that problem in our market right now, once existed in another place (usually the US & Europe) and a solution disrupted those old methods (that we still use here now). The disruptor’s model has been proven. Such disruption will 99% likely happen in the same way here, so you might as well be the one to go take the software and come do it.

The problem is obvious. It’s there in the market, you see it. You experience it every day. The disruption is obvious. It’s been proven elsewhere and the technology is there, free often times. You have launched. Spent a bit of money on Google and Facebook ads. But it doesn’t get any traction and eventually you abandon it. The thousands of African startups that have installed classifieds or generally marketplace websites will tell this tale.

There are an infinite number of reasons why we still fail with such idea shopping, but the most of it is to do with ‘not caring’. If you don’t care enough about an industry, the problem, or the solution’s impact, the chances of failure very high.

You need to care about music or music distribution or the impact of changing how things work in the music industry, if you are to solve the real problems around distributing music. You need yourself at least to like music. You need to care about film to disrupt film. You need to care about business and trading to disrupt classifieds. And so on.

Because if you care you are fascinated with how the industry works and your eye is always watching subtle things about it. This helps a lot in realizing the gaps that the generic software you ordered (or downloaded) doesn’t address – doesn’t because such gaps were not a big deal in whatever market the software was written in. And you soon realize that despite having ready-built software, you really need a competent software developer as partner in the business.

If you care about the industry, you will not be impatient for the money to start showing. If you care just about the money, you will usually quit very early in the game when it doesn’t show, because your energy & satisfaction comes from dollar signs. When you care, just a single customer (who may not even be paying) telling you how your product solved their problem can fill you with energy and satisfaction that no dollar amount can match. In fact, in some extreme cases of caring for an industry, some will totally ignore the money, itself a pitfall, but a far much better one that a business partner can solve. Unfortunately, you cannot buy caring.

And lastly, if you focus on what you naturally care about, you will realize that the typical obvious problems (business marketplaces, music streaming, news, video streaming, ad exchanges…) are probably not where you should be applying your energy.



  1. My opinion

    Interesting read very true of most start ups i’ve seem in Zimbabwe. Interest or reall passion for product/service lacks in most of these entrepreneurs…its just chasing the quick buck or the new trend. Also not willing to spend money on anything and using freebies for almost everything…

  2. ecochii

    ecocash is an obvious problem. they went to kenya and just copied it and made sure noone else could use their network for mobile banking. is econet passionate about payments?

    1. Econet Hater

      You and I are the only ones who see the light.

      We should be friends and our reign will be legendary.

    2. ECoLover

      The network is open to anyone for mobile banking, what most will argue on is the price of accessing this service i.e the 30c/USSD session being charged currently

      1. joo

        No it is not, compare what options the banks have on telecel and econet and you can see even today they blocking something.

    3. ecochii iweka

      is econet a startup?

    4. econet supporter

      do your research, mobile banking ddnt start in kenya, telecash eskwama failed and netone first one wallet failed . why ddnt telecel and netone copy from kanye if you say so. econet is always the last and will always succeeded cause vane order.

      the network is open, why do you want it for free? in business you pay for a service. After all a competitor pays more, $0.30 its fine .

    5. Anesu

      Facebook went to Hi5 and just copied it. Google went to Altavista and Ask Jeeves and just copied. Bill Gates went to Steve Jobs and just copied. Should I go on?

      1. L.S.M. Kabweza

        yes, but you will also notice that those people cared about solving those problems. copying/cloning itself is not a problem at all. however when solving real problems is the focus, you will have a wider choice of what to do than just copying what’s been done.

  3. TefoMohapi

    You nailed it.

    Look at Sillicon Valley and even European Tech scene. Most of the big startups were experiments or fun things to do. Or the founders were curious or trying to solve a problem.

    Very few, “put the money cart in front of the horse”. Therein, IMO, lies the problem with most startups on the continent (the ones I have observed, some). From day 1 they are chasing “money” (fair enough) with little consideration of whether their product / service is good enough to make that money.

    1. Anesu

      I agree. Chasing money without consideration of the business….makes for bad business.

  4. Anesu

    Mmmmhhh….I’m inclined to say that I while some of what you say is true…there’s also another dimension.

    1. You don’t need to have a ORIGINAL idea to succeed. There’s nothing new under the sun. Facebook wasn’t the first social network website…Altavista came before Google. Webdev’s wasn’t the first with classifieds.

    2. You don’t necessarily need to be passionate about the music to have a good music business. But you definitely need to understand business to run a good business.

    That’s our challenge as Afrikan entrepreneurs. Tech or otherwise. Running an efficient business…

    I know passionate tech heads who can’t run their own lives. Passion is not a requisite. Understanding good business is.

    3. And…at risk of getting shot….I’ll go ahead and say there’s nothing WRONG with making a quick buck. Isn’t that the ideal business setup? Profits from the get go?

    1. L.S.M. Kabweza

      there’s nothing wrong with getting a quick buck actually. Only it’s easier making that quick buck if you care about what you’re doing, coz then it’s easier to see the real pain points and solve them.

      on passion, my opinion is that you don’t actually need to be passionate about music (though that would help a lot), but at least care about what goes on there enough to want to solve problems there. caring that is as opposed to indifference and only caring to see dollars.

  5. Sam the Sahara Hacker

    Epic piece Limbikani. The sadness being we don’t even have that many startups launching meaning our problem may lie even deeper

    1. L.S.M. Kabweza

      We do have “startups” launching everyday. Look at the sheer number of marketplace websites, and now something becoming very popular: VID test provisional driving license apps. There are many more we can classify into these 2 categories.
      I come across at least one new everyday. They may not be engineering the software powering the ‘solution’ but lots of people are coming across ready solutions to install and be a “startup”.

      1. Sam the Sahara Hacker

        Ok think I phrased wrong what I’m trying to imply. There’s a difference between techies who buy a domain and hosting then put a piece of software there, and those who set out to solve a problem people are having with the tech just being a means to that end. I’m yet to see an explosion of the second group.

        Otherwise we’d say I have worked on hundreds of startups if a startups was merely having on the public domain an app which tosses around variables to fulfill some tasks. Yes the app can have users and claim to solve a problem on the face, but I didn’t set out determined to solve the problem when I put it there. It may just be a hack for the fun, or a me-too because it’s emotionally gratifying to have users.

        1. L.S.M. Kabweza

          Yup. true.