Driving from Nairobi Airport into Kenya's capital of Nairobi the evening of my arrival left me with this image: A four-lane highway that ends in a big pile of metal, street vendors and thousands of people sharing the street with all the other traffic, dented Disco Matatus, predominantly Asian sedans and pickups for the middle classes, construction workers joking around on the loading area of the huge grime-spewing rack-body truck that takes them home from work, and some rare sprinkles of brand new German limousines.
30 minutes later I'm crossing a floor-mat welcoming me with "there's no place like 127.0.0.1." It's this side of East Africa this brief report is about and which brought me here, to the mobile revolution I had only read about, and to the IPO48 event with its great bunch of start-ups:
The event itself was a typical startup weekend: Attendees ranging from established teams to people who met for the first time on Friday evening. Two days of mentoring, nightly hacks and constant feedback followed, all leading to final presentations on Sunday evening.
Without further ado, the following teams personally impressed me most.
M-SAVE: Is just the kind of concept you come across in "mostly mobile" countries that makes you think, "Yeah, we might also have that. In three to five years." M-SAVE allows you to invest your current excess pre-paid airtime in stocks or funds, or take out a small loan, lets say for a quick lunch or because you don't have enough with you to make the purchase, all immediately via SMS.
MyOrder: Think of it as a Pago for Nairobi, that allows you to order from local shops before you arrive and skip waiting in line, but with two interesting added twists: Businesses can set up their own shop in seconds and use their existing mobile phones (SMS) or smartphones to have the whole workflow up and running. Shops can also create a list of dedicated delivery zones; for instance, if you're the cafeteria in a mixed-use building, you can let people order straight to their offices, meeting rooms, etc. This is a very strong product on AppEngine. Their process involved a gallery of dozens of talks with potential clients, represented by a photo of the business owner and the corresponding wireframe they jointly developed.
Tusquee: Nice business model: giving away a state of the art administration system to schools for free, but parents pay to check grades and attendance in real-time as well as some other info services like admission fee balance, etc. Also SMS-based.
Tutabeba: Local delivery service. Drop off your stuff at a designated partner, mostly shops, provide the mobile phone number of the recipient and the recipient can pick it up at a convenient location close to her. Little bit like Uber for goods. Also helps local businesses with only a single store to increase their reach across a whole metro area. What was most amazing about them: They met Friday evening, developed the idea, started working on it during the night and by Saturday at 9:00 a.m. were out the door talking to shop owners, people on the street and so on. By Sunday evening all that feedback was engineered into a first working prototype.
After two great days of having the privilege of getting involved in a broad range of ventures, and some really tough judging after that, last year's winners, M-Farm were kind enough to take me around town and to the Kenyan highlands a few hours north of Nairobi.
There, the obvious and most talked-about wonders became very real.
Mobile payments: Think about paying everything in seconds via MPesa. Literally everything, including the food stand, street-side car wash or auto body shop. Many of them don't have electricity, some of them have "no cash please" signs, but mobile payments are more ubiquitous than Square, Apple and Google combined will make them in the U.S. in the next 18 months.
Field-to-market: Farmers out in their fields can find out what their commodity is selling for right now at the main markets in Nairobi, a process whose lack of transparency formerly allowed middle-men to skim off money from the seller.
It's particularly impressive being told all of this as you walk to a farmer's small field, 7,000 ft. up the mountains, an hour away from his house. Especially if you just sought shelter from pouring rain in a simple hut, the farmhouse offered by the owners. While they go along their farming routines, kids and household work, they manage to cook hot milk for you, and put a simple clay pot on the plain clay floor, filled with glowing charcoal to warm you. When leaving, its perfectly normal to show your gratitude and compensate their expenses with, you guessed it, a cashless direct mobile payment.
Combine this leapfrogging culture with an average economic growth of 7.2% and it becomes obvious how much potential is around. Even if you don't intend to stay, do yourself a favor and book a flight to get a ton of inspiration for your mobile startup. Or, like me, at least shake off the remains of your skewed perceptions of a region whose global leadership in many aspects of mobile technology will eventually become undeniable to the world at large.
Nairobi photo by Brian Snelson