Hope you're well.
Nick Allen runs Savant in Cape Town, it's an incubator and venture fund that's focused on hardware. Of course, I was interested in learning about his experiences running the outfit. When we spoke last month, he mentioned something that's stayed in my head.
He advises startups who build hardware to build, prove and go offshore (outside the continent) with their technology as soon as possible. The reason: the market for hardware products is too small within the continent. The flip side of that, of course, is that in many respects the state of tech in Africa is behind the rest of the world.
So what hardware could we possibly sell to the world?
In case you missed it, here’s last month’s newsletter.
By now, you've heard a lot about Transsion. The Chinese-based smartphone manufacturer has more than a 40% share of the African phone market and is behind brands like TECNO, itel, and more. You've also probably heard that they spent a lot of time perfecting the camera on their phones to be able to capture darker skin tones with clarity. This feature coupled with their favourable price point makes them a first choice for many consumers on the continent.
One issue I've had with these stories is that they are very Transsion-led. For example, when they say they spent time collecting photographic data to improve their cameras, they never say who did the collection or how they built their data. Around 2016, Transsion opened the TECNO Design Lab in Lagos, Nigeria, and hired industrial designers, engineers, and researchers to be a part of the lab. It is not clear what their input to TECNO's subsequent line of products are and the lab seemingly does not exist anymore.
At the same time in Kenya, Transsion was recruiting undergraduate students from the University of Nairobi. These students became part of teams who did customer research following Transsion's smartphone debut in the country and eventually started taking pictures of Kenyans to build their database.
Alexandria Sahai Williams, writing from Nairobi, paints a picture of Transsion's playbook in Kenya drawing on the experiences of a former employee recruited as an undergraduate, sales representatives on Lithuli Avenue and much more.
Last month had a lot of drone love.
From Khartoum: Jessica Pothering writes about Hatim Hassan who - as part of an R&D team - developed the Bird of Hope, a tree-planting drone to tackle Sudan's desertification. While the project ultimately did not succeed, it tells a good story of product development in a country with a trade embargo.
From Blantyre: Charles Pensulo writes about Micromek, a startup that transports medical tests from rural health centres to larger district hospital using their low-cost drones made from recycled materials. They're also figuring out a business model where they get paid from aerial data collection so that patients do not pay out of pocket for their services.
In February, I wrote about Google shutting down Project Loon - their project to beam the internet using balloons - and made the case for an Ivorian startup - LiFiLED - using light to transmit the internet. It looks like Google was working on something similar all along, but a different technology on a much bigger scale. Their Project Taara was just deployed between Kinshasa and Brazzaville, two capital cities separated by the Congo River, using light beams to transmit data.
McKinsey released an analysis on green manufacturing on the continent. Their overarching conclusion is that with the world moving to cut down on emissions from the manufacturing sector it would cost less money to build new (green) manufacturing plants than convert fossil fuel-powered plants to renewables, the latter being the situation most Western countries find themselves.
In Tanzania, Greenfoot Africa is developing an integrated solution that pairs electric motorcycles with food delivery, a business model they've termed "e-mobility as a service." Listening to their CEO on a call last week, their plan is to have hubs that have the dual function of solar battery charging for the cycles and cold storage of food products, with an app for big customers (think hotels) to request food products from farmers. It's no doubt a complicated model that I think there are many parts of it that are really innovative.
Until next time,
The Hardware Things Community is built around monthly chats. Last month, we had Thami Hoza (founder of Hot Nozzle) tell us all about the regulatory challenges of launching a gas-enabled product in South Africa. This month, we're welcoming Aike Akhigbe. Join us!