Africa’s First Tech Start-ups: What we can learn from the early days of mobile technology

If you look at the growth of telecommunications and the internet across places like Europe and North America, it has been a story of gradual digital evolution. Africa, in contrast, leapfrogged straight from nothing to fully embracing wireless.

The reality was that, because of the lack of a fixed line Telecoms infrastructure, wireless was the only real way to go in Africa. The African telecoms industry recognised this quite early, starting with wireless devices around the mid-1990s, but by 2005 the market had started to show signs of major growth.

In my new book TESTED, I share the story of my involvement in African telecoms, which started in 1999 working for a major US technology and telecoms firm called Harris Corporation. I witnessed first-hand the growth of cellular networks around the world, and just how much the leading telecoms companies were investing to expand their network coverage and cater for the rapidly increasing levels of demand for mobile telephony.

The next step of my career saw me step into a really exciting role as Business Manager of Motorola Africa, where I progressed to become Director. This time at Motorola gave me a real all-round understanding of the challenges of working in one of the fastest moving supply chain businesses in the world – Mobile Phones. But it also showed me the opportunities and potential in the African market, so in 2007, I left Motorola to set up one of Africa’s first tech hardware companies – a brand called Mi Fone.

Mi Fone was the first African Devices brand. This meant that not only did we lack the technology and infrastructure that tech businesses in other parts of the world enjoy, but also, the ecosystem that allows new businesses to get off the ground. The word “start-up” was not even used back then, let alone the plethora of new industry terms such as incubators, accelerators and the other funding options.

We were literally in the jungle, and with very few tools and no real map, we had to forge our way forward on a path that had never been laid before. While start-ups elsewhere in the world have the benefit of following the paths of others, learning from their mistakes and triumphs, we had to make big decisions and beat down and clear a new path every day.

In some people’s eyes, Mi Fone was a bit of a novelty, but for us it was very serious. It was about creating something different. I knew that mobile was about to take off, and I saw the huge potential the continent had to offer – in 2008 Africa had around 300million people connected, but there was still another 700million waiting to be connected.

With no funding behind us, we quickly learned we needed to innovate wherever we could and built a completely bootstrapped operation. We embarked on a crazy mission to secure orders and customers for an unknown brand, competing with global leaders like Samsung and Nokia with huge marketing budgets.

As a brand, we decided that the message behind Mi Fone should be very simple:

“Everyone wants an Apple, but majority of Africans cannot afford it – that’s called aspiration beyond reach. A well-packaged, quality, low-cost Mi Fone that offers basic connectivity is what we call “Aspiration within reach” – you can actually have it!”

We decided to position our product to our target market of African consumers who were earning less than $500 a month. This was a mass market approach. We wanted to deliver the world to them as, contrary to popular belief, we knew already that the world to an average African consumer is not round – it’s a 5 inch rectangle screen. The continent may have lacked infrastructure, but our devices could become the place where they run their lives.

We were the pioneers. We were the first people to start the local-branded mobile device trade in Africa, and this was quickly followed by innovations like sub-brands, including Mi Card (Prepaid debit card) and OJU (The first black emoticons).

The early days of our tech start-up were messy. There were no formal distribution channels for our products, we faced challenges on deliveries and payments, which, coupled with massive African inefficiencies, meant the rate of progress was often frustratingly slow.

We were also challenged by the “big boys” dilemma, constantly facing rejection because we were a small company and we did not have reputation or financial muscle behind us. Much more would have been achieved if local, entrepreneurial companies like ours were championed and embraced, but looking back, Mi Fone was perhaps just too early for the African market.

Business success is all about the right product, the right place and the right time. We had the right product, but time and place did not always work in our favour, and that meant that these early days were tough.

Alpesh H. Patel is author of new book Tested out now on Amazon and Apple iBooks. It is available in Kindle, EPUB and Print. Published in the UK by Peshmode Ltd. For more information see

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