As a small innovator it is sometimes daunting to see the big firms in your space that you have to somehow compete with. In the technology sector there are the likes of Google, Facebook, IBM, Microsoft competing in Africa to make a change and find new investments. If these huge companies are entering Africa, what is the point of trying out your own innovative ideas right? WRONG!
There may be big companies in the market, whether from outside Africa, or innovative companies like Safaricom. But, that does not mean there are not opportunities for other companies to grow to compete with them. Finding a small problem, creating a small solution can lead you into a business that grows and grows.
This was the case for Habari Node. They are a Tanzanian Internet Service Provider, who recently became the first tech company to list on the Tanzanian stock exchange. That they are the first tech company is a considerable step for the Tanzanian tech sector, but the story of how they got their is what is inspiring.
In 1994 in the UK, email was not widely used. I remember using an old computer in my primary school that was not connected to the internet. During a communications week we learn how to send a fax, and I was amazed to receive on from the Captain of the QEII, a huge British ocean liner. During this week, we were not even taught about the potential of email. At the same time, in a small town in Tanzania, residence were becoming frustrated by the lack of access to email.
Initially, their efforts to send emails were time consuming and expensive. In order to send an email they had to connect via long distance numbers which cost around $10 an hour. Within the year they had expanded to two dial up connections, and formed a cooperative called Habari Node Marie. The importance and effectiveness of collectives has been spoken about previously on Inventive Africa. Collectives enable people to pool their resources to greater effectiveness so that everyone benefits. They work particularly well in the agricultural sector, as we wrote about here.
With their pooled resources, Habari were able to set up a local server. By sending their emails in bulk, they could provide a cheaper service, which would be much more efficient. By 1998 they had more than 400 members. With 200 members, it meant that Habari had put its self in a position very early on to compete in the tech sphere. And from this stage, they continued to grow, even though others in Tanzania did not expect ISPs to be a lucrative business opportunity.
By 2010, Habari was turning over more than $1 million a year and they had to move from being a cooperative to a limited company. And then, a little later, all telecommunications companies were required to list at least 25% of their shares on the stock exchange. Not only are they a successful ISP which outdate many of the worlds ISPs, they also do a lot of outreach work in local communities, helping connect NGOs.
Habari took an incredible journey from a few people joining together to solve their need to access email, and ended up as one of Tanzanias most lucrative tech companies. They saw a gap in the market, almost be accident, when everyone around them doubted the possibility of its growth. We may be a little more tech savvy in Africa these days, but that does not mean that their are no more gaps in the markets. The increasing speeds in which technology is developing, means that more and more “African Problems” can be solved using new methods. Innovators around Africa should follow the example of Habari and try it, even if it only starts as a small solution for a few people.
Get out there, find solutions and innovate!
If you know of any innovations in Africa, an innovation that is changing lives, or you also want to be a guest blogger, get in contact with us on Twitter @inventiveAfrica or via email. Please she the blog with your network on Twitter and Facebook.