Top-10 Artificial Intelligence Startups in Africa
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Contrary to what some Americans might think, Africa isn’t a big country south of Europe where rich people go on safaris. It’s a continent with 1.2 billion people living in 54 countries, half of which are dictatorships. Consequently, it’s rife with corruption, civil unrest, underdevelopment, and deep poverty. It’s also a continent endowed with rich natural and human resources including 60% of the world’s non-cultivated arable lands. With a combined GDP that’s less than a third of the U.S., the World Bank sees lots of room for growth and expects most African countries to reach “middle income” status by 2025.
A recent paper published by Access Partnership and the University of Pretoria points out four important sectors where AI could greatly benefit Africa’s nations – agriculture, healthcare, public services, and financial services. The paper also highlights existing structural challenges that hamper AI development including little broadband coverage, inflexible education systems, and a lack of big data. Still, there are initiatives focused on overcoming these hurdles, and Google recently opened an AI research lab in Ghana, the first of its kind on the continent, led by ex-Facebook researcher Moustapha Cisse. (Maybe they can start by ridding mankind of the Sakawa Boys.)
To see what’s been going on in the small world of African AI startups, we dove into Crunchbase to find 10 African AI startups that appear to be leading the charge.
|Aerobotics||AgTech||Cape Town, South Africa||4.8|
|Apollo Agriculture||AgTech||Nairobi, Kenya||1.6|
|Datavora||Big Data||Tunis, Tunisia||0.9|
|UTU technologies||Big Data||Nairobi, Kenya||0.25|
|Touchabl Pictures||Image Recognition||Port Harcourt, Nigeria||0.021|
|GotBot||Chatbot||Johannesburg, South Africa||0.018|
Founded in 2016, Nigerian startup Kudi has raised $5.9 million in funding that started with a seed round from Y Combinator, the accelerator that brought us Airbnb, Dropbox, and Coinbase. Kudi has developed a chatbot for bill payments and money transfers that operates through Facebook Messenger and Skype. The chatbot uses phone networks instead of data connections since only 39% of Nigeria’s population has internet access.
The startup also has an agent system which encourages users to act as a local payment hub in their communities. “Start making money by providing banking services to people around you,” says Kudi, and you can set up an account in about 3 minutes and do just that. The platform supports bank account transfers, bill payments, and even mobile phone top-ups. Money transfers are free, payments incur about 30 cents per transaction. Agents can organize payments and transact on behalf of others using their own account and receive a share of Kudi’s take.
Given all of Africa’s farmlands, it’s no surprise that our next two startups were recently highlighted in our article on “10 AgTech Startups for Agriculture in Africa.” Founded in 2014, Cape Town, South Africa startup Aerobotics has raised $4.8 million to develop a geospatial intelligence platform that enables pest and disease detection in tree crops using drones, satellite imagery, and of course artificial intelligence to interpret all the big data that’s being collected.
The AI algorithms can analyze image data down to a single tree while providing statistics on tree health, tree count, tree size, and canopy area. The basic app access is free and the company makes money by offering a drone monitoring service that costs $3 per-acre per-month. Farmers that use their own drones pay a dollar less per acre.
Founded in 2016, Kenyan startup Apollo Agriculture has raised $1.6 million in funding to develop a platform for financing Kenyan small-scale farmers. Apollo uses machine learning algorithms on satellite data, soil data, farmer behavior, and crop yield models to deliver customized packages of seed, fertilizer, and even advice on how to grow better crops.
On the fintech side, Apollo Agriculture offers insurance and credit lines to farmers who can purchase high-quality seeds and fertilizer with flexible post-harvest repayment terms, all tailored to their GPS-tracked plot of land. Apollo claims this holistic approach can double yields of small farms and financially educate under-banked Kenyan farmers at the same time. This reminds us a lot of the work being done in Indonesia by the folks over at HARA.
Update 05/19/2020: Apollo Agriculture has raised $6 million in Series A funding. This brings the company’s total funding to $7.6 million to date.
The home of our next startup is the northernmost country in Africa and a place where Star Wars fans congregate to see famous set locations used during the earlier films. Founded in 2016, Tunisian startup Datavora has raised $893,000 to develop a market data platform for e-commerce. The startup gathers information like product assortment, prices, and specifications on tens of thousands of SKUs available online to provide benchmarks and competitive data for e-commerce providers. The algorithms consolidate and structure the data, match similar products, analyze market trends, and predict market behavior. The tool is used by retailers and brands to build sales and marketing strategies for ecommerce. Datavora covers more than 2,000 retailers in 50 countries and is updated multiple times a day. Prices start at $400 a month for monitoring one product category in three countries.
Founded in 2017, Kenyan startup Utu Technologies has raised $250,000 to develop a service provider recommendation platform based on peoples’ social media connections. It’s a “trust infrastructure” that aims is to empower service providers in sectors where customer trust is an issue like babysitting, teaching, IT development, and home maintenance. Utu’s approach is to find out who you know and then see who they can recommend so it’s kind of like word of mouth without having to talk to anyone. Of course, it only works if you don’t have any incompetent friends.
Utu has implemented this technology for taxi services in five countries already, so unless any of your friends are members of a rebel group that enjoys kidnapping, you should definitely give it a go. They’re also expanding to other web-based services such as offering social media data to peer-to-peer lenders who evaluate credit risk based on non-traditional data points.
If you’re willing to deal with some of the biggest asshole taxi drivers on the planet, you can see the Great Pyramids and visit our next startup all in the same day. Founded in 2017, Egyptian startup Botme has raised $100,000 to develop a platform that lets you build chatbots for product searches, order placement, payments, and shipping, using only messaging platforms. According to Botme, half of all consumers would make a purchase through a messaging app and 90% of them be return customers if the checkout is easy enough.
Bots are designed using conversational building blocks and workflows can be updated in real-time. Besides generic bots for client conversion and commercial management, Botme also has chatbots that take orders from guests in restaurants. The service is priced according to the number of conversations per month with a fixed subscription fee component and a percentage transaction fee component.
Founded in 2016, Nigerian startup KiaKia has raised $50,000 to develop a peer-to-peer lending platform which bears a similarity to Upstart. The platform matches users who want to lend money with users looking to borrow money, and in some cases will provide direct loans. The process is handled by a virtual AI agent called “Mr. K” that also does credit scoring based on borrowers’ activity on the platform, financial behavior, and social media information (the type being collected by Utu mentioned earlier). The company doesn’t have an app yet so lending goes through their web-based conversational interface. Mr. K offers short-term personal and small business loans with interest rates dependent on credit scores. The company makes money on commissions for peer-to-peer transactions and interest from direct loans. With a low default ratio of 2.3%, the solution is currently being used by 22 Nigerian states (there are 36 total).
Founded in 2016, Egyptian startup WideBot is another contender in the chatbot arena with $50,000 raised to develop a chatbot builder platform that’s specifically geared towards the 420 million Arabic speakers in the world. The chatbots can understand all the different dialects of the Arabic language, and then segment users for targeted broadcasts, allow online payments through the chat window, and provide usage analytics. The platform integrates with many content providers and e-commerce platforms like Google, Shopify, and WordPress and is used by companies in the Arabic speaking world including the Government of Dubai.
Founded in 2017, Nigerian startup Touchabl Pictures has raised $21,000 to develop a picture search app that enables users to get more information on the contents of a photo by touching it. For example, when a friend posts a selfie wearing a new watch, the app will recognize the brand and model and help you buy it online. (Don’t be that person.) The app targets e-commerce for fashion and lifestyle but can be adapted to other areas where visual search is required, like education and healthcare.
Presently, the platform allows users to find information on pictures in the Touchabl app or their own photo gallery, but the startup plans to extend its image recognition capabilities to other platforms as well. Around 95% of their users come from Nigeria, India, and the US, and the company plans to continue expanding internationally.
Founded in 2016, Johannesburg, South Africa startup GotBot has raised $18,000 to develop – wait for it – another commercial chatbot platform. The company offers its customer service bots through Facebook Messenger, Twitter, WeChat, Skype, SMS, and Web chat. They also have a commercial solution that lets you make purchases through Facebook Messenger. The startup’s AI algorithms help predict customer behavior and can suggest answers to customer service personnel in real-time or answer customer questions autonomously. In a big vote of confidence for their platform, GotBot has been working with the South African subsidiary of BNP Paribas since they launched.
It’s early days for African AI startups. Nine out of the ten companies on our list have been founded within the last three years, and funding amounts are quite low across the board. We also found a handful of startups that claimed they are using AI but we weren’t convinced. It’s no different to what we recently observed in Europe. Because AI is at the top of the Gartner Hype Cycle, it’s tempting for everyone to jump on the bandwagon. How can we be sure an “AI startup” is actually using AI? In the case of this list, we had to read what’s on the tin and try to make an assessment based on that. It’s never easy.
When putting together these top-10 lists, we always try to find an objective way to select which companies to include. For this article, we simply queried Crunchbase to look for startups classified as AI with the most disclosed funding. This means we’ll inevitably get a bunch of “you missed us” emails from startups that haven’t properly updated Crunchbase or disclosed their funding. If that’s you, drop us a note. But only if you have VC backing, some traction, and an actual application of AI (none of this Dr. Emu from Nigeria with a cure for herpes crap). We’d love to talk about what you’ve been getting up to.
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