Leaps and Bounds
Project Teams in Lagos, Nairobi, and Cape Town are Helping Drive High-Tech Change across Africa
BY NOVID PARSI
An entrepreneur at the iHub technology innovation center in Nairobi, Kenya
PHOTO BY WALDO SWIEGERS/BLOOMBERG VIA GETTY IMAGES
A high-tech gold rush has turned parts of Africa into sub-Saharan Silicon Valleys.
Startups and global giants alike are driving digital transformations that are helping even remote areas of the region leapfrog into the future. While venture capitalists and angel investors are flooding much of the continent with funds, three cities have attracted the most interest and are fueling the most project opportunities: Lagos, Nigeria; Nairobi, Kenya; and Cape Town, South Africa.
This year, Facebook will open its first African tech hub in Lagos, where the startup ecosystem is valued at US$2 billion. Also in Lagos, Google plans to open its first Google Launchpad Space outside the United States to help project teams develop and scale their innovations. In 2016 (the most recent year for available data), Cape Town received 60 percent of the venture capital funds in South Africa, where investments that year increased by 134 percent. And in Nairobi, tech hubs and incubators are driving disruption and spreading influence, with initiatives spilling into neighboring cities and countries.
But in these emerging economies, cellular and broadband network infrastructure deficiencies can wreak havoc on project plans. Fast-moving entrepreneurs need project professionals to right-size ambitions, manage risks and navigate critical obstacles. Teams must keep the digital lay of the land top of mind: Less than one-third of the population in all of Africa has internet service, and less than half of the population in most of Central Africa has mobile phones. So project leaders are stepping in to identify possible pain points, ramp up testing phases and build in contingencies that can help address necessary changes for digital products and services.
Here's how project managers are facing two pressing challenges head-on.
STRETCHING TALENT TO FILL GAPS
Digital growth hinges on the ability of tech hubs and startups to attract, develop and retain project talent. Doing that is hard for teams at deep-pocketed and well-established tech ventures—let alone the small startups that typify the tech scenes in Lagos, Nairobi and Cape Town. So versatility is a key requirement for project teams.
“In our ecosystem, we have to stretch whatever resources we have a lot further,” says Peter Ngunyi, founder and CEO, EarlyBird Venture Lab, Nairobi. “Having a company that raises everyone to think like a project manager and report on their progress, timelines and delivery is how to get African startups to the market faster.”
In Lagos, e-commerce startup Jumia provides project management training and tools to build enterprise awareness of the value of good practices and processes. The company's small teams also execute skunk-works projects to spur innovation on R&D initiatives, says Omolarami Awoyemi, head of strategic partnerships and payment solutions and country manager, Jumia and JumiaPay.
“Having a company that raises everyone to think like a project manager … is how to get African startups to the market faster.”
—Peter Ngunyi, EarlyBird Venture Lab, Nairobi, Kenya
“Project managers want to be in organizations that see technology as a priority and provide room for professional growth,” she says.
More mature organizations take things a step further: They encourage the pursuit of project management certifications and stress the value of developing people skills through formal knowledge transfer and mentoring, says Christia Wollner, senior project manager, King James Digital, Cape Town.
“One way to mitigate the talent risk is to have experienced staff members, who have managed more complex projects, build relationships with newer staff members,” Ms. Wollner says.
Co-locating teams on complex projects also can help bridge talent gaps, she says. Near the end of an eight-month, US$84,000 project last year to develop an app feature for a client with legacy systems, the client decided to change the authentication process for the new feature. Ms. Wollner convinced her team members to travel to the client's site and work directly with its developers to facilitate knowledge sharing and ensure on-time delivery.
“That made a massive difference. The final phase went very quickly, despite the unexpected change,” she says.
“One way to mitigate the talent risk is to have experienced staff members, who have managed more complex projects, build relationships with newer staff members.”
—Christia Wollner, King James Digital, Cape Town, South Africa
EMPHASIZING A STRATEGIC MINDSET
At nascent organizations, tech initiatives often represent new terrain for project teams and sponsors alike. Impatient executives can overwhelm project teams with outsized expectations—and unrealistic demands. Project managers can prevent this dynamic or mitigate its impact by emphasizing strategic goals from the start and raising red flags when change requests stray from big-picture benefits.
iHub's office in Nairobi, Kenya
PHOTO BY WALDO SWIEGERS/BLOOMBERG VIA GETTY IMAGES
“Many organizations want to embark on tech projects without understanding why the projects need to happen,” Ms. Awoyemi says. “It's the work of project managers at all phases to communicate clearly with sponsors and C-level executives about how project changes align to the objective.”
Strategic realignment was necessary last year when her team delivered a project to launch a third-party payment service, JumiaPay, that allows online shoppers to pay directly via their bank accounts rather than use a debit card. Impressed by a successful pilot launch, sponsors requested that the team immediately bump up JumiaPay to the second payment option listed at checkout to attract more customers.
But Ms. Awoyemi knew that change could backfire. She reminded sponsors that the project plan called for JumiaPay to remain the third option through the end of the year so the team would have time to build out operation and technical capacities that could handle the extra traffic. After she explained the potential consequences of prematurely making JumiaPay the second payment option—such as having to compensate customers for mishandled transactions—sponsors agreed to wait. Sticking with the original plan paid off. Since the change, transactional traffic has increased by about 150 times over the previous year with no glitches, Ms. Awoyemi says.
“It's always disastrous when you expand a product without proper planning,” she says. “By going over the project plan again with sponsors, we were able to communicate the negative impact of sudden expansion.” PM
“By going over the project plan again with sponsors, we were able to communicate the negative impact of sudden expansion.”
—Omolarami Awoyemi, Jumia and JumiaPay, Lagos, Nigeria
Centers of Attention
An influx of investments in three countries is driving high-tech transformations in sub-Saharan Africa.
PHOTO BY PER-ANDERS PETTERSSON/GETTY IMAGES
1 SOUTH AFRICA
Startup investments: US$96.8 million*
Hot spot: Cape Town
The city has allocated ZAR222 million to broadband infrastructure through 2020. This year it called for project proposals to make it Africa's first smart city.
Startup investments: US$109.4 million*
Hot spot: Lagos
To address the growing need for tech infrastructure, such as reliable high-speed mobile networks, the tech hub CcHUB will build a US$8 million innovation center by 2020. The facility will also house startup companies and industry events such as hack-athons.
Startup investments: US$92.7 million*
Hot spot: Nairobi
Investors around the world are supporting a US$14.5 billion project to build a technology city 60 kilometers (37.3 miles) south of Nairobi. Sponsored by Kenya's ministry of information and communications technology, the development is modeled after Silicon Valley and is expected to create 17,000 new tech jobs when completed by 2030.
*Investments in 2016 (the most recent year for which data is available)
The digital revolution in sub-Saharan Africa is delivering innovations well beyond the tech sector.
Tech innovators are creating new medical services in Nigeria by developing mobile and web-based applications that quickly connect patients to doctors. For instance, Kangpe Healthcare Services has launched a project that this year will deliver new features for the Kangpe mobile app. The app allows patients to get an initial online diagnosis within 10 minutes by submitting symptoms—or even images—via smartphones. Paid subscribers have access to real-time chats with doctors.
Fintech startups are helping small businesses in South Africa. In a country where more than 75 percent of adults use credit cards but 6 percent of businesses can process them, new services are helping expand point-of-sale payment options. Yoco is completing a project that will this year scale its mobile card reader to more than 14,000 merchants in South Africa. The first phase of service was rolled out two years ago and allows businesses to use tablets or other wireless devices to process credit card payments and create digital receipts.
Several startups in Kenya have launched mobile apps designed to help farmers prosper. M-Farm has an app by the same name that enables farmers to connect with local buyers and select the best price for their produce. The next step: M-Farm is working on a project to add a feature that will provide a planting guide designed to help farmers boost crop yields.