Hazel Sive - Taking action in Africa
Conference spotlights companies and organizations that are innovating across various sectors.
Rob Matheson | MIT News Office
April 8, 2015
center stage at an MIT conference on Saturday were numerous startups,
big-name firms, and academic labs that are using new technologies,
and innovative business models, to impact Africa’s financial, health
care, and mobile sectors.
The fifth annual MIT Sloan Africa Innovate Conference, held in the
MIT Media Laboratory, focused on the theme, “What’s Your Big Idea?”
Speakers in three panel discussions and two keynote talks included
founders and leaders of technology and mobile companies, investment
firms, and large-scale retailers. Two “Vision Talks” highlighted the
work of MIT entrepreneurs who launched social ventures in Africa.
Apart from spotlighting entrepreneurs and innovators, the event’s aim
was to inspire the more than 100 attendees — MIT students and business
professionals alike — to “take action” in creating Africa’s future,
said Shaun Githuku, an MIT Sloan School of Management graduate student
who co-chaired the daylong conference, along with fellow MIT Sloan
graduate student Joelle Owona.
“We hope it inspires people to go out and deliver promises on their
ideas,” Githuku said. “You can have tangible impact just by applying
innovative techniques and being a little patient in the way you do it.”
The conference also included a business-plan competition, where MIT
teams competed for a grand prize of $4,000, a $2,000 second-place prize,
and a $1,000 audience-choice award. Six teams competed, with ideas that
included an “Uber model” for Africa’s large minibus market and
science-experiment lessons using repurposed items in Ghana.
Keynote speakers were Mostafa Terrab SM ’82, PhD ’90, chairman and
CEO of OCP Group, a Moroccan company that leads the world in phosphate
rock and phosphoric acid production, and Arnold Ekpe, chairman of
AtlasMara, a financial-services firm in Africa.
With a number of speakers who were MIT students and researchers,
Githuku said, “We’re trying to build the connection MIT has with Africa,
and highlight the similarities in the ethos, which is all about
The conference was organized the African Business Club, with
help from the MIT African Students Association and the MIT-Africa
Initiative — whose faculty director, Hazel Sive, a professor of biology
and a native of South Africa, was on hand to deliver opening remarks.
Africa: Living the future
A topic in common among the three panel discussions — “The Next
Generation of Entrepreneurs,” “Building the African Supply Chain,” and
“Connecting the Continent” — was how novel technologies have improved
Africa’s supply chain, and its mobile and health care industries.
The “Connecting the Continent” panel included Cory Zue ’04, SM ’05,
now chief technology officer of Dimagi, a 2002 Media Lab spinout that
designs software for health care applications across Africa and in
In discussing Dimagi’s impact, Zue referenced his company’s role in
designing SmartCare, one of Africa’s largest electronic health record
systems, across Zambia. The system uses smart cards that contain every
user’s entire medical record, and has been deployed by Zambia’s Ministry
of Health with 200,000 patients.
One thing that’s surprising, Zue said, is Zambia now tops the U.S. in
its maintenance of health care records. “That’s better health care than
we have in the U.S., in terms of informatics,” he said.
Another panelist, Nathan Eagle PhD ’05, founded Jana, which has
partnered with 237 mobile operators to give more than 25 million prepaid
cellphone users across Africa, Asia, and Latin America free data for
watching ads and participating in surveys. So far, Jana has generated
more than 480 terabytes of free data.
With Dimagi and Jana, said panel moderator Joost Bonsen, a Media Lab
lecturer, some Africans are “living the future. … These countries are
places where the future is being prototyped,” Bonsen said. “They’re
living labs for how the rest of us, in the future, might [develop].”
The “Building the African Supply Chain” panel addressed, among other
things, how technological innovations have improved supply chains in
facilitating international trade and servicing burgeoning markets.
Panelist Jarrod Goentzel, director of the MIT Humanitarian Response
Lab, which aims to improve supply chains and response times during
humanitarian crises, said mobile technologies have great potential for
improving supply chains, especially among African countries.
Among other things, Goentzel said, mobile technologies are enabling
anti-counterfeiting measures for, say, pharmaceuticals, with receivers
able to send text messages with codes to verify authenticity. “In some
cases, it’s life-saving,” he said.
Visions for Africa
In his Vision Talk, Ghana native and MIT alumnus Kwami Williams ’12 discussed his startup, MoringaConnect,
which trains farmers to grow and shell the abundant Moringa plant for
its valuable seeds and leaves — a project, started in MIT’s D-Lab, that
earned Williams a D-Lab Scale-Up Fellowship in 2013.
Williams described the Moringa tree as an “underutilized supercrop”
whose seeds contain oil that can be used for cosmetics and leaves that
are very nutritious. But some farmers are feeding the plants to cows.
With MoringaConnect, Williams said, farmers are now selling the seeds
for supplemental income, and using the leaves for nutrition.
But Williams used MoringaConnect as a jumping-off point to address
agriculture issues across Africa — which, he said, has 1.5 billion acres
of arable land, but spends more than $40 billion annually on imported
food. “There are immense agricultural potential and untapped resources
that you and I have a role in realizing,” Williams said.
For instance, he explained, in Ghana mangos often cover the roads.
“This is immense waste,” Williams said. “What would it take to take this
abundance of mangoes, dry it, and get it to consumers who need it for
nutrition and want it because it’s delicious? The time is now for us to …
start to build the Africa that we dream of.”
a PhD student in the Media Lab and Sierra Leone native, delivered the
other Vision Talk, focusing on his nonprofit Global Minimum Inc., which
provides young inventors in his home country with resources to eliminate
the need for foreign aid.
Proving ground for startups
Six teams competed in this year’s business-plan competition. Each had
a few minutes to pitch an idea and field questions from four judges.
Previous competitors, such as Disease Diagnostic Group, have gone on to
win MIT’s $100K Entrepreneurship Competition. “We like to think this is a proving ground for [startups],” Githuku said.
First place this year went to the Practical Education Network (PEN),
which has developed hundreds of lesson plans for teachers in Ghana that
involve repurposing low-cost materials for hands-on science experiments.
Jam jars can be used for beakers, for instance, and batteries can be
used for crude weights.
Pitching PEN, mechanical engineering PhD student Heather Beem said
fewer than 10 percent of junior high schools in Ghana have basic science
equipment — similar to the constraints faced by 10 million schools
across Africa. In November, Beem traveled to Ghana to pilot a PEN
workshop with more than 20 teachers.
The plan, Beem told the judges, is to launch PEN in Ghana, but scale
it across Africa. “With your support, we can help teachers across the
continent use hands-on science to inspire and engage the next
generation,” she said.
Second place went to MDaaS, which leases medical equipment to
hospitals. Audience-choice recipient was MatatuMoney, whose business
model resembles Uber, but for the massive minibus market in African
Other teams included Addis Ideas, which aims to crowdsource
development ideas from Africans; Airspress, a digital marketplace where
users ask travelers to bring goods to other countries to avoid high
shipping fees; and Safire, which developed novel ways to break down