From cute apps to 'show me the money': The changing face of Uganda's young startup scene

Kenya's 'Silicon Savannah' may be getting all the headlines, but Uganda is quietly growing its own startup ecosystem.
Written by Hilary Heuler, Contributor

When 22 year-old Ugandan software developer Titus Mawano decided to name his new app after a fruit — Ffene, which means 'jackfruit' in Luganda — he didn't have Apple in mind. "While I knew about that similarity when I named it, it wasn't the biggest consideration," he says. The name had more to do with finding an object that was familiar, not technical and unintimidating for users.

But Ffene, while it might not have Cupertino's brand recognition, is in its own quiet way playing a key role in Uganda's growing startup scene.

The app offers small and medium-sized Ugandan businesses an affordable local alternative to standard business management software. Programs like Quick Books can cost Ugandans thousands of dollars to buy, making them prohibitive for all but the largest firms. Ffene costs users just $12 a month, and although it only works on desktop platforms now, the app will soon be available on Android and iOS as well, allowing even farmers to use it while out in their fields. Ffene aims to replace paper-and-pen record keeping on which most Ugandan businesses rely. Although its content is not specifically African, it's designed to be simple to use — simple enough for those without an accounting background, or even much computing experience at all.

Mawano was one of three winners of the annual Apps4Africa contest, and is aiming to build his app into a successful business in its own right.

In Uganda, he says, that makes him an outlier.

Competition winners vs business builders

"When we won, people were asking us, 'so what are you going to work on next?' And I was like, 'I'm working on this!'" he says. "People are not into building a business, they want to build an app that wins something." Most Ugandan developers move from one competition to the next, he adds, hoping to attract the attention of potential employers.

"We want to move away from these cute competitions," says Teddy Ruge, the founder of Kampala tech incubator the Hive. "Cute apps don't create businesses. They don't employ people, they don't generate revenue. They're fun, but we need to go beyond that."

Mawano represents one of a new breed of Ugandan developers, one determined to build his app into a profitable business. His firm's focus on the bottom line is a sign of the country's maturing startup scene, which still trails its growing counterpart in neighboring Kenya.

Kenya has been the leader of East Africa's startup scene for years, with a raft of successful software releases like Ushahidi, which have attracted international attention and outside investment. Nairobi also boasts a number of buzzing technology incubators. But perhaps most importantly, the Kenyan government, eager to boost the country's reputation and IT credibility, has been tremendously supportive. Earlier this year it pledged billions of dollars to build a new city, Konza Technology City, which it hopes will become Africa's 'Silicon Savannah'.

This kind of government support is something Uganda sorely lacks, says software developer Laban Jemba. Although Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni claims to champion the tech sector, few concrete measures have been taken to nurture it.

Until now, private investment has proven equally elusive. Jemba says Ugandan banks are leery of loaning money to budding IT businesses, largely out of a lack of confidence in homegrown products.

Without a major hit to demonstrate that Ugandan startups can turn a profit, venture capital will steer clear of the country's tech industry, according to the Hive's Ruge. In the meantime developers looking to grow their businesses will be forced to rely on angel investors. "Venture capital requires a mature environment. What we need is patient capital who will say, 'here's a couple of grand, I realize it's going to take a while [to turn a profit] because it's a tricky market'," he says.

'Show me the money'

Ruge, who has been involved in Uganda's tech scene since 2008, says Ugandans still have a tendency to think too short-term, and too small, to create the kind of successful tech businesses the country needs. But lately, he's seen a small but growing cohort of developers trying to make a living from their products. He hopes co-working spaces like the Hive will encourage more to join them.

"All the people that come through here, we give them the Jerry Maguire: 'show me the money, because it's all about money'," he says, adding that an app cannot scale up without demonstrable numbers, revenue, a customer base and a roadmap to growth.

Inspiration is already trickling in from abroad. Mawano admits that he got the idea for Ffene while working with a group of entrepreneurs at Georgia Tech, where he spent several years studying aerospace engineering. For Jemba, it was a stint in London that opened his eyes to the financial potential of apps. Now he's back in Kampala working on several platforms of his own, which he plans to integrate into existing phone and mobile money services. He has no interest in awards, he says, and fully intends to build something that will eventually support his family.

Even without the capital or government support, Uganda's startup scene is growing. Ffene was the first Ugandan app to ever win Apps4Africa, and Kampala is now home to three business incubators of its own. Ruge says the Mobile Monday events he hosts have grown from around 50 people to well over 200.

Mawano, for one, is confident that given time, Ugandan developers can catch up with their Kenyan neighbors. "The gap's not so big that it's insurmountable," he says.

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