SPECIAL REPORT

Zimbabwean “Techpreneurs” Innovate Despite Economic Crisis and Local Challenges

 
 
Entrepreneur Michael Dera works on fixing bugs in a website he developed while at The Techvillage, a coworking space in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe. Dera is a developer at Hackshack, a startup he founded to provide computer hardware for students and engineers. Lindelwe Mgodla, GPJ Zimbabwe
Zimbabwe

Last month, the Zimbabwean government announced a substantial loan program to support the country’s startups and youth tech entrepreneurs, or “techpreneurs,” but some are skeptical that a government facing a cash shortage and economic crisis can afford to make good on its promises. Whether or not the loans materialize, in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe’s second largest city, techpreneurs are continuing to innovate to improve quality of life despite educational, economic and monetization challenges.

BULAWAYO, ZIMBABWE — Takunda Chingozoh founded The Techvillage, a coworking space in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe’s second largest city, to support early-stage entrepreneurs.

In a country consumed by unemployment, cash shortages and an unstable political and economic future, young people are turning to technology to reclaim dilapidated industries and transform conventional workplaces.

“We are creating technology for African development. We believe that tech enterprises will serve to create employment for people in a new information- and technology-driven industry,” Chingozoh says.

The Techvillage exists to help young entrepreneurs, often called techpreneurs here, use technology to solve some of Zimbabwe’s endemic problems, like unemployment.

“As tech enterprises, we create micro-opportunities in the job market, where previously one company would employ 100 people, it is more viable for 10 startups to employ 10 people,” Chingozoh says.

Despite Zimbabwe’s skyrocketing unemployment and a crippling cash shortage, coworking spaces are emerging to support tech-savvy young people who are working to turn the informal economy into creative new opportunities. Last month, the Zimbabwean government pushed into the startup space, offering a $25 million ICT Innovation Drive fund for startups from the Postal and Telecommunications Regulatory Authority of Zimbabwe, known as POTRAZ.

But just weeks after the announcement, and amid questions about how a cash-poor government that just began issuing bond notes could afford a $25 million innovation loan fund, officials admitted the fund would instead offer around $5 million in loans to entrepreneurs.

Throughout Africa, technology startups are booming. Business competitions and opportunities for early-stage entrepreneurs are becoming increasingly common, and companies like TechCrunch, Facebook and Microsoft, as well as banks, like Barclays, and venture capital firms are looking to African entrepreneurs for new innovations.

According to rankings published in 2016 by the African Exponent, an online publication that covers business, finance, markets and technology in Africa, Zimbabwe ranked ninth on a top 10 list of technologically advanced countries in Africa, owing in part to growing technology-based investment from some Asian countries.

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Entrepreneurs at the Techvillage coworking space brainstorm solutions to pressing challenges like monetizing their online businesses and helping Zimbabweans become more tech savvy.

Lindelwe Mgodla, GPJ Zimbabwe

The new POTRAZ fund is offering loans (which will need to be paid back within 36 months) to local innovators with “brilliant ideas that have the potential to revolutionize its target market and/or drastically change the lives of Zimbabweans and the economy as a whole,” according to the fund announcement posted on May 4.

Weeks after the announcement, Dr. Sam Kundishora of the Ministry of Information Communication Technology, Postal and Courier Services told Global Press Journal that in reality, the fund would be much smaller than the $25 million promised.

“When we started talking about this, it was never going to be $25 million but maybe between $5-6 million,” Kundishora says.

Although the country is in the middle of an economic meltdown, Kundishora maintains that the ministry will be able to fulfill their mandate to the applicants of the fund but adds that it hasn’t officially launched yet.

“We have not yet launched the fund and will only do so once we have put in place all the necessary procedures,” he says.

The fund, which aims to benefit the youth entrepreneurs in the country, has been met with skepticism from the public. Larry Jawi, 22, the founder of “LetsGo,” a ride sharing platform, says he has deep reservations about the fund.

“I am concerned about giving my entire business idea and plan to these guys,” he says, referring to the government. “What guarantee do I have that our ideas are not just being stored in a database and will be recycled?”

He has questions about the perks the fund is offering too.

“Part of the fund award is a 6-month mentorship. But who are these mentors? And will they be legitimate business people or will they be simply anyone of the street? I feel that six months is not enough time for a business to grow, especially in this volatile environment,” Jawi says.

In a country consumed by unemployment, cash shortages and an unstable political and economic future, young people are turning to technology to reclaim dilapidated industries and transform conventional workplaces.

Although techpreneurship is providing some new opportunities, entrepreneurs face a host of challenges, from the high cost of internet to a lack of education about technology in the general public.

Michael Dera, a software developer based in Bulawayo, says there is a general lack of education about technology, which inhibits the growth of startups here.

“Technology should be used as a means to make business operation more efficient, but currently technology is viewed as a complicated thing understood by a select few,” he says. “Zimbabwe is home to few developers, coders, programmers and people who build hardware. This makes it difficult for the sector to develop.”

Despite the challenges and regardless of the government’s fund, entrepreneurs are pushing forward, inspired to use technology to spur social change in Zimbabwe.

Audrey Murenzvi, 24, is the founder of Room8, a website that aims to ease housing challenges for local students by linking them up with landlords in the area. Murenzvi says starting a website to solve a local challenge was a natural fit for students and landlords alike.

“What I loved mostly about Room8, was not the accommodation placement aspect of it but rather improving lives and making a difference in people’s lives and in generations to come,” Murenzvi says. “It’s about making sure that Room8 begins to define the ultimate college experience.”

Still, entrepreneurs in the global tech space, from Silicon Valley to Bulawayo, struggle to monetize their enterprises.

Sanchez Manyika, 23, creates and edits videos for local organizations on contract to supplement his true passion — running an information site that creates filler episodes of Japanese anime, fillerepisodes.net.

“The site has been received well by my Zimbabwean audience, and there is definitely a market for it because in Harare alone, there are over 100,000 anime watchers,” he says. “The problem is that I have not been able to monetize on these numbers because adverts for Zimbabwean viewers do not pay as much.”

While challenges to the emerging techpreneurship space remain, advocates say it’s a positive step forward that young Zimbabweans are using technology to solve some of the country’s entrenched problems.

Noma Ndlovu, 29, marketing coordinator at Skyhub, another coworking technology hub for entrepreneurs, says young people are making strides in the technology sector, despite the economic hardship faced by Zimbabweans.

“I think young people must look beyond the economic instability and identify ways in which they can use technologies to make lives easy for the people around them,” Ndlovu says.