Africa’s top performing countries are set to become part of the world’s fastest growing economies in 2024, but their startup landscapes are a world apart from the gleaming hubs of Silicon Valley. Prasenjit Sinha and Gift Lubele are resolving some of the continent’s – and perhaps the world’s – most pressing issues in a more sustainable way than we can imagine.
Breev, co-founded by Prasenjit, started out as an idea on a road trip that turned a BMW i3 into the highest mileage electric vehicle in Africa. Through affordable electric vehicle (EV) charge points, Breev aims to double Africa’s access to personal mobility while halving its impact on the climate. They currently have 15 live public chargers across Kenya and South Africa.
Kudoti, co-founded by Gift, has digitized and tracked more than 15 million tons of waste across the world from South Africa to Chile.. By offering visibility into what happens to waste with real-time data, this digital platform paves the way for brands to be fully circular and more sustainable in a world which generates over 2 billion tons of waste each year – most of which ends up in landfills.
Our candid conversations with both founders shed some light on how their startups empower the underrepresented majority and create value that transcends Africa’s borders through a blend of tech and ingenuity.
Prasenjit Sinha, 42, Co-founder and Chief Product Officer of Breev
Prasenjit Sinha has an ambitious plan for Breev – to put an electric vehicle charger in every town in Africa. He’s no stranger to adversity or the startup scene, having co-founded Be Bold and Kudoti previously, and has been voted one of the Top 10 Indian business leaders in South Africa.
Meta for Work Explores: What’s different about running a startup in Africa that most people don’t realize? And what impact are your startups making?
Prasenjit Sinha: I met and even argued with Pascal Finette and Peter Diamandis in Silicon Valley. What I couldn't understand was how people don't see the gaps in economics, connectivity, and technology when they think of new technology. When we speak about VR, AR and AI, there's at least a billion people in the world that have nothing to do with it.
There's always a strata of people that are not connected because of the cost and lack of infrastructure. Basic road and rail infrastructure is missing and therefore telecom infrastructure is missing. When I was in Singularity University in San Jose and we were all talking about AI, Internet of Things and globally connected worlds, I was a bit disconnected. What are you guys talking about? I know people that live five kilometers from here – at least 100,000 to 200,000 of them live from day-to-day and, and connectivity is the last of their priorities.
The first and biggest challenge was the digital divide. That’s where Kudoti came from. Recycling represents one of those vocations that allow people access to engage with the rest of the world and be productive. But these people in the townships of South Africa didn't have the devices or the means to report the good work they were doing.
Kudoti creates that exchange of information and incentive between the digital not-haves and the responsible producers. At the end of 15 million tons of transactions is an informal waste picker whose daily income is less than a dollar. The incentive of almost 50 US cents for every kilo of waste has grown his or her income substantially.
But what about all those people that haven't been able to connect and therefore haven't been able to share the work that they've done in recycling? That’s why I’m also involved with United Wireless, a Pan-African fixed wireless access network that will help reduce the cost of network infrastructure.
Fixed wireless takes away the need for drawing fiber. It creates fiber-like speeds from the air interface and for very large distances between 10-15 km each. By this year, we will have covered an unprecedented five million homes here. Our key investor is MTN South Africa. The next network we received a commitment of $18 million from – just last month – is in Uganda, where internet penetration is just 30%. We are going to create a network which will have capacity for 300,000 broadband subscriptions there this year. And we are looking at Nigeria next.
What problem does Breev aim to solve that is unique to South Africa and the continent?
PS: Breev exists because 70% of Africans do not have access to personal mobility. This is not the West. There are millions of people who haven’t taken a decent bus ride, let alone have a motorbike to ride from point A to B. I come from India so I know this happens. If you take a milkman’s bicycle and replace it with a motorbike, what happens to his business is it just grows dramatically. But the price of petrol is an obstacle.
With photovoltaic and EVs hitting price parity in Africa today, EV two-wheelers are on par with petrol two-wheelers. The mission then becomes creating personal mobility for Africans. That means charging two and three wheelers and fueling small businesses. That’s why we are focusing on locations that are public. We’re not focusing on [wealthy areas like] Melrose Arch and Sandton City because that’s been done by Gridcars and Jaguar as they have to sell cars there. We’re building this for the 20 to 30 million adults that don’t have personal mobility in South Africa. Imagine if they had it what that could do for the economy – there's no doubt in anyone's mind that the economy is struggling.
MFWE: What other major transportation challenges does South Africa face?
PS: Public transport in South Africa is still 20 years behind the curve. People that work with us and my family – they live in townships and have to change two, three public minibus taxis every day to come into the office. And they don't live more than 10 kilometers away. Public transport is fragmented and is not readily available as much as when I was growing up in Mumbai.
Kenya is further ahead – they have 1.2 million boda-bodas [motorcycle taxis]. That to me represents real public transport because a boda-boda is accessible, can go anywhere and they are cheaper to maintain. That’s a million businesses that are really working from the bottom of the pyramid all the way up. South Africa only has 50,000 of those bikes. Kenya is better prepared for the e-commerce economy than South Africa was. We have catching up to do, even within southern Africa. It’s a paradoxical situation.
Gift Lubele, 26, Co-founder & Chief Operating Officer of Kudoti
TEDx Speaker, World Economic Forum Global Shaper and resident of Fast Company’s Top 20 Under 30 Entrepreneurs, Gift Lubele is known as the circular economy entrepreneur who ‘turns waste into money’.
Kudoti was named the Most Innovative Company in South Africa in 2020, awarded Nestlé’s 2021 Creating Shared Value (CSV) Prize and backed by Google for Startups Black Founders Fund Africa and Techstar for pre-seed.
MFWE: Could you describe how Kudoti helps waste companies coordinate their waste activities and how this benefits every stakeholder in the value chain?
Gift Lubele: Typically, a waste company would have three to four stages which ends with some form of reporting directly to the clients, partners or funders.
In those different stages, we've seen that there isn't a good way that those waste companies collect data. The data is collected manually, through the use of Excel spreadsheets and paper-based methods, which really do work, but there aren’t many analytics you can get from an old paper.
We assist these companies by giving them a digital platform that helps them grow. With digitized operations, you have good data. You could start getting more funding and support from potential partners because you can show them how your business is running. You as a business owner now have an interactive intelligent dashboard that helps with business analytics.
For instance, plastic or PET is affected by oil fluctuations. Many SMEs within the space don't really know how to respond to that. They wait and take it as it comes. With good historic data presented in a very pleasing visual way, you could look at your performance and adjust your pricing so that you still have a smooth operation.
We see recycling companies as a foundation to helping brands. A lot of brands are committing to be circular but they really don't know how to do it. There aren’t real practical use cases that show that this brand is actually being circular. We are building a network of recycling SMEs that serve as off-takers of certain materials, and they become part of our initiatives that include the brands.
We've been working with Heineken for quite some time. They put a lot of bottles – 800 million – in the South African market. Previously, they didn't have a good understanding of where those bottles go, who handles them, but more importantly, how can they bring them back into their daily chain?
Today, there's a lot of SMEs that handle these bottles but they’re working separately from the brand. What we've been able to do is to work with SMEs within townships, logistics providers, and even informal waste collectors. We’ve added them onto the platform, customized the different data points that are needed at each stage and have the ability to track where a bottle of Heineken was collected, by whom, and where it is.
But more importantly, we can divert where that bottle goes. We're bringing them back into Heineken’s value chain – the same bottle that would previously go to a landfill. Now, we not only have data that Heineken can use and say, ‘This is the data of how many bottles we've recycled,’ but they could also say, ‘This is the number of bottles we have brought back into our value chain.’
Ultimately, the amount of virgin material that is coming into their production line decreases, and we then increase the total amount of recycled materials that they use for production. That whole value chain involves working with recycling SMEs that are already handling these bottles. Working with them, digitizing them and helping them be more efficient in their operation is helping us build a strong foundation for other exciting projects that we're doing with brands.
MFWE: What has the impact been like on the informal economy?
GL: Previously, informal waste pickers were not recognized. They were seen as savages. Even the government didn't recognize them until recent research showed that informal waste pickers are responsible for 80 to 90 percent of all household packaging, and that they saved the government up to 850 million rand every year in potential landfill costs.
The biggest organization that represents informal waste pickers in South Africa has a database of three to four thousand individuals. We have given them visibility of who's doing a good job from a waste collection point of view across four provinces in South Africa. By showing proof that these individuals are important, we've been able to unlock quite a significant amount of investment the government of Cape Town puts in these SMEs.
MFWE: Having grown up in a township yourself, what other challenges do these communities face and how have you given back?
GL: People in South Africa move from very rural parts, and they go stay in townships, and then a small city. If things are going well, you move to a big city. Many people don’t even get to a small city – they just get stuck in townships forever. That’s where you’ll find the vast majority of South Africans who have moved out from rural places to find employment opportunities, which are not there. Very few break out of it.
What is it like to live in a township?
We have a project with the Cape Town government and have a presence in seven townships here. It’s the same pattern – crime, unemployment, electricity, water, and infrastructure crisis. Every time I meet someone from the township, there’s a strong sense of appreciation because I understand how difficult it is to break out of it. Once you have, there’s almost an obligation to try and help where you can.
Share how you do things. Share what challenges you’ve had. Share how you’ve overcome them.
Part of the challenge of staying in townships is the lack of access to good-quality individuals that can be mentors or role models. You need to go outside of the township to find them somewhere else. And even that is not guaranteed. I think more people need to see that it's possible to literally come out of the pits and actually do something quite meaningful with your life.
Bridging the equality gap on one side of the world improves our collective carbon footprint
By bringing cheaper, cleaner fuel alternatives to African communities, Breev opens up the possibilities for millions of have-nots. “Affordable personal mobility means people can commute safely from their home to work in half the time that it takes them now,” says Prasenjit. “They'll get time to study, finish university and pay off their mortgage faster.” And Breev accelerates this impact by sharing principles, blueprints, and strategies with other EV charging startups in developing nations.
Kudoti has increased efficiency within the SME waste management space. More importantly, manufacturing stakeholders are able to use their platform for easy traceability of their internal or external value chain and reverse their supply chain as a result. With verified sustainability data, brands can then report to their investors, partners, and clients.
Gift believes a lot more can be done. “We speak a lot to big brands that have sustainability and circularity targets, but translating those big goals into actions is happening very slowly. There’s still thinking brands need to do to make their goals practical,” he said.
Breev and Kudoti are ambitious outliers, utilizing the lessons of today to shape the future of work. To read another example, check out our meeting with Dr Wong Man Ho, and discover how she and her colleagues are breaking down language barriers using AI.