South African Star...

South African Start-Up's Apps ‘Gamify’ Learning to Solve Social Issues

Afroes began as a small start-up in South Africa with a mission to “gamify” Africa’s 21st-century learning needs. The digital enterprise has developed several mobile app games to raise awareness about social issues, including gender-based violence, child security, and environmental protection. By 2014, Afroes had expanded its operations from South Africa to Kenya, when we profiled its founder, Anne Shongwe, in our “Meet the Entrepreneurs” series. At the time, Afroes received support from both mLab Southern Africa and mLab East Africa

To date, the company has launched five games and reached over 850,000 users. Along the way, they’ve won 13 awards and prizes and secured at least 16 business contracts. Recently, we thought we’d check back in, and spoke with Gathoni Mwai, Afroes’ country manager in Kenya.

Photo Credit: AfroesWhat inspired you to join Afroes?

My background is in community development and social impact. I had worked before in rural areas of Kenya on programs focused on sustainable livelihoods.

So, when the opportunity came to join Afroes in 2012, I was excited to learn about how we can leverage technology to better engage with communities, and especially young people — to change mindsets using new technology!

How does your team identify and develop new games?

From the beginning, our games have been funded through organizations already involved in a specific social issue. For example, Moraba helps users learn about gender-based violence, and it was originally developed in partnership with UN Women in South Africa. However, we also aim to localize the games for the landscape where they’re being played. So, we’ve also talked to the UN Women office in Kenya about customizing Moraba for our local context.

At the moment, we’re working with the Rockefeller Foundation’s Digital Jobs Africa, which aims to impact 1 million lives. So we’ve developed a new game called Job Hunt that aims to help young people learn about digital jobs. This will be our first game to be launched in Kenya, South Africa, and Nigeria. We hope this will lead to other opportunities in West Africa as well.

What does Afroes’ business model and team structure look like today?

Since 2013, we’ve changed our digital platform, reorganized into a much leaner start-up, and thus, lowered our operating budget.

In Kenya, we only have two staff members; however, we work very closely with another small company, Leti Arts, who are also based at mLab East Africa, and help develop our games. In addition, we have a team of about 20 Mobiv8ors, or mobile activators, who are members of the youth community that go out, engage with our target audience, and get them to play the games. In South Africa, we have three full-time staff and five part-time consultants who provide more technical support. Overall, while we might have a leaner staff, we’re enabling a larger supply chain of jobs to subcontractors, part-time developers, and students.

We’re at the stage where we believe we’re ready to scale up. So, we’ve been seeking guidance from financial advisors, engaging with potential investors, and started thinking harder about how we want to present our organization.

What has been the most rewarding part of working at Afroes?

We call the process of developing our games “the Afroes’ Way,” which is human-centered design thinking and research. So for me the most exciting part is when we go to discuss issues with young people, really engaging and listening to what they have to say. As the process goes on, we incorporate their feedback into the game, and when we go back to show them what we’ve created, people can see how their input has been used.

That process is what really excites me — I can feel the impact being made!

How would you define success for Afroes?

We are essentially in the digital education space, so I define success as having our games incorporated into the school system’s curriculum.

What we aim to do is to develop games that are complementary to what you learn in school; to provide the life skills portion. So, things that your teachers might not necessarily be teaching you in school, but things that are nonetheless critical for students to learn.

Of course, success is also gaining a number of contracts, and generating more revenue, but there has to be a healthy balance. I think when companies are able to make an impact, and invoking people’s passions — that’s when greatness happens! And great ideas usually find a way to make money. 

A team of Mobiv8ors learn the game before going out to attract new users.
A team of Mobiv8ors learn the game before going out to attract new users. [Photo Credit: Afroes]

How have the mLabs in Kenya and South Africa enabled Afroes’ success today?

The mLabs provide a great start-up opportunity space. The program gives you all the early-stage support that you need, from your business model to your marketing plan, and even your finance strategy.

Through the mLab, you also develop a network of other start-up entrepreneurs who are going through the same things you’re going through, and you can learn from each other. For us, since we operate in both countries, we’ve been able to provide advice to other start-ups that were thinking of expanding to South Africa from Kenya, or maybe to Kenya from South Africa. 

Once we graduated from the incubation program at the end of the first year, we found that there wasn’t a lot of support for that next stage. When you start looking at renting office space, etc., you still feel like you’re being thrown into the deep end. So we’ve really appreciated the opportunity to pay rent for co-working space at the mLab, and continue to benefit from, as well as contribute to the mLab community.

Afroes is one of the start-ups supported by infoDev’s Digital Entrepreneurship Program, sponsored by the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency, Norway’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry for Foreign Affairs of Finland, and Denmark’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (DANIDA).

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