Chromepay, Makelab, Oka: Israeli tech start-ups betting on Africa

By Olivier Caslin

Posted on Wednesday, 15 February 2023 13:05
From right to left: Simon Schwall (Oko), Gabriel Saunyama (Chromepay), Avi Ostfeld (MakeLab) Israel © Photo by JA; DR

Israel and its private sector are trying to make a place for themselves in finance, agriculture and health. Meet the founders of three start-ups who are on their way to doing just that.

One in three unicorns – start-ups valued at more than $1bn – in the world are Israeli. With exceptional high-tech know-how in finance, agriculture and health, Israel and its private sector are trying to make a place for themselves in Africa. We meet the founders of three Israeli start-ups who have gone to develop their concepts on the continent.

Gabriel Saunyama, the challenge of digital identity

25-year-old Gabriel Saunyama is on a mission. This Zimbabwean, who arrived in Israel in 2017 to join his family, has set himself the goal of facilitating financial inclusion for Africans. “This requires three conditions: educating people; having efficient digital tools; and providing reliable identity documents to everyone,” he says.

Following his experience as a young entrepreneur in Harare, Gabriel decided to focus on this last aspect, as, according to him, “nearly 500 million Africans do not have secure documents“. With his international business degree from Israel in hand, he returned to Africa in 2021. From Nigeria, he deployed Chromepay, the brand new application he had just developed in Tel Aviv that allows people to issue identity papers from a mobile phone using a photo and fingerprints. Nearly 5,000 people have used its services within the space of eight months.

It’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon

This test still needs to be transformed on a larger scale, according to Gabriel, who is now turning his attention to the Ethiopian market, which is “much less competitive than Nigeria”. As relations between Ethiopia and Israel are much more established, Gabriel’s approach has received all the necessary support in terms of financing and establishing contacts with local players, both public and private. Chromepay’s creator arrived in Addis Ababa in July 2022.

Thanks to a partnership with two Ethiopian banks, it was a great success and in six months nearly 600,000 digital IDs were issued. “We have targeted small-scale farmers to help them access microfinance services,” says Gabriel Saunyama, who knows that there is a long way to go before every Ethiopian has a document. “It’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon,” says the entrepreneur, who is already looking forward to providing children with identity documents, “so that they can benefit from all their country’s school and social services”.

Simon Schwall, agricultural insurance

Although Simon Schwall is French-Luxembourgish, he found his way to Africa in Israel. An HEC Paris graduate, he landed in Tel Aviv in 2016, where he quickly understood the value of starting his own business. “Many people start their lives over when they arrive in Israel,” says Schwall, who took advantage of a very dynamic digital environment and a highly developed culture of entrepreneurship, to launch Oko in 2018, “named after an Orisha deity”.

With his large network, he decided to take on the African continent by offering insurance products to local farmers via their mobile phones. After perfecting the application, Oka launched its activities in 2019 in Mali, first in the cotton sector and then expanded to the millet, sorghum and sesame divisions. It has been a great success, as 13,000 producers have taken out a policy over the past three years, making Oko the leading agricultural insurance product in the country. Even though Israel does not have an official relationship with Bamako, Schwall has still managed to benefit from the Malian government’s expertise and financing.

On the strength of this success, the 35-year-old entrepreneur contacted the French trader Touton, who specialises in agricultural commodities. At the beginning of 2022, they decided to launch their offer in Côte d’Ivoire, to secure local producers’ income. Their product was extremely popular here as well, as 1,500 cocoa farmers became insured within a few months. As a result, Oko contacted Olam to ask if it could work on other products, such as cotton.

The Israeli start-up is also interested in coffee growing in Uganda, where it already has just over 800 clients. “We need 40,000 contracts per country to break even,” says Schwall, who believes the continent has strong potential, especially in Nigeria and Ghana. These two countries are the next targets of Oko, whose creator has set himself the goal of reaching one million African policyholders by 2026.

Avi Ostfeld, a sense of community

Avi Ostfeld is a happy man. “In 1999, I created an online exchange platform service that I sold eight years later to Cisco,” says the Israeli entrepreneur who, since 1999, has not really needed to work. At 55, Ostfeld has decided to make the most of his fortune by investing it in new high-tech projects, as he is “always looking for the latest innovations, but not necessarily chasing profits”.

To support, amongst other things, creation in the high-tech sector, he launched in 2012 his MakeLab concept, an open and participative place, which provides its visitors with the latest technological equipment and the most sought-after expertise free of charge, in the suburbs of Tel-Aviv. Conferences, training sessions and workshops are regularly offered to any interested public.

It’s a nest that allows a simple idea to grow and develop

“It’s a nest that allows a simple idea to grow and develop,” says the businessman, who insists that his association is non-profit and emphasises the community’s creative power. The MakeLab community has more than 5,000 members, mainly in Israel, but also in Nigeria, where this new kind of laboratory opened its doors in 2019, as well as in Ghana, where it opened last November. They are waiting for Senegal, with which initial contacts have been established in recent months.

This concept would not have made it to Africa had it not been for the “the Nigerian ambassador to Israel’s visit to the MakeLab in Tel Aviv”, says Avi, who will be in Abja in five days. He relied on the i-Fair initiative (for Innovation Fellowship for Aspiring Inventors and Researchers), which was launched by the Israeli minister for foreign affairs, to set up his structure in the country.

An agreement was reached with the Nigerian government to promote a 10-month programme that enabled its participants to transform their ideas into reality in order to better attract potential investors. Several projects, notably in agriculture, have already been funded, following US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s visit to MakeLab at the end of 2021.

Since then, the concept has continued to spread across the continent, and is supported by Israel’s strong presence in Ghana and the Senegalese government’s very official request. Ostfeld is hoping to get the support of other countries on the continent, which he says should not take too long, as there is a lot of enthusiasm on the ground.

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