(or businesses I wish existed)

(or businesses I wish existed)

15 Business Ideas for African Cities

Dec 4, 2023

Illustration by Neema Iyer

Here’s a short collection of some businesses that I wish existed, based on my time spent living in several African countries as well as in the US, Europe and Australia. They come from different wants, needs or interests that I had in my personal life as well as running regionally-focused companies. And, of course, some iteration of these businesses may exist that I am unaware of but there is still potential to grow and scale these ideas. These businesses would be considered medium-large scale and likely require a starting capital of upwards of US$5,000 and in some cases US$50,000. 

  1. Traffic Valet Service: I still remember the day. It was the end of our very first DataFest Kampala in 2019, I was ecstatic that it was a success. Packed up my Rav4 with a few colleagues and friends and then got stuck in the worst traffic of my life on Jinja Road. One hour later, we had barely moved a few meters. I called my very trusty private-hire driver Naboth who came by on a boda (motorcycle taxi) and I, in turn, abandoned my car to him and took a boda home.

Ok, so, it’s like Uber to rescue you from traffic.

To ensure safety and reliability, this service would need a robust verification system for drivers, akin to how ride-sharing apps vet their drivers.

High risk, questionable reward.

  1. Marketplace for Event Services: I could write a thesis on this. 

There is a major opportunity in centralising event hosting. This would mean easier selection of 

  • Caterers

  • MCs, DJs, musicians and entertainers

  • Sound engineers

  • Live Streaming services

  • Equipment and furniture hire

  • Venues

  • Decor and Set Design

  • Merchandise, Printing and Signage

  • Photography and Videography

  • Transportation

  • Security Services

  • Accessibility Services such as sign language interpreters, ramps etc.

I’m imaging a one-stop-shop online platform with reviews that cater to events. In our line of work, we’ve had to book events or retreats in other countries and it’s difficult to source vendors and know who to trust to deliver quality services. I believe something like this could go a loooong way, or if a service provider just handled all of this affordably for you - like a wedding planner, but for corporate events.

  1. Locally-Crafted Modular Furniture: Let’s dream big and consider IKEA's model for inspiration. They've revolutionised the furniture industry with their flat-pack, easy-to-assemble designs. An adept carpenter could build on the concept using local materials and designs to create modular furniture that can serve as tables, sofas, chairs, sofa beds etc. 

Oftentimes, I found that if we didn’t settle for often cheaply made imports, then custom carpentry was the only way to go. We’ve had MANY nightmares with service providers.

I still giggle when I think about this tweet:

But, also, some wonderful pieces made by skilled artisans that we have cherished for many years. We had several of our Pollicy office furniture made by Modern Living, a Ugandan furniture manufacturing and interior design company, who are a breath of fresh air and professionalism in the furniture industry, but there is SO much more that can be done in space.

  1. Garden Centre: Throughout my time in Kampala, we bought plants from little roadside collections, soil and manure from beside the quarry and brought in seeds when out on holiday. The first time I really encountered garden centres was when I lived in Germany and I have to say, I was impressed as well as overwhelmed. They offer plants, pots, seeds, fertiliser, equipment, decorations, lighting and so much more. There is the opportunity to bring all these resources under one roof and offer not just plants, but also educational resources for plant care tailored to the African climate and flora.

    Here’s a cute little plant shop where I just bought some mint!

  2. African Fashion eCommerce: I saw a woman on the street in Sydney the other day wearing a beautiful kitenge summer dress and she told me she bought it on YEVU. Founders Anna Robertson and Felicia Adwubi own and operate a small factory in Accra, Ghana where the clothes are manufactured. YEVU ships worldwide from their dispatch centre all the way in Sydney. Their clothes are absolutely gorgeous!

Don't get me wrong, there are many talented designers in Kampala. Most of the clothes I had, I’d find a design online and take it to a tailor and have it custom fit, which let’s be honest, is a massive privilege. But, sometimes I just liked something I saw on Instagram and just wanted to have it without the hassle of buying material, tracking down a tailor, waiting for questionable amounts of time - sometimes it would be items like shoes which can’t be locally crafted and oftentimes they would be based in Nigeria and wouldn’t ship to Uganda, and more often than not, it would sell out in a few days. 

I feel like there is a big potential for designers to partner up to create collections with scale and stock across at least a couple of larger cities. I know supply chain and bad tax regulation issues are the worst headache and barrier in this case, but perhaps there’s a creative solution based on joint ownership and unlikely collaborations?

  1. Fractional, Vetted Director Level Experts: This concept already exists in several countries. Fractional executives are skilled professionals who provide their managerial expertise to companies on a part-time, hired basis; a concept also referred to as fractional work.

As a young business, we often could not afford more experienced staff but would have still benefited from having one or two days a week of work or advice from a director or C-suite level leadership. Someone could create an online platform where businesses can access top-tier, and most importantly, vetted or highly reviewed, African professionals for short-term or part-time strategic projects.

  1. Children's Enter/Edu-tainment: Recently stumbled upon Kidzania, an interactive educational entertainment concept designed for children which is essentially a scaled-down replica of a real city where children can role-play various adult professions and activities such as being a firefighter, doctor, pilot, journalist, or shopkeeper. Sounds fun but also like it would need massive investment. I think something as simple as a basic concrete skatepark for scooters, skateboards, roller blades and bicycles with a nice hangout area for parents could win big. Africa’s middle class is growing and parents are looking for education and entertainment for their children.

In most countries, these playgrounds are free to access - but that’s for countries that invest resources in parks and recreation for their citizens. In a different context, someone would likely need to build it from scratch and maintain it - and in turn, could charge a fee. Uganda’s under-15 population in 2022 was estimated at 45% of the country or around 20 million children. Huge market opportunity for any child-related edutainment.

  1. Accountants R Us: One of the biggest thorns in my side when starting a new company was our finance department. Right now, I feel like I have a degree in finance, but back then, we were starting from scratch, navigating setting up our accounts, taxation, audits, donor reporting etc.

While I joke about the name, there’s a serious need for providing out-of-the-box, knowledgeable accounting support for both for-profit and non-profit entities, of all sizes, particularly those in their nascent stages. This business would offer tailored accounting solutions with a range of services like bookkeeping, tax preparation, auditing, financial reporting, and strategic financial planning. Understandably, money is money, but we would need these accounting agencies to actually understand the organisations they are working with, their business models, how they develop budgets, etc. There’s an opportunity in terms of accountants who understand global markets and partnerships for the type of growth some companies are seeking.

  1. Customer Service Training: I’ve heard countless times of people hiring workers directly from “the village”. Coming from a totally different context, these young workers are often thrown into a new environment with completely new tasks, technology, rules etc. Or times when you encounter a receptionist or shop attendant who can’t provide some basic information. You really can’t blame them because oftentimes they haven’t been given appropriate orientation and training.

A centre that provides short (1-day to 1-week) or longer term (1-month to 3-months) professional trainings to workers such as 

  • Nannies

  • Cooks

  • Janitors

  • Shopkeepers

  • Waiters

  • Security

  • Housekeeping

  • Receptionists,

could be quite helpful, especially in terms of safety when it comes to childcare or food preparation or gender safeguarding. Some recruitment and staffing agencies train in-house and you can directly hire staff from them, but many families go through more informal routes. We enrolled our gardener to the Community Integrated Development Initiatives (CIDI) Training Center For Gardening And Landscaping for a training on garden care which he really enjoyed and which helped boost his resume for future job opportunities.

  1. Protein Powder (and Baby Formula): This idea is more specific to Uganda and Kenya. Uganda, for example, has experienced a remarkable increase in milk production in recent years which could be attributed to successful government initiatives, improved breeding practices, and modernised dairy farming techniques. While these efforts have boosted the local dairy industry and consumption, I believe they have also opened up avenues for value-added products.

Whey or protein powder is made by separation during cheese or yoghurt production when milk is split into solid curds and liquid whey. The whey is then pasteurised, undergoes filtration to remove fats and carbs then processed/purified to increase protein content such as concentrate, isolate or hydrolysate and finally dried into powder. Similarly, whey protein is commonly used in the production of infant formula because its amino acid profile is similar to that of human breast milk, making it easier for babies to digest.

My friend had the funny idea ages ago to start a company called, “By the Whey”, which I’ve now discovered is actually a company based out of Queensland, Australia. Protein powder retails for, in my opinion, VERY high prices. A quick glance on Google shows me that most products in the Uganda market are imported. With the rising global demand for protein supplements driven by health-conscious consumers and fitness enthusiasts as well as the needs of growing babies across the world, Uganda's increased milk production provides a unique opportunity for value addition to the dairy supply chain.

  1. Girlie (or Non-Alcohol Fueled) Events and Hobbies: Here, I’m thinking along the lines of Paint n Sip and Workshop experiences, it would be lovely to see more day time activities without alcohol, around hobbies such as art, pottery, fabric dying, candle or scent making, sewing, baking, cooking classes, etc. and just the general promotion of hobbies through the provision of unique arts and crafts supplies.

  2. Destination Trainings: Similar to executive retreats and corporate training programs offered in places like Bali or Tuscany, I believe there’s a large opportunity to leverage diverse beautiful destinations across Africa like Cape Coast, Lamu, Cape Town, Zanzibar, Livingstone etc. to offer unique learning experiences. For example, an intensive one or two-week data science workshop or a leadership training with other executives from similar fields. So, it’s both a fun experience but one comes with a newly acquired skill as well.

  3. Locally Made Ergonomic Office Chairs: In my experience, the imported office chairs we’ve purchased often break way too easily. I feel like there’s an opportunity for ergonomic, durable, locally made work chairs suitable for the African market.

  4. Adult Financial Education: The business idea here is focused on providing financial training, with bonus points if it is specifically tailored for women. This goes beyond mere financial literacy; it's about strategically utilising one’s assets to ensure that your money is actively working for you, generating growth and building wealth over time. 

Growing up, it was often taboo to talk openly about money. I was never taught about how or why to invest. Globally, women tend to have much lower financial knowledge and can often find themselves in dire situations and dependency later in life without appropriate retirement planning. I recently stumbled upon the Financial Independence, Retire Early (FIRE) movement, empowering women to take charge of their financial futures. The core principle of FIRE involves living frugally and saving a substantial portion of one's income (often 50% or more) then investing these savings to create a portfolio that can support long-term living expenses.

The business approach would focus on interactive learning and workshops as well as creating a supportive community where people can openly discuss financial matters, share experiences, become aware of typical financial scams and gain insights from guest speakers, including successful investors and finance professionals. By breaking down complex financial concepts into accessible knowledge, this business could equip participants with the tools and confidence needed to make informed financial decisions and achieve long-term financial security.

  1. PAYG Refrigeration: It is estimated that around 1.6 billion tons of food are wasted every year and up to 30% of this waste could be saved by refrigeration. Refrigeration presents an interesting business opportunity across Africa, particularly in markets and at production sources. By helping farmers and market vendors to store their produce safely, these hubs can drastically reduce post-harvest losses and increase revenue/profits for small businesses.

As a case study, ColdHubs, a Nigerian enterprise, runs solar-powered cold storage facilities, offering a pay-per-use service for preserving fresh produce, aimed at supporting smallholder farmers and traders. Each cooling unit, measuring 3 square metres, has the capacity to store up to three tonnes of food. Customers can rent crates, each with a 20kg capacity, to keep their products in these hubs, which are accessible 24/7.

Bonus: I know that this business idea already exists in various iterations, but it can be done so much better.

Puppy School Chain: When we brought a new pup into our home, he was gentle and chill and we only realised after the fact that his breed was often prone to intense anxiety when outside his comfort zone. We then sought the help of numerous trainers to train and support the dog, take him on walks, etc. Because of his size, we found it difficult to find socialisation opportunities which in the long run became a big behavioural problem. 

Besides, it’s a massive business opportunity as the pet industry grows across Africa. For example, South Africa’s pet industry was worth R7.1 billion (±USD400 million) in 2022, and is expected to grow 2.5% between 2021 and 2026.

Across the world, puppy schools are quite common. In the African context, it would be no different and should include experienced and kind trainers in centres that provide basic obedience for pets and specialised training for guard dogs as well as socialisation opportunities to teach puppies essential interaction skills with other dogs and humans in a safe, controlled environment. You could also go into luxury pet food or toy production or grooming. 

Alright, that’s my list.

Would you invest in any of these businesses? Why or why not?