When Anne Githuku-Shongwe decided to end an illustrious 13-year career with the United Nations Development Programme to start an interactive digital media company, her colleagues thought she’d lost her mind. “One even bet me $1 000 I would come back to the UN within six months – I need hardly tell you how that motivated me to succeed,” she says.
An idea is born
But another, more powerful motivator lay behind her vision for Afroes, the company she formed with the express purpose of delivering positive Africa-focused mobile phone entertainment to young people across the continent.
The idea was sparked by conversations with her own children. When her daughter was doing a school project on her role model and couldn’t decide between Hannah Montana and Beyonce, and her son chose Bill Gates as the subject for a project on a global business leader, Githuku-Shongwe began to worry that her children weren’t being exposed to any positive African media content. “I was concerned that their ideas and aspirations for Africa would be coloured by the Western media’s pervasively negative messages about the continent, and I wanted to do something to change that,” she explains. But it was only when her son excitedly started relating things he’d learned while playing the computer game, Civilisations, that the penny dropped. “That’s it! I thought. Kids who play computer games are a captive audience for anything you want to teach them. I knew there had to be a way to harness computer games to deliver positive messages to African children,” she relates.
Learning the market
Githuku-Shongwe knew, however, that consol-based computer games are reserved for the priviliged elite. “If Afroes was to be successful it would have to use mobile phones, the true medium of the masses, to deliver its games,” she says. The market was certainly there – Africa has the highest mobile growth rate in the world, with South Africa alone counting 6,3 million users aged between 10 and 24.
But, having a good idea and a market is only half the battle won. “I’m no techno-geek and I had to learn everything there was to know about computer games and how to tailor them for mobile phones so that they still delivered great graphics. They also had to be low-cost enough for African children to afford and then there was the challenge of how to make them easily accessible,” says Githuku-Shongwe.
Testing the waters
Extensive market research was critical to understanding the needs and limitations of the market and helping her to formulate a business plan. The cost of the games is kept low by employing ‘Game Masters’, working on commission in different communities, who will sell SMS codes that children can use to download the games.
The launch of the first two games has been incredibly successful. The first, Champ’s Chase, was developed as part of the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund Champions for Children campaign to raise awareness of the potential risks facing children during the FIFA 2010 World Cup. “Children choose a character which then has to ‘save’ other children from potentially harmful situations and predators,” Githuku-Shongwe explains. The second game, TekaChamps, is a commercial venture. A soccer game with a difference, it’s set in the African townships with which African children will be familiar. “The game is an example of how the medium can be used to engage children in a fun and cool way that builds a positive image of Africa,” she adds.
One of the company’s biggest challenges lies with the network operators, as Githuku-Shongwe explains: “They charge so much for you to make your application available on their network and this makes the games prohibitively expensive. So we’ve had to come up with creative alternatives, like partnering with organisations, big brands and companies who share Afroes’ agenda.” She’s adamant that the business must remain true to its roots, however, and that the games developed should deliver a strongly positive social message that is also Afro-centric. The Champ’s Chase project with the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund is a good example of how such partnerships can work.
As a start-up entrepreneur Githuku-Shongwe recognises the importance of mentorship and support. She applied for and was recently selected from 600 applicants across Africa as one of the continent’s three finalists in the Cartier Women’s Initiative Awards, a global programme to recognise and support female entrepreneurs.
Recognition of this kind can be game-changing and Githuku-Shongwe knows it. In October she will be travelling to France for the announcement of the winners and to attend the Women’s Forum Annual Global Meeting, an excellent networking opportunity if nothing else. If she’s among the winners she will receive $20 000 in prize money and mentorship from McKinsey & Co, Cartier and INSEAD. “I’ve already benefited so much from the mentorship and coaching to date and from the contacts I’ve made, and I’m hoping the experience in France will open new doors for me and the business,” she concludes.
Player: Anne Githuku-Shongwe
Contact +27 12 347 1986, www.afroes.com