During the past decade, Zimbabwe has joined the rest of the world in its fascination with tech startups. In fact, nowadays the two words “tech” and “startup” are never too far from each other. One wonders what becomes of these companies after they outgrow their “startup” label if any of them ever do. That last point is not just an offhand remark—during the last couple of years, there have been businesses (even though for some of them the term “project” is more apt) cropping up one after the other with each getting labelled the country’s next great tech startup before disappearing practically overnight. The question then becomes: Since so few of our high profile tech startups ever seem to advance far enough to give us a glimpse, what does a typical fully-fledged and mature Zimbabwean tech company look like? The six Zimbabwean companies listed in this article are some of the best examples of tech companies that the country currently has to offer.
What is a tech company?
A universally agreed-upon definition of a tech company is difficult to pin down. Many seem to at least agree on the part of the definition that says it is a company whose primary business is selling tech or tech services. For this list and article, I will adopt this definition and also add that such a company’s operations must not be commonly grouped into another recognised category or industrial sector. This last requirement conveniently eliminates telecommunication companies of all sizes which are, all things considered, usually the closest thing that Africa has to tech giants.
Established in 2001 by Garth Drummond, Webdev (Pvt) is a web hosting, online marketing, e-commerce, online payments and web development company. The company operates Paynow, one of the country’s biggest online payment gateways by several merchants and transactions. Webdev also operates Classifieds.co.zw and Property.co.zw—the latter is a property listing website while the former is the country’s most popular online classifieds platform. The company claims to have developed over 1000 websites since it started operating, have over 3000 clients using its web hosting service and more than 1000 merchants signed up onto its online payments service.
Afrosoft Holdings is a Zimbabwean enterprise software development house founded in 1999. The company was first established as a research project by a group of businesspeople from the banking and allied industries. The said research project had a focus on software development, engineering and the distribution of software solutions. In 2019 the company embarked on a drive to serve the rest of the continent. It did so by first opening offices in Tanzania trading under the name Breakthrough Technologies Africa. Afrosoft has developed bespoke software systems for many enterprises and governmental bodies both in and out of Zimbabwe. The company has also won some awards throughout the years including a ‘Top Innovative ICT Company in Africa’ award in 2009.
GTel is a Zimbabwean company which develops and manufactures mobile phones. The company was founded by Shamunorwa Shumba in 2009 as a franchise and official distributor of G-Tide Mobile International. The company adopted its current name and brand in 2011. After gaining some market share in Zimbabwe, the company expanded its operations to East Africa by first establishing its brand in Kenya during 2015.
Astro’s founder, Munyaradzi Gwatidzo, says that he grew up interested in electronics. He would fish discarded gadgets, including cellphones, out of the litter to try and repair them. He taught himself how to repair the phones and managed to sell his first one, a Nokia 3310 when he was 19. After spending time in Zambia where he made money buying, repairing and selling phones, he started his own brand Astro in 2011. Today Astro has branches in Zimbabwe, Zambia, Malawi, Tanzania and South Africa. The company also employs more than 2000 people.
Zimswitch which is operated by Zimswitch Technologies Private Limited is the sole national electronic funds switch and clearinghouse for Zimbabwe. Zimswitch processes most of the country’s domestic card-based (ATM and POS) and electronic funds transfer (EFT) transactions. The company was established in 1994 through the collaboration of six financial institutions. Its core service is that of facilitating the interoperability of Zimbabwean financial institutions. Zimswitch connects a network of around 3000 point-of-sale terminals and more than 390 automated-teller-machines throughout Zimbabwe which are owned by the participating financial institutions. Over 17 different Zimbabwean banks and building societies use Zimswitch’s infrastructure.
Cassava Smartech is a publicly-traded Zimbabwean technology and financial services company. The company was listed on the Zimbabwean Stock Exchange in December 2018 when it was spun out from Econet Wireless Zimbabwe. The company has interests, products and divisions which cover banking, fintech, mobile money, insurance, e-commerce, e-learning, e-health and logistics. The company’s flagship product is Ecocash which is by far Zimbabwe’s largest mobile money service. So widely used is the service that Zimbabwe’s government and central bank often accuse it of being one of the major causes of the embattled local currency’s devaluation. Cassava has found relatively less success in its attempts to cash in on products and services which are more typically associated with tech.