Unlocking Capital for African Infrastructure

Ashby Monk

Africa needs infrastructure. In 2006, which is the latest year for which we have data, the gap between infrastructure needs and infrastructure funding on the continent was something on the order of $48 billion. Finding mechanisms to fill this gap is one of the pressing policy questions of our time, as over a billion Africans are living without basic infrastructure to facilitate growth and development.

Enter Sokoni Africa Infrastructure Marketplace, which is a new technology platform that was recently endorsed by the G20. Sokoni offers a virtual marketplace to bring buyers and sellers of African infrastructure projects together – all to the benefit of Africa!

Sokoni is the brainchild of two people: Bobby Pitman of the African Development Bank and Ryan Orr of the Zanbato Group (and Stanford). Given that I share an office with Ryan at Stanford (when he isn’t off solving the world’s infrastructure problems), I rang him up to get the scoop on Sokoni. Here’s our (distilled) conversation:

Ashby: What was the motivation for Sokoni?

Ryan: I think it was actually quite simple. Bobby and I saw the gap between infrastructure spending and need in Africa. We felt a technology platform could be a catalyst for investments in infrastructure. Sokoni is what we came up with; it’s all about reducing complexity, minimizing transaction costs, and making pertinent information more easily discoverable. In a nutshell, this platform looks to enhance efficiency, transparency, and connectivity with a view to mobilizing and unlocking capital for Africa’s infrastructure. Bobby hopes to have a similar impact with this infrastructure initiative as he had with his debt relief initiative when he was at the US Treasury. I think we can do it.

Ashby: And the G20 endorsement? How did that happen?

Ryan: Back in 2010, the G-20 created a panel of high profile individuals with expertise in private investment and infrastructure development to provide recommendations back to the G20 leadership on ways to scale up and diversify financing for infrastructure around the world. Sokoni fit the bill.

Ashby: What do you think made Sokoni stand out?

Ryan: It’s got backing from the AfDB, Stanford University and some of Silicon Valley’s choosiest venture capitalists. So you could say it already had endorsements from the best minds of development, infrastructure and technology. The G20 endorsement was an extension of the hard work Bobby and I have been putting in to get this platform up and running.

Ashby: Can you take me back through how Sokoni fits with your company Zanbato?

Ryan: About 18 months ago, I founded Zanbato to build a highly sophisticated digital platform that would help governments, firms and advisers promote their infrastructure opportunities. Zanbato is the engine for the Sokoni platform; it’s the technology underpinning Sokoni.

Ashby: And how’s it going with Zanabato?

Ryan: Well, we’re just closing our series B financing. We’ve got a warehouse with 25 people working furiously to launch these marketplaces around the world. And we’re hoping to be at 50 people by mid 2012. In all honesty, we think we’re going to revolutionize the infrastructure marketplace and, in so doing, unlock new pools of capital for infrastructure projects. Today, our priority is Sokoni. But we’re ready for more marketplaces.

Ashby: Final thoughts?

Ryan: I’m just really excited to have a strong partnership with the African Development Bank, and I’m hopeful that by applying Silicon Valley technology to this problem we’ll mobilize more capital for African infrastructure!

 Ashby: Good luck!

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This website is a project of Professor Gordon L. Clark and Dr. Ashby Monk of the School of Geography and the Environment at the University of Oxford. Their research on sovereign wealth funds is funded by the Leverhulme Trust and The Rotman International Centre for Pension Management.

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