Egyptian artificial intelligence (AI) company Synapse Analytics has witnessed impressive growth since its launch in 2018, helping a host of companies leverage data to offer better products and learn more about their customers.
Synapse has already built itself quite a reputation when it comes to project-based work in the AI space. But over the course of this year, the startup has been refocusing its efforts, moving away from one-off project work and developing its own, more scalable products.
"Products are the way to go," said Synapse founder and CEO Ahmed Abaza.
"Other than the scalability products offer in terms of growth, product development really puts you in the frame of mind of physically, tangibly and concretely solving the problem. You become set on understanding the problem from every dimension, dwelling on the smallest detail, pushing to create an amazing solution, and offering even the smallest business a state-of-the-art technology to help them scale."
The sector Synapse has initially chosen to focus on is retail. This is a smart move given the fact that the Egyptian retail food sector alone is worth US$24.7 billion. There is money to be made by providing solutions to drive efficiencies in this space. That is what Synapse is doing with its first product -- Azka Analytics.
An end-to-end machine learning platform aimed at retailers of all shapes and sizes, Azka Analytics deploys powerful algorithms and a user-friendly interface to help business owners manage areas such as merchandising and inventory more efficiently. By analyzing data accumulated as sales are made, it is able to give retailers a bird's eye view of what is happening within their business and predict future developments.
"This product really wants to kill the jargon, as well as the overwhelming noise in analytics, and just become the ultimate AI business assistant to business owners," Abaza said.
Synapse Analytics founder and CEO Ahmed Abaza
Synapse is assisting small businesses to not only better understanding what makes their business tick -- and more quickly react to issues -- but also making them money by ensuring a positive customer experience and full grasp of stock levels.
"Imagine the small bakery at the end of your street using an AI that makes them manage their business like they're Starbucks, with its optimization and experience," said Abaza.
"We have built a platform that uses multiple sources and types of data to produce powerful insights and automation. We have cases where we combined transactional data and images to predict different metrics. So our users are able to leverage multiple formats and sources of data, combining them into one platform to produce smarter decisions, and automation."
Synapse has already signed up around 20 Egyptian clients for Azka Analytics, as well as two international ones. Part of its appeal, Abaza said, is that it makes AI easy to use and therefore more accessible.
"How a user manages an AI platform is usually pretty challenging. Our platform is built on the premise of democratizing advanced AI for the average user," he said. "We always say we want the kiosk under our office to be AI-powered, making smarter merchandising decisions, product shelving and personalizing the experience for the street buyer."
However, the company is not done innovating. It is also building Azka Vision, a computer vision that uses security cameras to track foot traffic in and out of stores, as well as customer journeys in-store, to produce "heat maps" for retailers to inform things like product placement.
"Now retailers can access a very powerful platform that combines superior AI analytics and computer vision to really understand their customer experience. Azka Vision has a module to customize the tracking you want to see without any need for coding or technical expertise," Abaza said.
Ahead of the game
The Synapse Analytics employees and summer interns.
Craig Parker, research director for Africa at Frost & Sullivan, believes Synapse is ahead of the game when it comes to applying AI to the retail space on the continent. Whereas most AI solutions across the continent are currently being utilized in healthcare, fintech and agriculture, the retail and fast-moving consumer goods spaces are less populated.
"Africa has unique challenges in healthcare and specifically access to healthcare. Mobile phone technology has opened many possibilities to healthcare provision in terms of diagnosis and treatment, where many people do not have physical access to healthcare professionals," Parker said.
"The fintech sector encompasses the banking, insurance and 'non-banked' sector. With the development of M-Pesa in Kenya, there are also startups looking to deploy AI solutions into the non-traditional banking sector."
Yet Parker thinks this will change over time, with retail securing more of the focus.
"Moving into the future we will most likely see a shift to more AI technology developments into the retail sector," he said. "Many of these will be to improve the customer experience, but also to perform customer analysis and even theft prevention in large markets or supermarkets, through face and behavior detection algorithms."
AI startup boom
Regardless of the specific sector, now is a very good time to be an AI startup on the continent.
According to Parker, the number of AI startups in Africa is growing rapidly, and there has also been an increase in the level of international investment going into these projects. Google has opened an AI lab in Accra, while IBM has innovation labs in Nairobi and Johannesburg. Though Parker says South Africa has become Africa's AI leader, Abaza talks up Egypt as a great base from which to run such a business too.
"Egypt is a pool for amazing talent, with so many brilliant engineers who are just looking for an opportunity to express their talent into building something that changes the world," he said.
"Egypt is currently stabilizing its economy and starting to grow again, fast, making businesses more capable of investing to grow. In such a market lies a big opportunity to become an engine for these businesses to skyrocket and build amazing success stories with them."
Synapse, through its Azka suite, hopes to be such an engine, and has raised seed funding to continue its own growth trajectory. Once it has conquered its home market, it plans to take on the world.
"Egypt is a portal for Africa, the Arabian Gulf, Europe. And so many of the talents here are fluent English speakers, which makes dealing with the North American market an opportunity as well," he said.
It is an opportunity the startup is preparing to grab with both hands.
The Synapse Analytics team.
— Tom Jackson, co-founder of Disrupt Africa, special to Connecting Africa