Interview: Africa Legal Tech Network and Afriwise (Steven De Backer)

Tell us a little bit about your company and why you set it up

Having been active as lawyers in several parts of Africa for almost two decades, we know how hard it can be to obtain critical local insight and reliable information on the continent. And this, in environments where the unknown and unexpected can be particularly tough.

With companies the world over becoming more data driven and continuously driving down costs, existing solutions are clearly failing to meet needs and expectations.

Existing legal-information providers don’t focus on Africa and where they do offer information, it is very patchy and not properly maintained.

The only way to source trustworthy information is by instructing top local counsel, but then the elements of time and cost come into play (and that’s if you already know who to instruct in which country).

Afriwise solves this huge problem by offering businesses all the legal know-how, contacts and tools to help them move forward with confidence in Africa. This is done through an online, cloud-based solution. On our platform, businesses can instantly find up-to-date answers to critical legal questions they have in selected countries in Africa and find the right local expert for their specific requirements. We work with the best lawyers and law firms in Africa to make this possible.

What has been your greatest success/are you most proud of so far?

Our greatest achievement relates to what we thought would be our greatest challenge in this venture: convincing Africa’s top law firms to participate.

Without the participation of local law firms, we would not have been able to compile and maintain such a comprehensive legal-intelligence solution.

We thought that this would be the trickiest part of our journey. But, when we approached the legal sector in Africa, we quickly found that African law firms were generally open to collaborate with us and explore innovative ways to deliver value to businesses. Obviously, there was also an element of mutual respect because of the work we had done with them in the past.

Through our collaboration with over 100 top law firms in Africa, Afriwise is now effectively the largest collaborative effort ever undertaken by the legal fraternity in Africa. This is something we are extremely proud of.

What is the greatest challenge you have faced?

In establishing and growing a business, you always face a range of challenges.

The greatest challenge at the outset was finding the funding. We knew we needed significant capital to develop the platform and it took us over a year to find the required funding, although we didn’t find it in Africa, but in Europe. While a challenge initially, we are grateful to have found investors with a long-term view.

Later on, the editing and maintenance of the content on our platform turned out to be a challenge. Keeping the answers to 10,000 questions up to date in only six countries is not an easy task, but is critical to what we do. Proper structures, technology and top human resources play an important role in tackling this challenge, especially as we will be growing our offering to over 15 countries this year alone.

Finally, as with every new product, we need to educate the market about the benefits of our platform. This is an ongoing process and takes time. However, once companies have seen our platform at work, they see the benefits it offers them.

What are the top challenges facing African lawyers and businesses today, in terms of data and technology and how can they be addressed?

The main challenge that African lawyers face is no different from the one that lawyers all over the world have been facing for years, namely a future of change. Business as usual is not an option anymore. Innovation in services and service delivery is a key differentiating factor.

Where the legal sector in Africa was probably somehow still protected from technological competition and peer pressure until recently, things are now also changing on the continent. Not just due to the increased presence of international law firms in Africa, but even more so because small local law firms are taking the large firms head on through the use of technology.

When we speak of technology in the legal space, we immediately think of AI, smart contracts, blockchain, etc., but technology also impacts simpler things such as marketing. On the internet, anyone can now be anything. With smart SEO and by consistently pushing out content, some of the younger, less-experienced lawyers are already getting ahead of the more senior lawyers in terms of visibility to the outside world.

What legal tech innovation do you think will be most widely adopted in Africa in the next decade?

While Afriwise is active in the B2B space, we believe that the most significant innovation in the African legal-tech space will evolve around consumer access to justice, moving the scales of justice in favour of the common man. Impact investing in this space is also becoming more prevalent.

What regulatory and legislative environment is required to facilitate greater use of technology in the African legal sector?

While we don’t see a need for major legal or regulatory changes, local law societies should definitely step up and play a more active role in driving legal-tech innovation in their jurisdictions, and this should be done sooner rather than later. The Law Society of Zambia, for example, only recently relaxed their Legal Practitioners’ Publicity Rules, giving firms the opportunity to engage with digital forms of promotion and advertisement. This was long overdue.

If you could do one thing to facilitate the growth of legal tech in Africa, what would that be?

Start an authentic and deep collaboration between in-house departments, local and international law firms, local law societies and universities active in Africa. The legal sector is famous for its failure to deliver successful profession-wide solutions, but we strongly believe that just one well-targeted initiative, involving several of these stakeholders, could have a contagious effect. You need to start somewhere!

How best can lawyers influence and shape the legislative and policy environment to enable the growth of the African technology sector?

There is a growing need for continuously evolving regulatory and legislative frameworks within which technology can operate and thrive, while consumers remain properly protected. Data protection, e-commerce and e-contracting are just a few areas of great need across the continent. Lawyers have the skills and expertise to shape and influence public policy and regulation and create a facilitating environment for tech entrepreneurism to flourish.

Who or what is your greatest inspiration?

People that are willing to challenge habitual thinking, dare to be different, take risks and lead by doing, not talking. We strongly believe that leading by doing has a contagious effect. We ourselves have taken a significant risk, leaving partner positions in top law firms and investing in something than no-one has ever done before. We hope that when others see us working for change, they too may feel that change is possible.