The Need to Shape the Future of African Start-ups for Global Competitiveness

Image credit to CNN African Startup Successful Start-ups and Companies are celebrated no matter their country of origin, from Waze to Google to Alibaba and many others. They end …

CNN Startup Africa

Image credit to CNN African Startup

Successful Start-ups and Companies are celebrated no matter their country of origin, from Waze to Google to Alibaba and many others. They end up becoming international brands but their countries pride.For Africa her future will largely depend on the growth of entrepreneurship and the building of companies by African young people, who make up the greater part of the population, companies that can compete globally and be listed in the NASDAQ or the NYSE. We need to build companies across the African nations that will impact on the overall economy of the continent.It is a good development that Africa is getting more attention in the Global start-up arena. This is evident in the increased attention to African start-ups.

Thanks to Kenya and its government for hosting the Global Entrepreneurship Summit(GES) which was attended by President Obama and many successful entrepreneurs from the US and around the world. The GES attracted great attention to many African start-ups. More importantly, it opened more opportunities and ignited greater passion in the minds of young people in Africa on the need to take their destinies in their hands and become entrepreneurs. The story of African startups is one that can give the continent a new and positive story for the western media, who has always seen Africa as a dark and under developed continent.  And so raising new leaders who not only have intellectual prowess but also economic power and influence will secure Africa’s future and start-up Africa can be the needed channel to achieve that.

Now that the attention to African Start-ups is growing, the human and material resources to pull these through are also in abundance but what is really needed is a clear road map of how to take this future, a collaborative effort from the governments in Africa, an academic community that is focused more on Innovation, entrepreneurship development through strong research, development and commercialization of products, increased number of science, technology, engineering, physics and maths graduates all around the continent, a strong private sector that understands their role in start-up development, successful and influential entrepreneurs from Africa( as ambassadors ) who will support, encourage and mentor young entrepreneurs and also the need to celebrate successful start-ups and tell their story to the world.

Understanding the dynamics of Start-up development(Startup 101) and Creating a path for Africa

There are several key market areas that African Startups can focus on, I see great opportunities around Education, Health, e-commerce, Agriculture, Power, Renewable Energy and many more. Everyone who is keen to play a role in Start-up development in Africa(the Government, the private sector, academics, the entrepreneurs themselves) should first understand the dynamics of start-up development around the world today. There is a need to understand what type of start-ups Africa need to focus on at this time and how to channel the needed support towards such. Steve Banks in one of his articles: Why Governments Don’t Get Startups,gives clear distinctions on this subject. Steve identified six types of Startups: Lifestyle start-ups, small business start-ups, scalable startups, buyable startups, large company start-ups or social start-ups.Understanding this will help form the base upon which to build.

Building Innovation Culture and Ecosystem

Innovation is the soul of successful Start-ups. An Innovation culture is the platform that drives entrepreneurship and makes the creation of successful Start-ups more predictable in a given ecosystem. Two different innovation cultures that am looking at closely and I think Africa needs to learn from is the Silicon Valley innovation culture and the Israel( Start-Up Nation) innovation ecosystem. These two top innovation cultures are different and operate with different challenges but they surely have unique similarities, they have built a strong collaborative effort of the Government, the academic community and a private sector to form a solid and formidable triangle of innovation culture that produces more successes. This innovation culture can be replicated in Africa with key uniqueness of Africa in focus. Each of these key players in the innovation triangle has to play their part to make things work in that system.

First the government creates the enabling environment, stimulates growth, guides, regulates and sustains the innovation ecosystem. So for any innovation ecosystem to thrive government plays the leading role in its success. African government should understand their role in building an innovation culture that will produce successful startups that can compete globally. Some of the role of Africa government should include and not limited to: Understanding the types of startups needed in Africa as I pointed out above, being aware of its role and playing it well, having policies that favor and support entrepreneurship and startup development, establishing an office that oversees start-up development, starting initiatives and programs that provide early stage funding for start-ups, increased funding for research and development, encouraging the learning of science, technology, engineering, maths and physics related courses as to produce more graduates from these fields, building the needed infrastructure (like the internet, Electricity, Innovation clusters),Helping in the development of private sector venture capital market, willing to learn key lessons and also collaborate with countries that have built successful businesses and Startups.

Africa has many academic institutions which shows a great desire for learning and education, Nigeria for example has about 147 universities not including Polytechnics and Colleges of Education. But what is seen in the African education sector is a weak education system. This weak education system has contributed greatly to why Africa is still not innovating and underdeveloped. Building a strong educational system across Africa is a challenge for African leaders and educators. A strong academic community in an innovation ecosystem drives research, development and commercialization of ideas that form great businesses, the academics should be the ones to advice the government and private sector on how innovation cultures are built. Stanford University for example played leading role in the creation of Silicon Valley. The story of Israel’s innovation culture is never complete without mentioning the role Israel Institute of Technology-Technion plays.

The private sector on its own hand should be well organized, develop great workforce, have great ideas and willing to collaborate with the government and the academic community to build innovation clusters for several businesses within the African nations. The private sector should also see itself taking the lead in venture capital, Angel investment and public funding for startups, this will determine the growth of the ecosystem. Successful businesses and entrepreneurs from Africa should help in creating this innovation culture for startups to thrive and also serve as mentors for young businesses. Building a great innovation culture in Africa will make it easier to seek a focused collaboration within and outside the continent.

The need for more Innovators through STEM cannot be over emphasized

The stage Africa’s development is at the moment is such that we need to increase emphases and awareness on the study of Sciences, Technology, Engineering, Maths,(STEM)and physics as to produce thinkers and innovators that will change the continent with their inventions.  Tuition to study STEM courses should be subsidized, scholarship should also be provided for students to study.More women should be encouraged in these fields to also become start-up founders.

 Successful Entrepreneurs as Ambassadors of Startup-Africa

The truth still remains that only Africans can build Africa. While reading about the role individuals like Jon Medved played in the early stage of the development of Israel Start-up Ecosystem, makes me think we need people like Jon who is passionate about Israel and goes all over the world preaching  of the potentials inherent in Israel. He also plays keep role in building the Venture capital space in Israel. Saul Singer and Dan Senor, in their best- selling book, Start-up Nation  described Medved as “one of Israel’s legendary business ambassadors….(he) has taken on a role that — in any other country — would typically belong to the local Chamber of Commerce, Minister of Trade, or Foreign Secretary”. Africa has successful and rich businessmen and women who can act as ambassadors, invest in startup in Africa, travel all over the world preaching some successes from Africa, her future potentials and encouraging other people from outside Africa to come and invest in African start-ups. Tony Elumelu  of Tony Elumelu foundation and Ashish Thakkar of Mara foundation are two individuals that quickly comes to mind, they are already helping promote Africa start-up culture in no small measure. We need more of such people.

 Building Strong Venture Capital System in Africa is imperative

Every idea is a potential business. Funding is needed at every stage of start-up development. Entrepreneurs in Africa find it very difficult to access funds for their business. It’s not that Africa is poor, it’s because there is no structured system that focuses on granting seed funds to budding start-ups. Every stages of viable start-ups should not have problems accessing fund for their growth. The future of African startups will largely depend on how easy it is for anyone who has a great idea to access the needed funds. African nations need to build strong venture funds and attract venture capitals from all over the world. The government, and the private sectors in Africa should collaborate and build a strong network of venture capital system.

A greater Need to Tell our Story and celebrate every bit of success from Africa

As I travel from Africa to US,I see that one of the key challenges of Africa and her development is poor media coverage of Africa to the world. And yet very few Africans understand the role the media has played in compounding the problem of Africa, be it politically, socially or economically. Africa has been judged around the world by the ugly stories about her in western media, we have left our stories to be told by the western media and that’s why most stories about Africa continuously show a dark continent where wild animals live with hunger, war and diseases as regular companions. But interestingly, most people I have met that have visited any part of Africa from abroad always want to come back.

How do we change this complicated conspiracy that has been going on for decades about Africa? Thanks to the Internet and of course social media that provide more power to citizens and individuals from all over the world to tell their original stories. We need to share stories that show African’s resilience, reach culture, human and material resources and our entrepreneurial prowess. African countries should focus on creating, regulating and promoting contents that show Africa in positive light. We need to build media houses from Africa that will match the likes of CNN, Fox, Aljazeera etc. I have seen increased blogging activities, social media commentators from Africa, it’s time we tell positive stories about Africa and beam the right content about the continent to the rest of the world. Every opportunity we have should be used to celebrate Africa, our successful entrepreneurs and Start-ups. The future of Africa depends on we Africans and the time is now!



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