The Hill We Climb As African Startups

Kizito Okechukwu

KIZITO OKECHUKWU | JANUARY 25, 2021

The Hills we Climb as African Startups

The profound words of Amanda Gorman’s inspirational poem at the new US President’s inauguration last week, got me pondering deeply about how we can find light in this never-ending shade.

Every day, Africa’s startup ecosystem is faced with many momentous challenges, braving the belly of the beast. Having been intimately involved in this ecosystem for over a decade, I realise these challenges just keep mounting. Now we have learned that quiet isn’t always peace and the norms and notions of what just is – isn’t always justice.

 

Young and eager bright minds still battle and hustle to get their ideas tested and developed, while under a burdensome dark cloud of limited or no funding. Resources, including those from the private and public sector are rather being redirected to other less significant economic aspects that are ‘nice’ to have – and we must bear in mind that, in many African countries, SME’s contribute a whopping 80% to the GDP.

 

On the continent, foreign-based startups are able to raise more capital and have more access to funding than local ones. Even foreign funders prefer to back a foreign startup than a home-grown entity. And this is meant to be considered as empowering Africans on the ground? Much like the public fund dispersions mentioned before, most foreign capital that is meant to support Africa’s ecosystem is channelled into projects that are not sustainable – or projects that do not support and enhance Africa’s competitiveness with other regions. Regardless, somehow African entrepreneurs continue to show their resilience and never-say-die attitude and are weathering this storm of economic abandonment, despite their battle weariness.

 

The 2020 Startup Genome report on the Global Startup Ecosystem reveals that no African ecosystem made it into the top 50. While there still is significant investment being made locally and from various other foreign initiatives, the key question remains – are all these investments being properly directed to indigenous projects that can make a lasting impact, create jobs and value, while helping Africa to compete favourably with other regions? According to Pitchbook Data, Boston City Ecosystem had about $900million in VC investments in 1998. Today, Africa as a continent can only record a VC investment of about $1.34billion in 2019. Let’s do the Maths!

 

The African Union agenda 2063 details how we have invested both local and foreign funds – and yet young, aspirational Africans are still being stymied as they tirelessly walk their tedious journey towards hopeful success. These challenges are endemic and entrenched – and no amount of funding from foreign entities can overcome them, because the investments are coupled with terms and conditions that ignore the real and tangible issues and hard facts on the ground. The funding is given to ‘yes men’ that agree with the notions of the foreign funder – while locals are not engaged when these projects are developed and funded.

 

In a recent piece on The Guardian.com, titled ‘Aid spending in Africa, funding must be Africa-led – and it needs a Black Lives Matter reckoning’. The piece listed a myriad of reasons why African-led organisations in Africa do not get the attention or funding they deserve. These include multiple overlapping barriers that allow this inequity to persist; lack of proximity to funder networks; philanthropy’s definitions of risk that do not value lived experience; lack of formally recognized status and well documented implicit bias.

 

The Guardian’s article concluded by saying that we have a unique opportunity in this moment to chart a more equitable future globally. There are some key questions that would help grant-makers to make things fairer and better – from simply looking to see how many investments go to white-led organisations or social enterprises to tracking it, measuring it and questioning it. Asking about the diversity and questioning their own risk assessing – is local knowledge and lived experience being calculated. In my opinion, when this local knowledge and experience is not taken into consideration to guide how funders disburse funds, one may debate this as some form of ‘Entrepreneurship-Aid’ which as Dambisa Moyo rightly pointed out a few years ago, could be ‘Dead Aid’.

 

In closing, we are all in an unprecedented moment of uprising and change. We must strive for a better world that unites and collaborates. I think an excerpt from Amanda Gorman’s poem can inspire us all and instil a strong sense of togetherness as we climb our hills as one.

 

“And so we lift our gazes not in what stands between us but what stands before us. For while we have eyes to the future, history has its eyes on us. For there is always light, if only we’re brave enough to see it and if only we’re brave enough to be it”. Amanda Gorman.

 

Kizito Okechukwu is the co-Chair of the Global Entrepreneurship Network (GEN) Africa; 22 on Sloane is Africa’s largest startup campus.

logo

In Other News