Africa is slowly driven into the worldwide Startup mania. The new way to be cool for young people and graduates is to start or join a startup. Accelerators are sprouting around the continent, and some investors have opened operations in Africa. Wired Magazine wrote “Want to Become an internet billionaire? Move to Africa“. Forbes echoed the story in its post, “Africa Could Make You an Internet Billionaire,” saying, “More than ever before, this is the best time for venture capitalists and Y Combinator-type incubators to set up shop in Africa, scout for internet deals and invest in budding African internet companies that’ll lead the future.”
Everyone seems excited about this development, but there are some cautionary-tales to be laid down here:
1. Solving the 1% problems
Most of these startups are about web or mobile applications: social network, web rings or directories, online music or video streaming platforms, online job or news portal, etc. With the notable exception of the mobile payment startups which are focused on solving real local banking problems, most of these startups only address the needs of the happy few, 1% population in Africa, who have access to Internet or could afford mobile Internet services. This population is not even 1% of African vast population which main concerns are more related to food, energy supply, agriculture, education, health, transportation, Water and sanitation. These are the areas where we need the few engineers, designers, architects, managers the continent train to focus their attention (Not into another social network or web/mobile application.)
If these young people want to work for Africa development, they should otherwise focus their creative mind and energy on creating Food processing or conservation startups, energy distribution research project, water purification devices, new methods for mass education, African languages revival and adoption initiatives, etc. We need captain of industries, innovators, managers addressing the big problems, not another web app or mobile game.
1. Diverting our best human resources into solving non-critical problems
Africa trains very few mathematicians, engineers, managers and designers every year. A good part of these people are trained locally and another good part trained in foreign universities.
The booms of the silicon Valley driven startup mania focused on web/mobile app development will be a good only if it doesn’t divert the few intellectual resources we have from the big problems of the continent.
If you take the case of African public administration, they have hard time competing for talent with big international corporations, international development agencies, banks, ad agencies. Most public administration can’t recruit the best managers (who all work for foreign corporations or institutions). Most hospitals can’t recruit the best doctors (who go to work for World health organization, or Medecin Sans Frontières, or other foreign-driven project). Most schools and universities can’t recruit the best teachers (who all go to teach for British school, American university, or work for some private consulting firm).
The boom of startup mania just add to the talent burden that is already severe in Africa regarding their availability and organization to address the continent big problems.
3. Externally driven incentive and governance
During colonial times, african farmers received incentive to grow cotton, coffee, and cacao, because it was what the colonial powers needed, while growing for example cherry, truffle or vine would have been much more profitable for local farmers.
The same goes for the African education model, which steered studies and curricula in African schools and Universities only toward the agenda of the colonial powers.
We might fear the same with this boom of entrepreneurship where in most cases, the operations are in the hands of foreign people. Most of the accelerators, incubators are funded by foreign investors and most entrepreneurs forums and platforms are run by foreign people but African people in second role.
Nothing is bad about foreigners investing in African economy, however past experience should push us to be careful not to repeat the same errors.
4. The naivety of most these first time entrepreneurs
As in Silicon Valley, it’s easy to use entrepreneurs enthusiasm and untamed optimism against them. There is no local experience or expertise dealing with investors and the ethics patterns that might prevail now in the Silicon valley might easily be forgotten when operating so far away, in Africa.
Additional to the high failure rate of IT/web Startup, even in case of success most of these startup founders will just end up with almost nothing, because of the contracts they signed with their currents investors.
5. The Cultural gap and disconnect
The startup-mania culture comes from America, therefore inherits a lot from the leadership style that is the most popular there: “showmanship”, cult of personality, personal branding, over-hyping, etc.
This “arrogant”, personal aggrandizement style will do nothing good for Africa, but will further distance our young people from their root culture which leadership style is more based on humility or servant-ship.
Our young people need to stay connected to their local culture and values, not to be distanced from the communities and nations they want to serve and work for.
My tone is quite edgy in this article, and it might sound like I’m making my point too strongly here, however my duty is to warn my fellow African tech people of the dangers of our over-enthusiasm.