Why Africa Needs More Unicorns?
In the 2018 superhero movie, Black Panther, Wakanda was shown as a high-tech African country powered by the extraordinary yet imaginary vibranium metal. Drawing inspiration from all over the continent, The Atlantic’s Adam Serwer called the movie, “a love letter to people of African descent all over the world.”
And it was a love letter indeed.
Because what Black Panther did was materialize the untapped potential of Africa.
It showed us what we could be, unfettered.
The question I’m raising today is what stops us from dreaming big when it comes to harnessing this continent’s potential? Why shouldn’t we aim at building innovative unicorns — startups valued at over a billion dollars? Why are the top ten unicorns emerging from the US and China?
If you scoff at this idea, then therein lies one of the reasons why. We’ve decided to program barriers into our mindsets, and into the collective cultural narrative so we are more likely to believe the following:
- The only successful type of entrepreneurship on this continent is tenderpreneurship
- You can’t make an honest living here without being involved in corruption
- Money is racist, so you need a mzungu co-founder to raise funds for your startup
- The dispensable income of the average Kenyan is too low for us to build unicorns around
While the anecdotes to support each statement are plentiful, they show that the first barrier is in our minds. We lack the belief in ourselves and our capabilities.
Henry Ford said, “‘Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t — you’re right.”
And that lack of self-belief cascades into snail-slow progress (if any) in areas such as economic growth, job creation, service delivery, and poverty reduction in Africa, with 7 out of the 10 top countries with extreme poverty globally surfacing from Africa.
As a region, we also rank last in the Global Innovation Index list, with a value of 25, which is less than half of the highest scoring region, North America.
While there are some examples of individual ingenuity, they tend to be scattered and small. As a country, we in Kenya love to toot our own horn about Safaricom’s innovative M-Pesa. What CB Insights named as Africa’s only three unicorns — Jumia, Promasidor Holdings and Cell C — might also make it into conversations, but that’s about it.
As a trickle-down effect emanating mainly from our low self-confidence, we also have problems with execution. We build small businesses with the intention of keeping them small leading to their collapse during volatile economic turmoils. We also tend to focus on the wrong ideas, sectors and industries. Rather than building contextualized businesses that solve our own problems in Africa, we look outwards at the fads that are happening across the world and try to import and impose them on our people, in hopes of attracting international funding.
There’s also an absence of a strong entrepreneurial culture, and an integrated ecosystem that would be able to nurture the unicorn types of businesses.
More importantly, thanks to our educational system, talent gaps exist in the market at an epic scale, with the African Union estimating the brain drain at 70,000 skilled professionalsemigrating from Africa annually due to the limited economic opportunities.
So do we have challenges?
Yes, we do, but we shouldn’t use them as excuses to lay down, because we definitely cannot afford to anymore. Instead, we should reframe them as opportunities.
In their report, McKinsey showed that sustaining the current growth rates of stable wage-paying jobs over the next ten years will not be enough to absorb the 122 million new entrants into the labor force expected over the same period. And nobody can imagine the types of problems that all this restless energy could cause.
It will be like a ticking bomb.
So we can’t afford to use our challenges as excuses, because we are quickly running out of time. We need to focus on building scalable businesses that would be irrigated by local investments directed at local entrepreneurs.
And we do have a chance to build unicorns, because we have the power of technology on our side. Rather than rely on inefficient, manual systems and processes to support our businesses, we can use technology to speed things up, and focus on delivering actual solutions to consumers.
According to a GSMA report, mobile adoption has grown rapidly in recent years: with overall subscriber penetration reaching 44 % in 2017, up from just 25 % at the start of the decade, and that would be important to empower consumers and drive economic growth. Mobile money and the use of smartphones will also provide the necessary infrastructure and networks to catalyze digital transformation.
Enabled with tech, and together with a positive mindset, and we can aim higher and build bigger, so who wants in?
Co-written with Amina Islam