The Challenges Around Investing in African Startups — a perspective from Tania Ngima
There is no denying that financial capital is an important element for business growth. Sufficient working capital allows a business to take advantage of new opportunities that come up, invest in new assets, or hire more staff to expand operations. As mentioned in the previous article, it is unfortunate that a lack of sufficient capital has been the nail on the coffins of far-too-many startups, especially in Africa.
We had a conversation with Demo Venture’s CEO, Tania Ngima, who shed light on why it is hard to sell African ideas to investors, especially international investors.
Demo Ventures is the investment arm of Demo Africa, an initiative which runs pitching competitions and serves as a launchpad for innovative African technologies.
There is a market gap that Demo Ventures satisfies. On one hand, investors want to invest in Africa but may lack sufficient knowledge about the market. Also, they might not have the bandwidth to manage multiple investments, preferring instead to make a single large investment — if at all. That is why you will see that an approximate 40 %* of the funding that went into the African startup ecosystem during the first half of 2018, went into two companies only; Cellulant and Branch (Link Here). At the same time, there are many startups that are looking for different sizes of funding. So Demo Ventures was started to bridge that gap. Currently; it is in the process of raising 100 million $ in equity to invest in early-stage tech startups focused on consumer web and mobile, renewable energy, and financial services, among other industries (Link Here).
So why is it hard to sell the African dream to investors?
Infrastructural and political challenges
Conducting business in the African market is not easy, with challenges existing at both the macro-level and micro-level scale.
Macro-level challenges could be infrastructural, like nonexistent roads or minimal access to electricity in rural areas. In some cases, there are restrictive policies and high import tariffs that make it expensive to do business in emerging markets, compare to other more developed markets.
Unstable political climates tend to hinder business growth as well. For example, on the 15 Jan 2019, Zimbabwe’s government shut down the internet after protests turned deadly (Link Here). Imagine the impact of such a shut down on businesses operating within the country.
Headline-grabbing news like these tend to make investors nervous.
Problems with Execution
Micro-level challenges deal with business execution — or the daily operations of running a business. Tania Ngima notes, “The difference in execution is the difference between being able to give your investors a return on investment, or not.”
She mentions that execution problems tend to center around the founding team. Sometimes, they get so passionate and invested in the shape or form of their original idea that they might not be willing to be agile and open to diverse opinions The questions that they need to ask themselves are, “Are we willing to rethink our product if the market is not adopting it as anticipated? Are we willing to rethink our business models to deal with changing legislation ?”
Another challenge with the ecosystem is that local investors are hard to come by. Only recently are angel investors from Africa coming around to invest in startups, as there is the old-school thinking of investments only being poured in real estate or government securities. Because of that, it’s very easy for international investors to raise the question, “If you can’t get your own people to invest in you, then why should we?”
Finally, entrepreneurship as a legitimate career path is still not fully understood or accepted culturally. While it is easier for children who grew up within entrepreneurial families to become entrepreneurs, the road for the rest of the population is paved with thorns.
Entrepreneurship is generally viewed as the option until one gets a real job. Also in the case that someone tries to pursue a business venture alongside a real job, the side hustle is not given the energy and focus it requires. That could at times translate into higher failure rates.
Besides the emotional barriers associated with having family members not accept them for following a unconventional path, entrepreneurs usually don’t have the financial bandwidth to fail fast or fail often. While in the US, there’s more liquidity for startup founders to fail a couple of times, it’s more “do-or-die” in this market.
Or to be more literal, “do-or-get-a-real-job”.
Also, ideas from Silicon Valley are being imported into Silicon Savannah without taking care of the fact that the two markets are nothing alike. In Silicon Valley, there’s more experience in angel investing, and proven track records of successful exits. As Tania is quoted saying, “In Africa, it’s virtually impossible for a startup to exit via IPO as our stock exchanges are not that mature yet.”
Instead, exits are usually made by buyouts or acquisitions.
But there is hope.
More international funders are looking here. The most recent Weetracker report, “Decoding Venture Investments in Africa 2018,” highlighted that over 725.6 Million dollars were invested in Africa in 2018. It also underscores that the money went into 458 startups with 80 % of the deals concentrating around South Africa, Nigeria and Kenya.
This newly-spurred interest in the African startup landscape by venture capitalists is a good thing. It shows venture capitalists have enough confidence to expect a return on investment from Africa, rather than signing it off solely as a place to pour charity money into.
- 67.5 million $ out of the total 168.6 million $
Story co-written with Amina Islam