Venture Capital Surge in Africa to Help Businesses

By David South, Development Challenges, South-South Solutions

SOUTH-SOUTH CASE STUDY

Africa’s potential economic powerhouse lies in its small and medium enterprises (SMEs). Foreign direct investment (FDI) into Africa ebbs and flows based on the state of the global economy – and most of it is directed towards large enterprises and multinational companies.

Finding ways to support grassroots SMEs has the potential to truly build in sustainable prosperity for the continent and construct stable middle class jobs.

But building a continent-wide network of investors, and directing that investment at the grassroots business entrepreneurs who employ the majority of Africans, is not easy.

Foreign direct investment to Africa rose fivefold from 2000, peaking at US $72 billion in 2008 (African Economic Outlook). A surge in raw material prices fed this boom. FDI is, however, unevenly distributed and much of it goes to extractive industries like mining and oil and gas in a handful of countries. When the global economic crisis hit, FDI inflows to African countries fell by 20 per cent, to US $59 billion in 2009.

Venture Capital for Africa: Connecting Entrepreneurs and Investors (http://vc4africa.biz), is a free service trying to nurture the SME sector and help entrepreneurs overcome the challenges of funding start-ups in Africa. Members are expected to contribute, collaborate and show their seriousness, bringing resources or their ideas and enthusiasm.

It has a detailed website with a mix of resources available. People can register and connect with others, check out venture ideas and the most popular ones in the past day to month, read about featured entrepreneurs, register as an investor looking for investees, and meet-up with others in their city. This includes expatriate communities in places like Oslo, Norway.

VC4Africa believes its mission is to champion entrepreneurship, and particularly SMEs, as the main driver of Africa’s economic growth. These businesses provide the majority of the continent’s employment and income. And as it says on its website, they offer “hope for a better future.” It is estimated SMEs contribute two thirds of national income for many African countries and are a major source of middle class jobs.

VC4Africa believes “that the most meaningful impact will still come from grass roots level i.e. entrepreneurs bold enough to start potentially great companies. It aims to connect these individuals with the additional network,knowledge and capital they need to realize their potential.”

VC4Africa started from a group on the social media and connecting platform Linkedin in 2008. It claims to be the largest online community “dedicated to entrepreneurs and investors building companies on the continent.” It is a free service and was founded by “serial entrepreneurs” Bill Zimmerman, formerly of Microsoft in the USA, and Ben White, founding member of AfriLabs (afrilabs.com), a network of technology incubators. Both have extensive experience founding and investing in technology initiatives in Africa.

VC4Africa is sponsored by a long list of well-known names in supporting African entrepreneurs: Acumen Fund (acumenfund.org), Afribiz (afribiz.info), AfricaNews.com, How We Made It In Africa.com, iHub Nairobi (ihub.co.ke), and others.

Consulting firm McKinsey (mckinsey.com) believes Africa’s more than 1 billion citizens should be seen as consumers and says the continent’s growing number of middle-income consumers now outstrips India’s. It boldly claims consumer spending will reach US $1.4 trillion in Africa by 2020, up from US $860 billion in 2008. Ventures that target these consumers could do very well indeed.

The future is looking good for the venture capital model if VC4Africa continues with its successes. Two of VC4Africa’s ventures – BongoLive and Njorku – were hailed by Forbes Africa magazine in February 2012 as top start-ups in Africa.

Founded in 2010, BongoLive is a mobile and SMS services company in Tanzania. Njorku, founded in 2011, is a Cameroonian career and recruitment services platform focused on Africa.

A long and impressive list of African ventures is being supported by the VC4Africa network. Not all will succeed, and they are in very different stages of development, from embryonic to established. The failure rate for start-ups anywhere is always high. But this doesn’t have to be a bad thing. What tends to happen from experience in other countries is this: a buzz is generated as like-minded people gather around a tech scene. They feed off each others’ideas and when one idea dies, it is often feasted on – like a lion on a wildebeest – and becomes the meal for another start-up. Or, the idea is taken on board by a more established outfit.

The dynamic around tech start-ups can seem strange to more traditional business cultures. Tech start-ups tend to be more forgiving of failure and more willing to see all their labour as part of a bigger thing. It is accepted that some ideas will fly, and others will die. It is not a culture heavily laden with the shame that can be associated with more traditional business failures.

Some of the ventures supported by VC4Africa include:

MXit – Founded in 2003, MXit was one of the first Mobile Instant messaging services in the world and in Africa, and has a user base of about 45 million. (South Africa)

Dropifi – Founded in 2011, Dropifi helps businesses better respond to incoming messages via their websites, and also includes analytics for website owners. (Ghana)

FloCash – Founded in 2010, FloCash allows anyone with an email address and mobile number to send and receive money across Africa simply and easily. (UK)

Bandeka – Founded in 2011, Bandeka is an exclusive social network for building relationships/dating. (Ghana and Nigeria)

Motribe – Founded in 2011, Motribe is a mobile platform enabling users, brands, agencies and publishers across the world to build and manage their own mobile social communities. (South Africa)

Hummba – Founded in 2011, Hummba is a social and travel networking website that lets users download free audio travel guides and share travel experiences directly from mobile phones.

10Layer – Founded in 2011, 10Layer is a CMS (content management) system targeted specifically at newsrooms. (South Africa)

Resources

1) African Venture Capital Association is a not-for-profit entity founded to promote, develop and stimulate private equity and venture capital in Africa. AVCA is committed to promoting high ethical standards of business conduct and professional competence in the private equity and venture capital industries. Website: avcanet.com

2) Venture Capital Investment for SMEs: Africa Report explores what venture capitalists look for in African businesses.Website: http://www.africareport.com/latest-business-news/2010/10/22/venture-capital-investment-for-smes

3) New book: Africa’s Future: Darkness to Destiny: How the past is shaping Africa’s economic evolution by Duncan Clarke.Website: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Africas-Future-Darkness-economic-evolution/dp/1846685699

4) The Co-Creation Hub Nigeria, a technology innovations center in Lagos, is working to start 30 profitable social tech ventures in the next two years. “The thinking behind CcHub is that the techies should not believe that they can just stay in a corner and create solutions for the market”, says Bosun Tijani, CEO of CcHub Nigeria. “You need to engage the market in the creation process and that is where co-creation comes into play.” Website: cchubnigeria.com

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