Brian Hirman talks about the eVentures Africa Fund (Dutch)
This is a great interview that really captures the opportunities to do business in Africa. After a request to get this translated, Jochem was nice enough to put this together. Thanks!
Interviewer: Eh… is it a new way of developing aid, is it equal cooperation, is it a combination of factors, how do you see the cooperation with Africa?
Brian Hirman: Well, at least I don’t see it as developing aid. Apart from the fact that there are of course all kinds of social side effects, but primarily it’s just about doing business. The nice thing is actually that the people with whom we do business are mainly people in their 20s and 30s, who received their education in the US, the UK or Canada, lived there for 5 to 6 years or even longer, and then returned with all the ideas, developments and standards they learned from there to their home country to try to boost internet and mobile telephony. They really aren’t looking for help, they just want to do business. They really approach you like someone they’re going to do business with. I think that’s the most healthy basis to get something started.
I: To what extent does it become a risk that it will be a new way to get things cheaply from there, just like we did before, a few centuries ago. Well, that’s a little bit exaggerated, but to what extent do you have to be aware that it’s only that?
BH: Well, I don’t think we’re getting things from there. I mean, you say it’s exaggerated, but I’ve never really thought about it that way. I also don’t feel I’m bringing something. But as a businessman, I see that Africa has been neglected by many companies, and I also see that there’s happening a lot. They show it in the film clip, and it’s true that there’s an enormous development: the middle class is booming, infrastructure receives heavy funding, a very enthusiastic population that takes these developments on board with both hands where possible. It’s really growing, so especially from a business perspective there’s something happening. And Thomas Hess (?) says it very well in the film clip: it’s like a crystal ball, you know more or less where it’s going, and you know that the ideas that come forward, that you’ve seen them before.
I: It’s like ‘startpagina’ [‘homepage’; a dutch website with all kinds of links and information]
BH: yes, or it’s like ‘marktplaats’ [‘market place’; a dutch website where people can sell their ‘old’ stuff]. But the ‘marktplaats’ of Kenya is a fraction of the ‘marktplaats’…[in The Netherlands?] or eBay worldwide, but it’s rising. One thing I know for sure, that I’m not too early… ehhh sorry, that I’m not too late. I just don’t know whether I’m way too early, a little too early, or right on time.
I: I think you’re right on time.
BH: yes, yes.
I: I don’t know whether you’ve inspired me while I’m listening to you, but I increasingly hear people saying that there’s so much we can do together with these countries, and it’s helping us to make something from this world together. Or is that not something that drives you?
BH: Indirectly yes. Primarily it is a business consideration, besides the fact that…
I: But it’s nice that it’s all happening in such an environment?
BH: That’s right, but…
I: Because you can just as easily start something in Europe: French media companies, or English media companies, or…
BH: I think, as for my profession… call it personal development, I’m learning every day when I’m working with these African entrepreneurs, I’m learning so much.
I: Like what?
BH: Well, the point is, we can learn much from them, because… besides the fact that they are 10 or sometimes even 15 years behind, they can skip many sales [?] steps, and in some cases they deal with issues in a smarter way, where we are slower, maybe due to the dialectics of progress. For example, the way they deal with mobile communication. I think we can still learn a lot from that. They are much more inventive in that case. And what I miss here in The Netherlands, is that in The Netherlands everything is getting killed with analyses, business plans, research, and commissions where 20 people can have their say. I’m exaggerating a little, but it’s nice for the imagery. And what I now experience in Africa (and I’m not saying I’m an expert on Africa, but I’m just telling what I’m experiencing over and over again), is that there’s a enormous drive, passion and workers mentality in these people. Especially in Kenya I’ve seen that, where people just do things. That has of course it’s
own problems, because when you just do things you’ll come across the issues later on, but new projects do start. There’s a lot of activity, a lot of entrepreneurship, and an enormous amount of creativity…
I: Is there enough ambition and efficiency, to name just a few of such Western terms? Because that’s what you often hear: to run a business over there in Ghana… try to find a Ghanaian manager who can manage 20 people under him.
BH: That’s true. If you start summing up those Western criteria, then you won’t find a high score over there… that’s absolutely true. However, I think the mentality… and again, I might be talking of a niche here, because I’m talking about digital entrepreneurs, who often had their education in a Western country… the mentality there is really proactive, we need to go ahead. So we better start doing things. And what I like is that when it doesn’t work the way it should or the way they thought it would, they won’t fix it, they start something new. That does have its downside, but the upside is that there’s a lot of development. Many new initiatives emerge. And the energy is fantastic.
I: How big is the fund?
BH: The fund is still small at this moment, because Vincent and I have invested a little for now.
I: What is small? Is that a few million?
BH: No, that’s too much. Small really is small, but in Africa you can really do a lot with a small amount of money.
I: But what are your ambitions with the fund?
BH: Indeed the ambition with the fund is to grow. You see, what we’ve noticed, and we see that every day, is that we really are working in a niche, a niche that hasn’t been really discovered yet. Everyone is developing another area, not this one. But it’s noticed by the big funds, but they just don’t know what they can do with it. In a short period of time, we created quite a fuzz around us: suddenly we got all kinds of requests out of the blue, but also all kinds of people that wanted to get in touch with us, from ministries or investment funds. Now it turns out that we are a very interesting party for big investment funds, like a big oil tanker with many millions, to lead the way into that niche of digital. And that’s interesting, because that interest comes faster than we anticipated. Initially, the idea was to fill this fund with a few private investors, giving sympathetic, almost why not-like donations. That can still be the plan, but the bigger fund, on which we anticipated in
maybe a year or two, I think that will start this year already.
I: Let’s hope you can find enough projects to invest it in.
BH: Yes, and there’s passion with both Vincent and I, and also with the people on the continent itself that we’ve associated with, both in Ghana and in Kenya. In Ghana we make a lot of use of Thomas Hess, whom you saw in the film clip, the CEO and expert indeed, and in which we also took a share. And in Kenya we have Andrea Bohnstaed [?], a German lady, who really is an icon over there when it comes to ict and internet, an analyst who often appears in the news. And she’s our agent over there, as she says herself, and I like that term. And that goes quite fast.