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10 investments for unleashing the entrepreneurial ecosystem

5th EU Africa

It is clear Small Medium Sized Enterprises are the backbone of every economy: they are the engines of employment, income generation and economic growth. Yet the conversation at high level forums fails to break down beyond a discussion concerning traditional venture capital and large private equity. The word startup is hardly ever used and there is no focus on building the entrepreneurial community from the grassroots.

Doesn’t the conversation start here?

The VC4Africa community and investment firm Sovec co-chaired the Venture Capital Roundtable at the 5th EU-Africa Business Forum in Brussels. This was a unique opportunity for our 15,000 members from 159 countries to express their concerns, a common voice calling on both EU and African leaders to recognize the entrepreneurial movement coming up across the continent.

Specifically, studies indicate that SMEs account for around 80% of job creation and over 55% of employment in developing countries. Emerging African economies looking to produce quality job opportunities for their youth are no exception, and policy and public sector work should focus on achieving similar levels of contribution. It is estimated there are 2 million registered SMEs in Africa and maybe 8 million operating in the informal sphere, but so how do we better support their growth and development? How do we open the doors for others to follow? And then more importantly, how can we shift the conversation to give a much needed focus on the micro and small as opposed to the medium and large? And where we talk about existing businesses active in traditional sectors, where is the space for talking about startups at the forefront of the new economy?

The VC4Africa chaired roundtable proposes that there are a number of complex constraints that are keeping entrepreneurs from realizing their full potential: we are talking about 1) skills shortages, 2) inadequate infrastructure, and a continued 3) lack of financial resources. And where many argue capital is not the issue, the efficient distribution of capital to the micro and small enterprises (and then to scalable startups specifically) remains a critical issue … combined with the need to offer hands-on support to develop the managerial, financial, and technical skills required.

Common perception aside, private sector investors are actually willing to support early stage companies when the risks are understood and parts are in place to manage them effectively. For example we reference the USD 12 million raised by 70 ventures listed on VC4Africa. And for good purpose, because these companies are growing rapidly. 64% had revenue by their second operating year and the same set of companies generated 1800 new jobs. Furthermore, these companies have the potential to redesign our societies and bring about massive efficiencies.

Again, tip of the iceberg stuff.

The argument is not to say that progress isn’t happening, but that there is so much more that can be done. Investors hesitate to engage difficult countries, sectors or client segments because of the perceived risk of investing in these segments is too high – and they are not able or willing to absorb it. At the same time we know that investments in VC4Africa entrepreneurs could be quite sustainable and that they have a significant development impact.

Key areas where the market continues to fail:

1) There are very few investors willing to assume the high risks and uncertain returns associated with investing in socially impactful early-stage businesses, particularly in geographies and industries where sector risk is perceived to be high;

2) One of the additional reasons why investors shy away from financing early stage companies are the high transaction costs involved compared to the invested amounts. New efficient, innovative mechanisms to reduce costs are needed;

3) Lack of ecosystem actors. Too little support for building platforms essential to creating a quality entrepreneurial base, producing a steady supply of investible pipeline, and acting as a trusted interface to the investment community;

Governments have an important part to play and the roundtable proposes a number of areas where we require additional focus and support. It is critical to invest in the development of entrepreneurial networks at a grassroots level where the VC4Africa community and roundtable participants propose to:

1) invest in community hubs, incubators, and accelerators that offer front line support to entrepreneurs, connecting ideas and resources;

2) friends, family and fools aside, introduce funding mechanisms that give entrepreneurs the opportunity to develop traction at early stages. Guide and support entrepreneurs through this process to secure a compelling investment case;

3) launch a regular series of programs, business plan competitions, demo events and other platforms to inspire a culture of entrepreneurship and for showcasing the community’s best;

4) nurture mentor capital. engage local investors in supporting local startups. Support the formation of high net-worth individuals as angel investing networks;

5) look at the process for company formation, intellectual property protection, and tax legislation;

6) support the growth and development of the service sector (admin, legal, fiscal, marketing), highly specialized entities designed to support the startup ecosystem;

7) consider capital restrictions and benchmark with best practices as they exist across the continent. Consider status of the stock markets and to what extent they offer a viable exit path;

8) invest in the education of both entrepreneurs and investors to improve the understanding and dynamics of the angel investing, venture capital and private equity models;

9) introduce co-investing schemes and first loss/guarantee mechanisms to further incentivise private sector investors. subsidize transaction costs where necessary;

10) create an environment that celebrates both failure and success, maintain a long-term vision and cultivate a culture with this shared vision.

These are only a few of the suggestions that came from the EU-Africa Business Forum discussion. Please feel free to comment on these and/or make new suggestions. For example, what role do you see for micro-finance institutions or banks?

As a community we will continue our efforts to push the conversation forward and to seek out the support of both government and private sector actors.

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Launch Angel Investor network in Lagos, Nigeria

The Lagos Innovation Hotspots is an initiative of the Co-creation Hub aimed at mapping hotspots representing clusters of emerging high growth and competitive businesses across Lagos. The current map, which has more than 170 listed businesses provides information on each cluster, businesses and location-based support services and illustrates exciting developments now underway in Lagos.

As the local community of entrepreneurs grows, a growing number of organizations and investors are looking to engage them. This was highlighted by the announcement of EchoVC, a Silicon Valley-based venture capital firm. The new fund aims to invest $30 Million into Sub-Saharan Africa Start-ups and the team is comprised of former Intel Capital director, Eghosa Omoigui, early-stage technology investor, Shadi Mehraein and former VC Finance at Founders Fund, Amber Fowler.

This news was followed by the recent launch of the ‘Lagos Angel Network,’ a platform that brings together individuals and organisations seeking to invest in and mentor Nigerian technology start-ups. LAN is an initiative of Wennovation Hub. Founding Partners include the World Bank, InfoDev, Tony Elumelu Foundation and Alitheia Capital. The initiative is headed by VC4Africa member Tomi Davies and currently counts 15 Angel investors. Members of the network are expected to commit at least $6,000 a year to a common investment pool.

The time to start a new technology venture in Nigeria couldn’t be better!

Facebook Zero, feature phones and the ‘next billion’ users

ImageGraphic from the BBC and data from SocialBakers
On October 4th, 2012, Facebook passed the billion user mark. These users generated some 1.13 trillion ‘likes,’ 219 billion photos and 17 billion location check-ins. Launched in 2004, and well established in markets like North America and Europe, Facebook increasingly looks to places like Africa for the next billion users.

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It is no surprise there will be more mobile phones on the planet than people before the end of this year. Statistics released to coincide with the Facebook announcement revealed there were now 600 million users accessing the site via a mobile device – up 48 million from 552 million in June this year. That said, penetration is still relatively low in places like Asia and Africa – below 7 per cent in Asia and just over 5 per cent in Africa. This leaves plenty of potential users still to gain in these markets and clearly a mobile strategy is the future for the company.

In Africa, Facebook has targeted the use of basic phones known widely as ‘feature phones.’ They are unable to display the full-featured site, but instead can use specially created variations of the network. In May 2010, Facebook announced the launch of Facebook Zero, a text-only version of Facebook that can be accessed at 0.facebook.com. In the 18 months after Facebook Zero launched in Africa, the number of Africans on Facebook grew by 165%. Certainly working directly with the telecom providers, and offering the service for free to users, has done a lot to spread the network.

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Looking to further expand its reach, Facebook took the next step when it acquired Snaptu last year for a reported 60-70 million USD. This strategic investment underpins the project called ‘Facebook for Every Phone.’ Snaptu specializes in enabling the development of apps for low-cost feature phones. Their cloud based application approach means their apps work on more than 2,500 devices, indeed many of the feature phones that can be found across the continent.

As the company looks to reach the next billion users we can assume there will be a continued focus on Africa.

Celebrating a growing technology community in Cameroon

So exciting to see Djoss.tv win the Cameroon Startup Challenge 2012. It was an electric evening with so much positive energy.

My first trip to Cameroon was in the spring of 2011. Amazing to see what kind of progress is being made only a year and a half later. It is exciting to see the ranks of technology entrepreneurs grow in the country. Also the quality of startups has greatly improved and I noticed a serious focus on business models. Several teams have gone through multiple iterations of their product before refining concepts that have real potential to gain traction.

In fact, a recent visitor from Nairobi remarked that the Kenyan entrepreneurs have something to learn from their Cameroonian counterparts. Indeed, it might seem that the constraints placed on entrepreneurs in the country forces them to focus – working faster with less resources. It was also noted technology entrepreneurs in Nairobi are sometimes hesitant to close their computers and speak with actual customers, when most of the teams in Cameroon spend a great deal of time and effort on market research.

Almost not a week goes by that we don’t read about the launch of another fund in Nairobi, an accelerator in Ghana or a competition targeting startup entrepreneurs in Nigeria. Its herd mentality with everyone piling into the same plane. Maybe Cameroon doesn’t get the same attention because people are less familiar with the operating environment or the government has done less to bolster its image. Certainly there is less sector support. That said, the quality of innovators we know in Cameroon are on par with any we have met.

There should be a podium for technology entrepreneurs in every country, and the Cameroon Startup Challenge 2012 is another step for the community in Cameroon. These individuals, in every community, are critical if we are to solve difficult social, economic and environmental problems. They are an important part of our future. Their path is not an easy one and it is important to take a step back and to recognize the progress being made.

It is hard work and these guys are blazing a new path for hopefully many generations to come. Already we see new teams of entrepreneurs staking their ground. These are still the early days of many exciting times ahead. Congrats to the team at Djoss.tvKingMaker and Agro-Hub!

Capital flight in Sub-Saharan Africa visualized

The Gaurdian has been working to ramp up their ‘Data Journalism’ efforts and some of their insights are quite impressive.

For example, the elites of many sub-Saharan African countries have accumulated so much secret offshore wealth it could pay off their countries’ external debts many times over as visualized here.

A challenge moving forward is to see how this money can rather be diverted into investments locally.