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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!

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What does Africa look like in terms of population?

I like HackerNews because I always find one or two surprises. This DayOneData project by Peter Main was the latest find. He basically looks to re-imagine the world in terms of population. India and China crowd the global map, and the US takes a commanding third. Looking closer at the African continent we can see usual suspects like Nigeria, Egypt, South Africa and Morocco. But more interesting is the size of the population in countries like Ethiopia (+/- 88 million), Democratic Republic of Congo and Sudan. These countries don’t usually get a lot of positive press, but looking at their potential consumer base, are potentially major economic engines in the making. It is expected that Ethiopia could become the most populous nation on the continent, eventually surpassing Nigeria. Given the continent’s youthful population it will be interesting to see what this map looks like in 2050.

Venture Capitalist take a look at the challenges investing in African tech

VC4Africa was pleased to host the panel, ‘Strengthening the VC pipeline’  at the 9th Annual Conference for the African Venture Capital Association meeting hosted in Accra. 

I was joined by Yemi Lalude, Managing Partner of Adlevo, Tayo Oviosu, Founder and CEO of Paga, Karima Ola, CIO of the African Development Corporation, Mathew Boadu Adjei, CEO of Oasis Capital and Arjuna Costa, Director of Investments at Omidyar Network. The time we had was limited for getting into all of the issues we wanted to cover, actually there is more than enough content for a stand alone conference on the subject, but here are some of the points I felt were raised during our different conversations.

–       Within the emerging African focused VC space there is a inherent leaning to scalable concepts and a natural orientation toward financial services. As penetration rates increases across African countries, banking services are the first step to unlocking e-commerce activity that will drive the ecosystems development.

–       Challenges with market size remain a key constraint. Ghana at 8.4% Internet penetration is looking at somewhere around 1.2 million users compared to the 4.3 million found in Nigeria. The numbers are far less in countries like Tanzania, Ethiopia or Uganda. Innovation can come from anywhere, initially incubated and tested in Accra, Kampala or Dar, but how can a venture then find its way into bigger markets next door?

–       Operating in a country like Zambia can be extremely expensive. Sales operations might be in Lusaka, but don’t be afraid to put the back office in CapeTown. Where Nigeria is where a company might want to expand its network of merchants, the programmers and technical staff might be based in Accra.  Staff are easier to find, higher quality and therefore cheaper. And it can be as simple as the company needing better power supply and reliable infrastructure.

–       There is a need for more qualified entrepreneurs. For the organizations that can, investing into the support ecosystem remains important. Platforms like incubators are critical to developing new networks of entrepreneurs. That said, do the existing platforms successfully produce new ventures and how do we make sure entrepreneurs graduate and get into the market successfully? A stronger link to business development is needed and is a point being addressed by incubators like ActivSpaces in Buea, the Nailab in Nairobi and MEST in Accra.

–       There is a growing amount of capital looking to engage ventures at an early stage. It might not be enough, as many entrepreneurs are quick to make clear, but certainly the environment is improving. Two panelists had angels. One happened to be from the US and one happened to be Dutch.  Both offering a million USD plus. But we also met local Ghanaian angels investing in early stage ventures here in Accra and we see a growing number of ventures finding early stage support this way. No surprise we see the rise of local angel networks like the Ghana Angel Investor Network (GAIN). A challenge for many entrepreneurs is in developing these contacts and here more could be done to matchmake on a local level. At VC4A we do this via meetups brining the member base together in an informal way that sees lots of business cards exchanging hands.

–       Government does have a role to play. Legislation that helps to protect IP is critical. But also efforts like the Ghana Venture Capital Trust Fund. A facility that has helped Ghana based investors top up their funds. More success stories would give governments the opportunity to bolster these programs and expand them. In Kenya the government has gone so far as to promote the development of Konza, an entire tech city.

–       Tech is different than sectors like housing, education, agro, etc… Where the first subscribes to a culture more attune to Silicon Valley, the other, more traditional sectors, are more often family run businesses. The approaches to building a portfolio are quite different. The business model and exit plan are also adjusted. Taking from revenue might be more attune for a business when run by a family that isn’t actually looking for an eventual acquisition.

–       Average size of ventures on the tech side are still quite small in size. The economics for a pure play early stage tech fund in many cases doesn’t make sense. As a result, some investors have a carve out and allocate a % they can put into early stage technology ventures. Fitting the investments into a larger portfolio can improve a fund’s balance sheet and be more appealing to investors.

–       Costs are high. Traveling in Africa is more expensive than traveling across the US. Hotels are not cheap. Qualified staff are not cheap. Secure power and working infrastrcuture can add to the cost base. These costs stretch what can be facilitated with a traditional  managetment fee.

–       Exits were not a primary concern, although many investors question the point. That said, If you build a business with real scale, there is confidence exit opportunities will emerge. Possibly an exit within the industry as larger funds look to fill their own pipelines with qualified ventures. If you don’t have a long view, and an underlining faith in the market, you probably shouldn’t be involved.

I will look to build on these points moving forward and as always I invite your feedback, thoughts, questions and ideas. Certainly, progress is being made every day and this conference and our time in Accra was testament to that.

VC4Africa and the emergence of an African startup culture

Want to know more about VC4Africa and our work to support starting entrepreneurs? Here is a presentation we recently recorded. I outline some of the recent trends and developments we are witnessing in the space and some of our thinking on how we can do more to support the emergence of an African startup culture.

Fast Moving Targets: Africa as promising investment frontier

Here is an interview I did last week with Fast Moving Targets, a new series dedicated to showcasing innovation in media, technology and communications. They are very much tapping into Amsterdam as a creative media lab and the beginnings of a promising startup culture here in the city. Importantly, they ask the question, ‘what’s going on, what does that mean for whom and how do you actually get new trends and technologies to succeed?’

It’s great to see initiatives like this come online. It adds to The Next Web (many people do not know they are based in Amsterdam) and Hackers and Founders Meetups as important platforms for engaging the community, identifying key developments and highlighting protagonists in the space. Fast Moving Targets is an initiative of ‘The Crowds‘ and hosted by Erwin Blom and Roeland Stekelenburg. They have a great production team and it was nice of Johan Schaap, the founder of Probaton, to make the connection.

The show is filmed live which gives it an interesting character and streamed via the site. They film the chit chat before and after the actual show (so be aware:) and take questions from people watching via Twitter. The show has an interactive and relaxed feel to it. Mostly because of the Palm beer. It was also great practice for my Dutch!:) Here is the description as posted on the site: ‘Ben White van VC4Africa probeert werelden bij elkaar te brengen. Investeerders en ondernemers. Europa en Afrika. Omdat hij ziet hoe groot het talent in laatstgenoemd werelddeel is, omdat hij overtuigd is van het zakenlijk potentieel, maar ook omdat hij een idealist is die van Afrika houdt. VC4Africa gaat over geld, maar nog veel meer over netwerken. Met al duizenden aan boord. Een aflevering van Top Names van Fast Moving Targets.’

The Rise of a Startup Culture in Africa [Video Presentation]

Technology + Entrepreneurs + A vision = Startups in Africa in need of Venture Capital.

This is a one line summary of the presentation I recently gave at the 1% Event in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. In the presentation I talk about the rise of the techprenuer in Africa and the cheetah Generation that is now empowered with the knowledge and tools they need to change the world. This presentation builds on a lot of the ethnographic research I did in Kampala, Uganda and my experiences working on the ICT Entrepreneurship program at Hivos. I also talk about AfriLabs as a network organization connecting technology incubators in Africa and VC4Africa (Venture Capital for Africa) as a platform for crowdsourcing network, information and capital via the web.

Innovation spreads like wildfire in Africa

Nairobi has really worked to claim its position as an innovation hotspot. See for example the plans for the $7b Konza Technology City. The activity there is remarkable and the progress is really a result of an active community and increasingly a combined effort. The platforms like the iHub, m:lab and Nailab help bring the local network together and make entrepreneurs and their projects visible for a wider audience. Nairobi is friendly for journalists, the labs have improved access to resources and increasingly stories of entrepreneurs reach the pages of newspapers and websites around the world. Government responds and acts to support the growing sector, telcos and other multinationals look to get involved and donors and non-profits seek to further propel these efforts. Investors keen to tap into the African opportunity buy plane tickets to see what all the noise is about and unknowingly pressure local investors to stay closer to home. To a great extent this growing momentum builds into a self fulfilling prophecy. Can similar gains be achieved elsewhere? Can similar clusters and communities mobilize and become accessible in Senegal, Ghana, Nigeria, Cameroon, Botswana, Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda or Ethiopia?

PIVOT25: East Africa’s Biggest Mobile Tech Event from Pivot25 Conference on Vimeo.

The next big thing in African Tech has arrived. Pivot 25 is here! The region’s top 25 mobile tech startups pitch against each other June 14-15 in Nairobi, Kenya at the Ole Sereni Hotel.

From my recent trip to Cameroon I was blown away by the entrepreneurial activity. I spent my time in Buea, a young university town that lies at the foot of Mt. Cameroon (otherwise the highest peak in West Africa) and the HQ for ActivSpaces, a budding technology incubator. The mountainscape is lush and green. The backside of the volcano runs down into Limbe, a coastal town lined with black volcanic beaches. Seafood is plentiful and nothing tastes better than BBQ bone fish with pepe (local chiles). Avacados, fresh fruits, yams, the list goes on. The main highway runs into the commercial capital and port town of Douala. The traffic is busy, the streets are bustling and there is an undeniable magnetic energy. It’s hot and sweaty. People are moving fast and ready for business.

From my short trip I would say that Cameroon is a complex country you could spend a lifetime trying to understand. But a few things were clear for me. Being next to Nigeria is a major strategic advantage. Next door access to the continent’s most populous country is an incredible opportunity. Many entrepreneurs cut their teeth in Cameroon but keep Nigeria on their radar. Many have already travelled to set up shop and they only lower the barriers for others to soon follow. The French and English combination is another key asset as Cameroon bridges cultures. I think there is even a saying that Cameroon combines all aspects of Africa into one country. Buea specifically has a wonderful university and a well educated and youthful population. People are glued to their radios and information seemed to travel faster than a mosquito on a six pack of red bull.

ActivSpaces is a buzzing hub with about 10 entrepreneurs currently hammering through projects. Its a great team of people located in the Fakoship Plaza, which is likely to be the premier commercial complex in Buea. Its a really nice location and the facilities are perfect. The day I arrived I witnessed the launch of KmerBlagues, an innovative startup looking to connect brands with 365,000 Cameroonian users on Facebook. I also had the opportunity to facilitate a workshop on business models and filmed video pitches we look forward to integrating into the venture profiles on VC4Africa.biz and the ActivSpaces website. With Bill and the ActivSpaces crew we travelled to Douala to see about expanding to a second location. Bill, Valery and crew also have exciting news in the works that will see Cameroon quickly competing with her colleagues over there twiddling away in Nairobi 🙂

We also hosted two VC4Africa meetups. The first was in Buea and the second was in Douala. Both meetings brought together interesting networks and it was great to see so many entrepreneurs working on projects. Few people outside of Cameroon might know there is such an incredible amount of entrepreneurial activity. This is one area where a project like VC4Africa can really offer its support. Just making these individuals and projects visible is a big step. But wow, so many projects in the works and everything from mobile banking to 100% organic soap. French entrepreneurs using translators to explain their business plans into English and AirBnB demos for the African market just wowing the crowd. Being with all of these entrepreneurs just blows my mind and really drives home this idea that we aren’t just looking at Nairobi anymore. We are witnessing a tidal wave that spreads across the continent. Youthful entrepreneurs are working on their ideas in every internet cafe across Africa.