How do you infiltrate the startup ecosystem in Africa?

Wall Yellow

The question posed by the headline makes Africa’s VC (Venture Capitalist) ecosystem seem like the mafia, where your cousin Vinny has to introduce you to the godfather and you have to get through a series of tests to get into the inner circle of this elite group. In some ways, it pretty much is like that, or at least that’s what it will have you believe.

I have been asked this question many times and it wasn’t until I took a small hiatus from the ecosystem that I realised the answer wasn’t so easy. When I used to get asked this question, my automatic response was simply “just do it”. After all, how hard can it be to meet up with VCs, journos, Angels and all the different people who play a part in how the ecosystem rolls?

In two words: pretty hard.

VCs will barely give you the time of day because, you know, everyone wants a meeting with to pitch them. Angels, well unless you know someone who can get you in, just no. It’s really hard.

The unstructured nature of the African tech ecosystem or entrepreneurial space in general makes it very difficult. To everyone not in the bubble of startup la la la land it actually doesn’t exist. Not in the “it doesn’t affect me, so it’s not there” way but in the actual “wait, there are investors in Africa? Actually investing in things?” way. Most people who want to get investment or build companies are of the notion that they can’t do it here because the ecosystem doesn’t exist for that to happen.

Read more: African VC activity shows impressive spike in 2014

Everyone that is part of the ecosystem can argue and detail about how structured the ecosystem is and how well things are going, but the truth is that it is all still very haphazard in most cases. VCs invest in companies that they are introduced to by a trusted party. Angels do the same and, to be honest, if you are a nobody that comes out of nowhere, chances of getting investment is pretty hard no matter how brilliant your product is.

It is true that there has been an indefatigable whirlwind of activity in the space lately, but the truth is that these are the exceptions not the rule. Entrepreneurs rely on being hyped up by people in the know to get them a foot in the door. They follow the carefully crafted scripts of those in the know and VCs come to the party because it is what they want to hear.

It’s about network

The concept of networking is touted as the holy grail of startups that all entrepreneurs split their time between people, the product and building their networks. Hustle, hustle, hustle and more hustle. At some point you have to ask yourself what the ecosystem is doing for the entrepreneurs. Organisation that claim to promote the ecosystem and make it easier for entrepreneurs barricade themselves in a cocoon of Us and Them. They make it hard for entrepreneurs to get in and learn. And they encourage very little building — just a whole lot of networking.

Africa has a very high youth unemployment rate and everyone is convinced that the best way to solve this is to encourage more entrepreneurship. This is a good plan, if it wasn’t so siloed. The average University graduate that requires knowledge has no idea that this startup ecosystem exists nor do they have any context to its relevance to them.

What seems to be the case in Africa is that successful entrepreneurs are the exception, not the rule. In fact, you could argue that entrepreneurship in Africa is the exception not the rule, in comparison to other markets where it has taken on the form of the rule.

Here is the problem

The undisputed gods (key players) in the industry have locked themselves in ivory towers and pontificate about their greatness, and what amazing things they are doing.

They say, they are the builders, the creators of creators and the people who actually “get shit done” yet the unemployment rate still climbs and unless you live in a major city or know someone’s second cousin twice removed (who happens to know someone), you have no idea that these players or this industry exist. Even if you are curious. There are too many siloed organisation that are territorial, instead of expanding the network to reach more people and add more value.

We want the youth to start thinking more entrepreneurially, yet we haven’t given them the opportunity and resources that will help them get there. The truth is when it comes to entrepreneurship and starting a business, you don’t know what you don’t know.

A lot of the information available on the web for aspiring entrepreneurs are Western-focused. I am yet to see a series of templates provided by VCs, Angel networks and startup organisation detailing how to create a great pitch deck for a South African investor or Nigeria or Kenya. The one that was written three years ago is irrelevant. Who is updating this? Who is reaching out to the universities (not that one programme you did at that really privileged university once).

If you think about the organisations and the key components that make up a startup ecosystem, you have to ask, what is their point?

What is your raison d’être? Where is your value, or do you intend to build a chicken and egg situation. Time to step out of those ivory towers and barricades of Us and Them.

Image by premasagar via Flickr



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