Parlez-vous français? How language is isolating Francofrique’s startups

Startup conversations in Africa are largely on developments in South Africa, Nigeria, Kenya and Ghana. Little is often said about development in the Ivory Coast, which Francis Yapobi, the CEO of duty-free shopping startup Airshop, said could be due to language barriers.

Speaking to Ventureburn in Lagos, Yapobi — whose startup is the first Ivorian tech company to be among those that pitched at DEMO Africa — said other Africans don’t hear about what is happening in the Ivory Coast’s startup ecosystem because of the existence of language barrier.

“What is happening in other parts of Africa is also happening in French-speaking countries but the language barrier separates us,” he said. “A lot of things are happening and there is a lot of interesting startups in the Ivory Coast that are creating disruptive technologies to facilitate people’s lives today.”

As of 2010, the population of African francophone countries was estimated at 120 million spread across 24 countries where French is the first or second language. The continent of Africa also has the most French speakers in the world but the continental successes of the startups in the respective francophone countries in Africa are largely dependent on the ability of the founders to communicate with the continent’s stakeholders — most of whom are in the continent’s anglophone startup powerhouses, namely Nigeria, Kenya, South Africa and Ghana.

“Clearly, language has been a barrier for Francophone startups in Africa,” Yapobi said. “We would have had bridges between our ecosystems already if not for the language barrier because we are so close physically and geographically that there is no good reason for us to be separated like this.”

Read more: How Ghanaian startups are making an impact on the global stage

Yapobi is not the person who has observed the high hurdles for Francophone startups, especially in Africa. Russell Southwood, head of Balancing Act Africa, also identified similar trend with startups in African francophone countries like Mali, Senegal and Cameroon — which are said to be lagging behind their continental counterparts in building a vibrant startup culture.

Southwood visited three francophone countries in three months and reported the difference in these countries compared to their Anglophone counterparts. He commented the existence of a complex mixture of cultural and economical differences.

According to his research, there was a disparity between the language francophone entrepreneurs interacted in and their possible financiers, who are in most cases English-speaking.

“Because of this, most African francophone startups are almost invisible [to financiers] outside of their country of origin,” Southwood said, adding that most Francophone-speaking entrepreneurs are not interested in any Anglophone examples of successful startups.

Only drawing examples and ideas from La Francophonie is rather limiting because although there have been successful French startups, there are significantly smaller in number than startups from elsewhere. Also startup investors from France are smaller in number than those from the USA and other parts of Europe.

But in spite of the language and other barriers that African francophone startups have to deal with, Yapobi further added that the ecosystem is improving in countries like the Ivory Coast as great startups are being created with interesting products.

“People are getting more educated, government support is becoming real. The Ivory Coast is pushing lots of initiatives and you will see the results in one or three years,” he said.

Read more: Duty free shopping startup named top dog at Seedstars Abidjan

Concerning the response to citizens to products launched by local startups, he said the response has been great and it is due to the ability of the products to solve people’s problems:

You don’t have to be a tech to use a product. If the solution is helping you to solve a problem, you will use it. One of such is mobile money and we have millions of mobile money in the Ivory Coast and the service is more inclusive, becoming an integral aspect of financial transactions in the country within a few years. It was not because it is tech, it’s because it is making things really easier for them.

“The question is are we building solutions people need and would want to use? If the answer is yes, you will always find people to use it.”

Yapobi, who learned to speak English while living in Ghana, believes his ability to communicate in the English language could be the reason why he was selected to be at DEMO Africa. Airshop also went on to be named the Ivory Coast’s top startup by Seedstars World.

He expects more entrepreneurs in the country are learning to speak English language and may be attending next year’s DEMO Africa in large number. “The fact that I came here this year means we may see more Ivorians and Senegalese next year,” he said.

Paul Adepoju


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