WEF stresses need for investment in African tech start-ups

The World Economic Forum’s latest report, Attracting Investment and Accelerating Adoption for the Fourth Industrial Revolution in Africa analyses the challenges Africa faces in joining the global knowledge-based digital economy and presents a set of tangible strategies for policymakers on the continent to accelerate the transition.

The report was written in collaboration with Deloitte and comes just weeks after Google announced a $1 billion investment to support digital transformation across Africa. An International Finance Corporation (IFC) estimation forecasts that Africa’s digital economy could contribute nearly $180 billion to the continent’s growth by the mid-decade. Yet with only 39 percent of the population using the internet, Africa is currently the world’s least connected continent.

Google’s planned undersea cable between Europe and Africa will 20x the continent’s digital network capacity and create 1.7 million new jobs by 2025

Despite raising $1.2 billion in new capital in 2020 – a six-fold increase in five years – this represents less than a percent of the $156 billion raised by US start-ups in the same year. Meanwhile, Africa’s investment in R&D was less than half a percent of GDP in 2019 – less than a quarter of the global average.

“African governments urgently need to drive greater investment in the tech sector and the knowledge economy,” said Chido Munyati, Head of Africa Division at the World Economic Forum. “Policy-makers can make a difference by reducing the burden of regulation, embedding incentives within legislation and investing in science and technology skills.”

The report breaks down these three policy enablers:

  • Pass legislation designed to spur private sector innovation, reduce the burden of regulation and promote entrepreneurship, in which Tunisia and Senegal are leading the way with start-up Acts.
  • Embed incentives for start-ups in legislation, such as start-up grants, rebates on efficiency gains through technology implementation, co-investment of critical infrastructure, tax-free operations for the early years, and incentives for R&D.
  • Invest in workforce education, skills and competencies. Currently, only one out of every 50 university-aged Africans hold a STEM-related (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) degree.

An analysis of 188 government incentives for business across 32 African countries finds that just 14 incentives – fewer than one in five – facilitate investment in Fourth Industrial Revolution tech. And most of these incentive schemes lack an efficient monitoring and evaluation system to gauge their effectiveness.

Delia Ndlovu, Africa Chair, Deloitte, believes that digital transformation promises to boost economic growth in Africa: “Connecting the region to the global digital economy will not only open new avenues of opportunity for small businesses, but will also increase intra-Africa trade which is low at 16 percent compared to markets such as intra-European trade which is approximately 65- to 70 percent.”

Mpesa and online retail giant Jumia, Africa’s first unicorn, represent what the continent’s vibrant small business sector is capable of.

African governments have much to learn from each other. In Côte d’Ivoire, an R&D tax incentive has been created to direct investment away from commodities and into innovation. In South Africa, the Automotive Investment Transformation Fund created by the largest manufacturers in the country is facilitating the development of a diverse supplier base to realise the 60 percent local content target set by the Automotive Production and Development Programme (APDP).

In Tunisia, the government offers state salaries for up to three start-up founders per company during the first year of operations, with a right to return to their old jobs if the venture fails.

Read more: WEF report shows barriers to SME technology adoption in emerging markets

Featured image by Evangeline Shaw/Unsplash

Lindsey Schutters


Sign up to our newsletter to get the latest in digital insights. sign up

Welcome to Ventureburn

Sign up to our newsletter to get the latest in digital insights.