The most heralded African tech startups come from a handful of nations
What does it take for an African startup to gain major recognition? Providing solutions to some of the continent’s most pressing problems is a start. A powerful social media presence helps get the word out. A unique idea is a must. More important, it seems, are an adequate business environment and decent infrastructure.
It’s no surprise, but few game-changing African tech startups exist outside of a handful of key nations. “Best of” lists rarely include companies outside South Africa, Nigeria, Kenya, Ghana. Not one (of five) reputable startup lists published so far in 2012 has included a company from outside of South Africa, Nigeria, Kenya, Ghana, Tanzania, Cameroon, or Zimbabwe – arguably the most technologically-advanced nations in Africa. In fact, 85% of startups on the five most-shared lists of the year are from four nations. That’s right – only seven African countries have representation on these lists. Of course, tech startups exist in many other countries, but they either lack in terms of competitiveness with other African companies or they have a marketing disadvantage (ie. language barrier, state-run media).
South Africa has the greatest representation, making the top spot on four of the six lists. As a rule of thumb, expect 40% of African tech startup lists to contain South African companies. Two of the lists had more Nigerian than South African startups (approximately one-quarter of startups on the lists are Nigerian). Kenya and Ghana have respective 15% and 10% shares which are consistent across all lists. On a per-capita basis, South Africa would still lead in terms of listed startups. Ghana, however, would move to the #2 position, closely followed by Kenya in #3. Nigeria falls to the 6th position.
Nation 6-list average Memeburn - 30 Forbes - 20 IT News Africa - 10 Connected Africa - 10 Silicon Africa - 10 StartupAfrica - 200 tags
SA, NG, KE, GH 85% 87% 90% 80% 90% 80% 86%
TZ, CM, ZM 13% 13% 10% 20% 10% 20% 3%
Other 2% 0% 0% 0% 0% 0% 11%
To their credit, journalists consistently note that such lists are samples and not definitive resources. The authors of startup lists do diligently select companies from a variety of nations. No list acknowledged startups from fewer than five countries. Still, Africa boasts over 50 nations. The lack of international diversity is further obvious in the observation that as a list scales, the number of nations remains constant:
- A list of 30 tech startups represents 6 nations
- A list of 20 tech startups represents 6 nations
- Lists of 10 tech startups still represent 5-6 nations
In all likelihood, the startup lists are accurate: few official tech startup companies have the ability to compete at a high level. Nations with a broadly successful tech startup have the ability to attract investment, incubate ideas, provide affordability connectivity (and electricity), and leverage mobile platforms. Business environments (and cultures) in most African nations are not suitable to technology innovation. Plus, consumers may not have the means to access the service offered by the startup – however brilliant is may be. Some African nations may not have a tech startup at all. Or, bold entrepreneurs may start companies, but their product or goal isn’t as sophisticated as others from across Africa. Quite possibly, the product isn’t different enough from international products.
Populous African nations not making the lists include Ethiopia, Egypt, and Congo-Kinshasha. Ethiopia is limited by a strict government whose closed telecoms market has stifled innovation. Egypt has faced political and social issues that distracted from tech incubation. (Plus, North African nations don’t seem to be considered for the ‘African’ lists.) Congo-Kinshasa is a huge nation, but faces poor infrastructure and a poor business environment. Open telecom markets with direct international fibre capacity go a long way in promoting online entrepreneurship.
We would expect to see Uganda, Cote d’Ivoire, Senegal, Zambia, Rwanda on future lists. After all, these nations all boast a dedicated tech hub and are considered regional hubs in themselves. Entrepreneurs from these nations are becoming more and more active online. Here’s to hearing about startups from non-mainstream countries!
- 30 brilliant African tech startups, Martin Carstens, Memeburn, Mar 9, 2012.
- Top 20 Tech Startups in Africa, Mfonobong Nsehe, Forbes (via Forbes Africa), Feb 13, 2012.
- Top Ten tech start-ups in Africa, Charlie Fripp, IT News Africa, Mar 5, 2012.
- 10 African tech startups worth watching, Danny Kofi-Armah, ConnectedAfrica, Jan 7, 2012.
- Top 10 Technology Startups in Africa That Look Set to Shake Up 2012, Mawuna Remarque Koutonin, SiliconAfrica.com, Feb 8, 2012.