The first year of founding a startup is a gruelling ordeal in our experience, mostly because 90% of the time we did not know what the hell we were doing. While there are plenty of resources online that document the success methodologies of Silicon Valley startups to guide along budding founders in the developed world, material on startup advice for African tech entrepreneurs is not as ubiquitous. In retrospect, we can see how the lure of Silicon Valley success stories drives many tech entrepreneurs in Africa and across emerging markets to approach the startup founding process with a flowery naievity. We had to wake up and smell the coffee on more than one occasion.
This is Africa. Norms in governance, infrastructure, business and culture are NOT the same as western and other developed nations across the globe. Strides in development Africa has made must not be overlooked but we still face huge challenges such as raising internet penetration from around 20%, empowering 50% who still live below the less than 1 USD/day poverty line and despite success in mobile payment platforms still 70% of Africans remain unbanked further hindering economic participation. The opportunity to create profitable technologies for energy, transport, education, healthcare and banking are nowhere as lucrative in potential as Africa IMHO.
From our experience the (ongoing) quest of developing a ‘product’ not only involves groin-kick hard and confidence-shattering business lessons but also valuable lessons in cultural understanding and our responsibility as Africans. We had to learn that as fascinating a technology might be, if there is no local context to your solution or if you are not solving the big problems of instilling core competencies in the various baseline economic sectors of African economies then you should probably pivot (or cop out and move to the Valley). The dominant narrative of Silicon Valley’s slew of cloud and mobile success stories (Snapchat, Whatsapp etc…) lull many an African entrepreneur into the false sense that creating an African equivalent of Facebook will make them rich tomorrow and cure all AIDS in the world. Any tool is only as good as its user and there are many tools created outside of Africa that can be repurposed to solve a problem in Africa but tech startup founders must be prepared to think critically about their solutions by really looking at local and cultural context.
Despite the challenges we face as an African tech startup, we are firm in our belief that harnessing technology to solve Africa’s big problems and create new ecosystems is the single most inspiring aspiration but it requires focus, critical thinking and rigorous planning/execution. We hope that by sharing some of our startup do’s and don’ts(in retrospect after we did the don’ts and missed the do’s) other founders may be able to avoid some of the early pitfalls of founding a tech startup in Africa. AFRICA IS NOT A COUNTRY, conditions differ greatly from country to country so please attempt to see the information through your own local context before applying this advice.
1. Write a business model canvas!
If you have not familiarized yourself with the business model canvas or BMC, it is high time you do so now. Once you have gotten the hang of it, act on it and then use feedback to iterate on it. Until success.
2. Document your process!
Keep track of your development process, even if you are following your own rules. There are many free tools that allow you to set up some sort of workflow from Trello, Asana, Slack, PivotalTracker the list goes on, a web search can go a long way. Documenting your process also has the added benefit of allowing you to hone your process as you go along identifying problem areas in retrospect and making your workflow more efficient (which believe you me is something you REALLY want to do).
3. Keep the local tech ecosystem informed of what you are doing, stay active on the ground and on social media.
The tech ecosystem in many African countries is only starting to begin to take shape and many of its pillars such as open data and digital bridges to civil sector are not in place. Community initiatives between startups and startup activity hubs can be used to foster the much needed open source sector of a local tech ecosystem. Engage the players in the tech ecosystem, even if you are competing. Chances are that somewhere in the near future, you will both need access to the same data sources.
4. Prototype fast, then go and talk to the potential user/customer base and your competitors/stakeholders.
Often we spend too much time hypothesising on the hypothesis, developing our blueprint ideas in isolation without getting feedback from users and stakeholder/competition. It might be that in some places engaging stakeholders/competition could be considered against the norm or counter intuitive but it is important to get as many perspectives from relevant product stakeholders concerned. This includes the people who are to use/buy it and the companies that could potentially compete against you.
5. Dream big but start small!
Identify the big problems, look at your local situation and identify where people are not being included, food agriculture, banking, energy, transport, health and education are usually a place good start. Then PICK ONE problem to solve and focus on it by working it from the ground up. Don’t do everything at once, baby steps!
1. Don’t assume trends in technology application from the west/developed world are applicable in your local market!
Keep abreast of the happenings in the global tech ecosystem but do not be mislead by nice looking informatics in a The Verge or TechCrunch article. There is a lot of information in western/global tech media that is just not applicable to your local situation. Be inspired by the stories of success but do due diligence when researching feasibility of your startup.
2. Do not prototype before figuring out who your customer/user is!
Identify your target market before you develop a product prototype. ‘Everyone’ is NOT a market. Use local statistics to identify at least one demographic that is reflected in reality. Your prototype might end up serving no one but your own ego if its use is not targeted at a user/customer base.
3. Do not get too enamoured with your idea.
Do not fall so-in-love with your idea that you are unable to let go of it when it needs to change. Your startup must be adaptable to changing conditions as they arise.
4.Do not operate as a non entity, register your business.
Especially in the case when looking for funds in African countries which at many times will come from government sources, they will not understand how you are trying to ‘go lean’ by cutting registration costs. This is of course relative to your locale and situation, still we recommend it for accounting and protection of IP purposes.
5.Do not do set unreasonable deliverables!
Don’t put yourself up to building ‘A Wall of China’ and then cry in deflated pride when you cannot meet the project deadline you set for yourself for end of the week. Be realistic with your milestones, make them doable. If there are 10 deliverables on the project checklist for the week, set yourself up to finishing one rather than four a day. After having built the habit for completion by having small successes, then increase your workload. This ensures you won’t be discouraged by the enormity of your dream and just how far you are from achieving it after hitting your first big obstacle. Small careful steps chained together make a long journey.