There’s no shortage of American, European, Asian founders in the tech ecosystem. Most leading technology companies are founded in the US, Europe, and China. As a result of this, everyone knows what it feels like to use innovation from these regions. What is lacking however are real and truly African-founded tech companies and therefore 100% African tech innovations.
What exists are African tech startups that appear to be African for sake of publicity and in reality, they are not. They come in different forms.
You get a so-called African tech startup company with an American or European co-founder. This has become so common that just about every African tech startup that is considered successful, in terms of being funded, has a co-founder who is not African.
Jumia is an e-commerce tech company that was billed as the first African unicorn. Its African title inspired a major debate about its Africanness. This was because heavyweights within the Jumia structure were not African. Jumia is not alone, Andela is another tech outfit that seems African but in reality, it’s not. It also has co-founders who are not African and massive Silicon Valley backing.
In reality, there’s nothing wrong with collaborating with US or European co-founders if that takes an African founder’s concept forward. It is however questionable that almost all successful African tech initiatives have co-founders who are not African.
Another form of an African startup that has a deceiving African character is formed by someone who moved from Europe or the US to deliberately start a tech company in Africa.
This is understandable considering that Africa is the last frontier and has huge challenges that can be solved with tech. The idea of a capable European or American engineer moving to Africa to solve a problem is commendable. What is problematic is to brand such a startup as an African tech startup to secure funding designed for African tech startups.
Another form of a deceiving African tech startup company is a startup that is located in Africa but registered in the US or Europe as its main region. While it’s understandable why some founders prefer to register their companies in the US or Europe while located in Africa this should not be done at the expense of hollowing the African economy.
The picture that is emerging is that there’s a belief that an African from Africa can not start a tech company and grow it for global markets without a co-founder from the US or Europe. Another picture that is emerging is that there seems to be a distrust by venture capitalists for startups that are founded by Africans. It appears that there’s an expectation for African tech startups to have someone from the US or Europe to look after the invested funds.
Lately, people with deep pockets have decided not to hide behind co-founders and company registrations. They have decided to directly fund European tech companies to come to play in Africa. Paris-based tech investment firm Partech has launched Chapter54, an accelerator programme to support European startups wanting to expand into Africa, via its innovation division, Partech Shaker. This is more honest and marks a U-turn in the process of getting Europe-based startups to dominate the African tech ecosystem.
This is not an easy issue to address however it must receive the attention that it deserves. The failure to acknowledge this and deal with it head-on will lead to a situation where society would be robbed of true African innovations. Currently, we have no idea what a truly African tech innovation looks like because there’s this insistence to cloud every tech startup with American or European tech co-founders. Having said that, it is understood that the nature of innovation is such that it happens when there’s a collaboration between people from different backgrounds.
What is happening however in the African continent is not healthy collaboration for innovation’s sake. It is another form of African exploitation dressed with this idea of African innovation success. African founders should grow a backbone and demand independence for the sake of African innovation. African venture capitalists should come forward and close the funding gap which limits the true nature of African innovation.
The world needs to see a truly African tech giant with its innovations. This will not happen as long as African tech founders are not allowed to build their tech startups to become tech giants. The next Uber, Google, or Apple can only be African if we give African tech founders the space and support.