Looking for Enterprise Startups in Sub Saharan Africa

It is easy to be a cynic or at the very least a diehard skeptic, when it comes to Africa. Whether it is gut wrenching poverty (roughly 75% of the world’s poorest countries are in Africa), or lack of electricity (a staggering 80% of residents in sub Sahara get their energy from bio mass like wood, dung etc) or a non-existent healthcare system (Africa carries 25% of the world’s disease burden but its share of global health expenditures is less than 1%), life for an average African citizen is indeed not easy. Add to this the perennial issues of corruption, dynastic politics and strongmen who refuse to yield power and, voila, it takes seriously rose colored glasses to see any hope for the future.

However, if you only followed this line of thinking, you would be missing out on a significant piece of change that is sweeping across the continent and in many ways challenging a very tired narrative.

Africa is becoming ground zero for a new generation of digital natives that are being inspired by Silicon Valley and are using technology to solve their problems from a uniquely local perspective, hoping to have a positive impact on both their fellow citizens and their bank accounts. In many ways, this is no different than the hundreds of thousands of pioneers who moved out west in the US following the Oregon Trail and their dreams for a better future. Much like India in the early 90s, Africa leapfrogged straight to mobile networks (they had few functioning landline networks to speak of anyway) and that ushered in a revolution of new solutions & services that reached the far flung corners of the continent. National Geographic recently wrote an article about the emergence of the tech scene in Africa, which you can read here.

Recently, I was in Lagos, Nigeria as part of a project SAP Startup Focus is engaged in with the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) which is a development agency that provides services in the field of international development cooperation and typically implements projects on behalf of the German government, its main commissioning party. The overall mission of the project is fairly straightforward i.e. help create jobs and spark a technology-led entrepreneurship movement by building and/or supporting a viable, locally-empowered startup ecosystem. While the situation on the ground is still fairly nascent, we believe that the time is now right for SAP Startup Focus to formally start supporting the ecosystems of innovation in Africa, beginning with the ones in Nigeria, Africa’s second largest economy (there is an interesting sideshow about how South Africa pipped Nigeria to reclaim the title of the largest economy in Africa, you can read more about it here). Working in close collaboration with the GIZ allows us the benefit of their vast experience & credibility in working with governments and institutions across Sub-Saharan Africa.

Pictured from left to right, Manju Bansal with Matthias Froehlich (GIZ), Abiodun Ajanaku (CC Hub) and Chiemelie Umenyiora (GIZ) at the Co Creation Hub in Lagos

At first blush, Lagos to me seemed suspended in Brownian motion, a pure visceral chaos that never seemed to end. However, that was only the one part of the story – for if you peeled away the layers and looked beyond the traffic gridlock and the poverty, you would very quickly discover the same intrinsic hustle that lies at the heart of every entrepreneur. That hustle is something you cannot teach, it is intrinsic to our DNA. And from my vantage point, this was great news indeed; we had found our grain of sand, now we only needed to do was to create the conditions that would help us nurture a few pearls, metaphorically speaking.

A journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step. So did ours. We were under no illusions that overnight we would find the high value enterprise grade startups that can solve our customers’ problems. However, what we did find was a fertile (albeit yet to fully mature) ecosystem comprising early stage investors, willing government entities, incubators & accelerators, and even a Foundation dedicated to promoting entrepreneurship across Africa.

We look forward to working closely with our partner GIZ, the local SAP leadership in Nigeria and key members of the startup ecosystem in Lagos/Abuja to identify the handful of startups who could become the future unicorns of tomorrow. After all, if anyone can operate a startup with all the infrastructural constraints (lack of power, limited access to technical developers, spotty / expensive Internet access etc), it is the entrepreneur with that aforementioned hustle.

I would like to sincerely recognize the support & leadership of a few of our colleagues without whom a project of this magnitude would never get off the ground. In alphabetical order, they are:

  • Pedro Guerreiro, MD West Africa, SAP
  • Michael Pittelkow, Executive Economic Development Cooperation, SAP
  • Matthias Froehlich-Rehfeld, GIZ
  • Jan Schwaab, GIZ
  • Chiemelie Umenyiora, GIZ
  • Adekunle Aina, SAP

You can follow me @BansalManju or stay engaged with SAP Startup Focus by following us @SAPStartups.