The quality and diversity of panelists and delegates of the Global Entrepreneurship Summit in Kuala Lumpur make it possible to learn a lot about distant innovation and startup ecosystems, as we’ve shown with these insights from Russia, Indonesia and New York. We’ve also met with a lot of people from Africa and have tried to connect as much as possible. As a speaker said during a panel, “we all know of the unavoidability of Africa in the 21st century”, but to build local ecosystems and make them grow regionally and globally, many obstacles will have to be solved.
The African Startup Context
Across Africa, “60% of the population is under the age of 25“, said Lanre Akinola from the Financial Times blog “This is Africa” as an introduction to this huge and diverse continent. The cliché of people living on the streets and trying to make a living is gone, he adds, but it has a heritage: in Africa, you cannot divorce business from development, as there are still numerous crucial issues to solve, from access to electricity and education to a better government.
Most of the African innovators present or speaking during the GES in Kuala Lumpur have a big social driver behind their businesses. Yet Africa is also the worst place to do business. The ecosystem doesn’t exist, government support is erratic at best. People willing to be entrepreneurs have no access to finance, to mentoring… the problems go on.
As a consequence, changing the world does not necessarily take the shape of a business. I’ve met with Benjamin Freeman Jr, from Liberia, and his history is a case study on how African entrepreneurs have to be more creative to reach their goals and make real change. In a country torn apart by 15 years of civil war, Benjamin wanted to address the basic need for an education. He created LIPACE, which stands for the Liberia Institute for the Promotion of Academic Excellence. What was a business initially was forced to turn into an NGO to gain support from international institutions.
Solutions to create African Startup Ecosystems
There is a consensus amongst the speakers and delegates that better government is required. Corruption, lack of vision and poor regulation are turning business projects into obstacle courses, thereby stifling an African population hungry for entrepreneurship. “Kenya is the most innovative African country in ICT by far, because they have good regulation and support from the government”, explains Lanre.
Big multinationals can have an impact too. The Bill and Melinda Gates foundation is famous for its activism in healthcare and education in Africa, but it’s more of a charity. IBM, represented in Kuala Lumpur by its Venture Capital group, has opened in 12th research lab in Nairobi. Across the continent, they also organize SmartCamp, a business plan competition on Internet and Communication Technologies. Google has been instrumental both in Kenya and in North Africa too. Companies can fill the void of poor government, not so much from a business perspective, but as an ecosystem enabler, helping entrepreneurs to have the tools, space and connections to transform their ideas into businesses.
Universities can also be ecosystem enablers. A recent survey on the Stanford alumni network showed how former students help create jobs, revenues and social impact out of California. An example drawn from the complete report involved the d.school, known for its expertise in design thinking, and how they developed a course called “Designing Liberation Technology” to better use technology for development and democracy in Africa. Many projects abound in this field.
We’ll be visiting and reporting on two innovation and startup ecosystems in Africa before the end of the year, in Ivory Coast during Innov’Africa (Nov. 25-29) then in Nairobi, Kenya, so stay tuned for more feedback on their local innovation ecosystems. Before this, check-out Mashable list of 20 hot African startups.
Check out our report on Malaysia innovation ecosystem on Slideshare too