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Earlier this week I attended a talk on the 4th Industrial Revolution and as expected, some of the usual buzzwords were thrown around, including “this could be the first African unicorn”. To date, American and Chinese startups have dominated the unicorn rankings with India a distant third, however, there is yet to be a unicorn from Central and South America or Africa. Chances are the world will not see an African unicorn anytime soon and here is why.
A time before unicorns
Before getting to the impossibility of the existence of an African unicorn, nevermind a decacorn or hectacorn, a little history. In 1999 VeriSign bought South African internet certification firm Thawte Consulting for $575 million, at the time some believed VeriSign had grossly overpaid for a company that few outside the tech sector had ever heard of. Turns out Thawte was VeriSign’s biggest and only competitor as a digital internet certificate provider and acquisition made more sense for both companies rather than competition, VeriSign also took into account Thawte’s future revenues in it’s valuation. At the time Thawte founder and then 26 year old Mark Shuttleworthe was quoted as saying the sale was the best way for his company to unlock it’s value. This begs the question, if Shuttleworth had held on for a few more years could Thawte Consulting have been Africa’s first unicorn?
..could Thawte Consulting have been Africa’s first unicorn?
South African founded Dimension Data, or DiData, as it later came to be known, was Africa’s first breakout tech star. Listing on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange in July 1987 for a modest 150 cents a share and raising R7,5 million, DiData went on to list on the London Stock Exchange in 2000 raising over $1,5 billion. The dotcom crash of the early 2000s was not kind to DiData seeing its share fall from R70 in late 2000 to less than R2 in 2003. Though they did ride out the storm and manage to rebuild, DiData were eventually sold to Japan’s NTT Dokomo in 2010 bringing an end to an era in African tech companies. Whilst being founded in Africa, DiData does not qualify as a unicorn, they’re 1987 IPO barely raised $1 million.
Follow the money
Since then, a number of tech startups have emerged across the continent garnering significant interest, notables include Nigeria’s Andela, online retailer Jumia which now spans from West to East Africa and a slew of fintech startups. It is amongst fintech startups that much of the hype around Africa’s first Unicorn is focused. Flutterwave, billed as the next big thing in payment platforms raised $10 million this July in Series A funding led by Silicon Valley venture capital funds Greycroft and Green Visor Capital, to put this in context, between January 2015 and August 2017 African fintech startups raised just over $100 million in funding. Also in July, Andela raised $40 million in Series C funding led by African venture capital firm CRE Venture Capital to bring it’s total funding to date to $80 million. Now, whilst these are not numbers to be sniffed at, they’re not exactly shooting the lights out when compared to what is required to even have a chance of achieving unicorn status.
between January 2015 and August 2017 African fintech startups raised just over $100 million in funding
Much of this startup funding originates outside of Africa which presents entrepreneurs with a number of problems not least of which is competing for the attention of a small investor base. Whilst, as will be explained in the next paragraph, Africa has significant private and public cash reserves, the appetite for tech investment is simply not there. On a continent where spending on telecoms is still seen as a nice to have, spending on basic infrastructure and poverty alleviation takes the bulk of public investment funds and tech is barely a consideration, if at all. This disconnect sees businesses across sectors looking offshore for funding even from inception. Ironically, technological advancement is partly to blame for this as the growth in mobile money in Africa races ahead of traditional banking.
Unlike in the United States, Africa has incredibly limited financial resources to direct towards new industries and with a financial sector dominated by global players who have other priorities besides the continent, talent and foresight are the least of our worries. In a 2017 study funded by South Africa’s Department of Trade and Industry, the University of Johannesburg found that country’s top fifty listed companies were sitting on R1,4 trillion in cash reserves as at 2016 up from R242 billion in 2005. Added to this, in 2012 South Africa allocated R827 billion to the National Infrastructure Planmeant to fund healthcare facilities, schools, water, sanitation, housing, electrification, construction of ports, roads, railway systems and electricity plants. My point, even the continent’s most developed and financially complex economy has basic priorities it has to put ahead of creating unicorns coupled with an incredibly conservative private sector when it comes to investments in general but particularly in Africa. That said, one cannot go without mentioning South African firm Optimal Energy’s attempt to build a commercially viable electric car, a valiant effort that ended in 2012 taking over R300 million of public investment funds with it.
South Africa’s top fifty listed companies were sitting on R1,4 trillion in cash reserves as at 2016 up from R242 billion in 2005. Added to this, in 2012 South Africa allocated R827 billion to the National Infrastructure Plan
Where the founders are
Last but not least, founders are exiting before they realize the full potential of their businesses because, sooner or later they figure out that nobody with the money to do it, is really willing to risk funding a potential African unicorn when they can invest that money in a Silicon Valley firm with much greater chances of success. The thing is, this becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, if nobody is willing to put hundreds of millions into an African business then nobody will put hundreds of millions into an African business and there will be no billion dollar African startup. This has been true of Thawte Consulting, MXit, Jumia, Optimal Energy and Andela to name a few. A common thread amongst founders is that they are serial entrepreneurs who after exiting their startups have gone on to new businesses, never mind that the startups that we know them for are likely not their first businesses but just their best known. No matter where in the world you are, serial entrepreneurs are necessary for progress because economies can only grow through doing, the more we do, the more jobs we create and the more we create, the faster and more inclusive this growth will be.
A common thread amongst founders is that they are serial entrepreneurs
There is always something new out of Africa
Whilst Africa has been a leapfrogging champion, creating unicorns will not be one of those instances, much still needs to be done to deepen African economies before we can even dream of creating a conducive ecosystem. This may very well just be an exclusively American phenomenon but the news is not all bad though, the desire to create Silicon Valley clones across Africa may very well be the impetus to create something completely new that the world didn’t even know we needed.
“ex Africa semper aliquid novi”
Pliny the Elder
Based in Johannesburg South Africa, Ricky Marima is a recovering economist and twenty year veteran of building businesses across a variety of industries. He currently works at knowledge startup RemNes where he guides clients across the continent to ask the right questions about the 4th Industrial Revolution. You can reach him on firstname.lastname@example.org