Venture Capitalist take a look at the challenges investing in African tech
VC4Africa was pleased to host the panel, ‘Strengthening the VC pipeline’ at the 9th Annual Conference for the African Venture Capital Association meeting hosted in Accra.
I was joined by Yemi Lalude, Managing Partner of Adlevo, Tayo Oviosu, Founder and CEO of Paga, Karima Ola, CIO of the African Development Corporation, Mathew Boadu Adjei, CEO of Oasis Capital and Arjuna Costa, Director of Investments at Omidyar Network. The time we had was limited for getting into all of the issues we wanted to cover, actually there is more than enough content for a stand alone conference on the subject, but here are some of the points I felt were raised during our different conversations.
- Within the emerging African focused VC space there is a inherent leaning to scalable concepts and a natural orientation toward financial services. As penetration rates increases across African countries, banking services are the first step to unlocking e-commerce activity that will drive the ecosystems development.
- Challenges with market size remain a key constraint. Ghana at 8.4% Internet penetration is looking at somewhere around 1.2 million users compared to the 4.3 million found in Nigeria. The numbers are far less in countries like Tanzania, Ethiopia or Uganda. Innovation can come from anywhere, initially incubated and tested in Accra, Kampala or Dar, but how can a venture then find its way into bigger markets next door?
- Operating in a country like Zambia can be extremely expensive. Sales operations might be in Lusaka, but don’t be afraid to put the back office in CapeTown. Where Nigeria is where a company might want to expand its network of merchants, the programmers and technical staff might be based in Accra. Staff are easier to find, higher quality and therefore cheaper. And it can be as simple as the company needing better power supply and reliable infrastructure.
- There is a need for more qualified entrepreneurs. For the organizations that can, investing into the support ecosystem remains important. Platforms like incubators are critical to developing new networks of entrepreneurs. That said, do the existing platforms successfully produce new ventures and how do we make sure entrepreneurs graduate and get into the market successfully? A stronger link to business development is needed and is a point being addressed by incubators like ActivSpaces in Buea, the Nailab in Nairobi and MEST in Accra.
- There is a growing amount of capital looking to engage ventures at an early stage. It might not be enough, as many entrepreneurs are quick to make clear, but certainly the environment is improving. Two panelists had angels. One happened to be from the US and one happened to be Dutch. Both offering a million USD plus. But we also met local Ghanaian angels investing in early stage ventures here in Accra and we see a growing number of ventures finding early stage support this way. No surprise we see the rise of local angel networks like the Ghana Angel Investor Network (GAIN). A challenge for many entrepreneurs is in developing these contacts and here more could be done to matchmake on a local level. At VC4A we do this via meetups brining the member base together in an informal way that sees lots of business cards exchanging hands.
- Government does have a role to play. Legislation that helps to protect IP is critical. But also efforts like the Ghana Venture Capital Trust Fund. A facility that has helped Ghana based investors top up their funds. More success stories would give governments the opportunity to bolster these programs and expand them. In Kenya the government has gone so far as to promote the development of Konza, an entire tech city.
- Tech is different than sectors like housing, education, agro, etc… Where the first subscribes to a culture more attune to Silicon Valley, the other, more traditional sectors, are more often family run businesses. The approaches to building a portfolio are quite different. The business model and exit plan are also adjusted. Taking from revenue might be more attune for a business when run by a family that isn’t actually looking for an eventual acquisition.
- Average size of ventures on the tech side are still quite small in size. The economics for a pure play early stage tech fund in many cases doesn’t make sense. As a result, some investors have a carve out and allocate a % they can put into early stage technology ventures. Fitting the investments into a larger portfolio can improve a fund’s balance sheet and be more appealing to investors.
- Costs are high. Traveling in Africa is more expensive than traveling across the US. Hotels are not cheap. Qualified staff are not cheap. Secure power and working infrastrcuture can add to the cost base. These costs stretch what can be facilitated with a traditional managetment fee.
- Exits were not a primary concern, although many investors question the point. That said, If you build a business with real scale, there is confidence exit opportunities will emerge. Possibly an exit within the industry as larger funds look to fill their own pipelines with qualified ventures. If you don’t have a long view, and an underlining faith in the market, you probably shouldn’t be involved.
I will look to build on these points moving forward and as always I invite your feedback, thoughts, questions and ideas. Certainly, progress is being made every day and this conference and our time in Accra was testament to that.