1 May 2018

Africa: When a Somalian Met a Comoran - Afrobytes Founders Explain How It All Started and Why One of Africa's Best Start-Up Events Takes Place in Paris

A key part of any start-up ecosystem is the events that network talent, start-ups and investment. Two of the key start-up events for Africa - Afrobytes (Paris) and Africa Tech Summit (16 May, London) are currently held outside the continent. As the organisers of both will tell you, it's much easier to attract investors to these global cities than to get them to go to Africa. Russell Southwood explores with Afrobytes co-founders Haweya Mohamed and Ammin Yussuf how they enable African start-ups to do business.

The idea for Afrobytes goes back to 2015 when its co-founders first met. Somali-born Haweya Mohamed met Comoran Ammin Yussuf while looking at what entrepreneurs needed:"I used to live in Casablanca and met a lot of tech entrepreneurs from Senegal and Morocco. While doing this I met Ammin and we went to see tech hubs together. There were always three questions: what do you need? How can you get visibility and funds? How do you find solid partnerships? So we started Afrobytes as a marketplace to answer these questions for African start-ups".

But why hold an African event like this in Paris?:"It's easier to get people to come to Paris. You can gather international investors in Paris and also get journalists from all over the world there. Something is starting to change. I do a lot of work with media, especially French media. Last year we had around 50 journalists. Some would come to me saying, we didn't know all this was happening. So it becomes a means to change the narrative about Africa".

This year's Afrobytes (7/8 June) is the third edition: see bottom of this article for details. It describes itself as a Marketplace, somewhere where people can meet and do business with each other. As Mohammed puts it:"When you talk about a conference, it's blah, blah, blah discussions and nothing getting done. We don't give room to advocacy. The question is always what is the next step to doing business? It's about creating the best framework to do business. The first edition was almost all people we knew. It was interesting but it looked like a conference. The second edition had a lot of dedicated workshops and was tech-oriented. The third edition will be a total marketplace with people who have tech innovation and services to sell".

For investors who have not previously invested in the continent, it's the opportunity to get networks to start doing business in Africa and this year's investors will include IDinvest, CRE Capital and the TBL Mirror Fund. They have also got on board major companies like Facebook, Google and Consensys (the Google of Blockchain).

Ammin Yussuf believes the event helps signpost investors to opportunities on the continent: "Most of the investors in Africa at the moment are focused on infrastructure and have been doing that for 10-15 years. They don't know much about tech and are not good targets for start-ups. Also you don't have Angel Investors in Africa on the same scale as elsewhere. But more and more investors are coming to us and asking about Africa. We're saying start your journey at Afrobytes and then you can decide which country or countries you want to go into".

But Mohamed is well aware of the investment shortfall from within the continent itself, particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa:"Capital on the continent is foreign. When will it be African? Perhaps when those attending from Africa see companies from Silicon Valley like Facebook and Google investing in our young entrepreneurs. And potential African investors might say to themselves, it's something they're doing and we should be doing it ourselves. It's a powerful argument".

A key topic for this year's event is leapfrogging using innovative technologies (for example, Artificial Intelligence, Blockchain and Virtual Reality). As Yusuf puts it:"How can we fast-track those things? We want a major transfer of know-how and technology. We want to create opportunities around Initial Coin Offerings that will not promote scams".

"There's also a lot of content about education, not education content itself but how to connect those in education to that content using things like bots and blockchain. Africa has too many pupils to teach and not enough resources so the conversation is about how we can leapfrog by changing how pupils learn".

Mohammed emphasizes the importance of women to the event but pushes back against the standard rhetoric:" It's an important moment for me. There's a focus on women in the third session. It's not about empowering women. Don't empower me, I'm already powerful." Again less blah, blah and more focus on the business of business.

Part of the introduction process for those unfamiliar with the continent is the country pitch, which this year includes both Ethiopia and Nigeria. Yusuf explains:"This is the all-star team from a country - 5-6 of the best companies - who come and say what they do. 'I can provide this, I do this'. It's a marketplace. You just say what you can do and what you offer".

Through an Ethiopian diaspora LinkedIn connection in San Francisco they decided that they wanted Ethiopia to be the focus country this year:"Nigeria and Ethiopia are among the biggest economies in Africa and they are two very different giants. We want people to crack these markets. If they are difficult to penetrate, let's use a session like this to make it easier."

The big challenge is getting Africa and its many countries taken seriously in business terms rather than as a philanthropic project for outsiders. As Yusuf wraps it up:"I don't want people who want to do something 'for Africa'. Just do your business and work with us... .There are those who want to create too much hype (around people you see over and over speaking about what's happening). We want to introduce new faces. It's not one narrative so we don't want to create a specific hype as this will be dangerous for the ecosystem."

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