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A month in Accra: Africa first

Accra, Ghana startup aXd program Rebecca Mqamelo

It’s 2pm and our vehicle is wending its way through another afternoon of chaotic traffic. Picture the universal bustling African city: cars approaching from all sides, vendors weaving in and out between lanes, balancing towers of fruit, cold drinks, hats, blankets, gas cannisters – you name it – on top of their heads. The air is thick with dust, and the midday sun has tanned Accra’s sky a golden brown.

I am tired. I am annoyed. I am sweating like hell. And I’m loving it.

Just before Covid-19 hit, I spent four weeks in Accra helping to build an insurtech startup from scratch. I came as part of the aXd Program – a pilot program by an Afro-German diaspora network – precisely because I wanted to experience first-hand what it’s like living and working in an African country other than my own. I’d done brief research work in Kenya, but beyond that, my experience was limited. Unfortunately, when you’re talented and African, there is every incentive to look for opportunities outside of your own continent. The grass is supposedly greener abroad. Having travelled the world over the last 5 years, I realized that if I don’t start contributing now to the ecosystem here in Africa, I will simply become another brain drain statistic. No thank you!

If you’re smart, and you really want your work to matter, you’ll join the hustle.

My time in Accra was a crash course on how to innovate and do business in a tough environment. More than anything, however, I learned why talented Africans need to put Africa first.

The little things matter

Consider this contrast: in San Francisco, if you want to attend a networking event to expand professional relationships, it’s as easy as hopping into an Uber and commuting 20 minutes downtown to an air conditioned venue where there will probably be fast Wifi and free food. In Accra, I often decided to forego potentially valuable events because it was just too draining to sit in traffic for two hours in a vehicle with no AC. I’d spend my backseat commutes trying to type with a laptop balanced on my knees while the driver swerved and breaked in an effort to save his tyres from potholes and ditches. If it wasn’t the terrible roads, it was the traffic! Random police blockades were the norm. Multiple times, the car broke down in the middle of the highway.

I know what I sound like. Bad drivers patchy GPS, unreliable Uber – first world problems! But here’s the thing: we underestimate what a difference efficiency makes. It’s really difficult to “get shit done” when the environment feels like it’s set up to oppose your success. A day’s work in one part of the world might easily take a week in another part where the infrastructure conspires against you. I’ve witnessed “African time” on steroids, and I’m starting to wonder if the stereotype has less to do with cultural attitudes and more to do with the need to make constant adaptations to an unpredictable environment. I’ve been taught that success starts with a good plan. In Accra, I learned that success rests on how well you adapt when the plan inevitably changes. Agility is everything.

Talent is nothing without financial infrastructure

Africa's top VC markets in 2019 (Tech Crunch)

Africa is being advertised as the coolest place to do business right now. The 2020 African Youth Survey – the most comprehensive survey of Africa’s youth to date – found that 76% of young Africans want to start a business in the next five years. Brilliant ideas and great business models are springing up all over the place, but it’s going to take more than optimism to roll out the innovation and jobs we so desperately need. We need infrastructure – physical and economic.

For example, when my startup’s founder told me how much a talented software developer earns in Ghana, I was mortified. We’re talking less than half the minimum wage in some developed countries. He explained how he and his team typically work in the early hours of dawn, between 12 am and 3 am, because that’s when data rates are at their lowest. In addition, just about every startup founder you meet is juggling multiple side hustles. Our core team consisted of a lead developer who was a full-time lecturer and a founder who was the regional manager for an educational investment company.

This juggling of many jobs is the only way to survive when seed investment is so hard to come by. Ghana’s bank lending rate averaged 29% from 2005 to 2018, reaching an all time high of 42% in July of 2016 and a record “low” of 21% percent in March 2008. In the US, this figure hovers between 2% and 10%. Consequently, it’s common to see startups give away large amounts of equity in an attempt to get much-needed seed investment.

Just think of all the money that flows around in places like Silicon Valley, being pumped into the latest startups “disrupting the world” with AI, blockchain, and [insert-cool-buzzword]. If only a fraction of that wealth could be directed here! In 2017, Village Capital found that more than half of all global venture capital went to three US metros (New York City, Silicon Valley and Boston). In East Africa, they found that more than 90% of funding went to expat founders.

The opportunities abound, the talent exists, the market is ready. What’s lagging are the financial gateways to make things happen.

Bridging human + financial capital

One thing Africa has in its favour is human capital. Entrepreneurship abounds in the face of enormous constraints. One has to respect entrepreneurs who survive the relentless daily commutes, who wipe off the sweat and deliver the flawless pitch, who work at the crack of dawn to cut costs and who show up, no matter what. When infrastructure is unreliable, the time, money and energy it takes to be successful grows exponentially.

In South Africa, small businesses intimately understand the role of government in making growth possible. We know that innovation without reliable infrastructure is not scalable. The efforts of entrepreneurs are in vain if those seeking to change the business landscape are met with red tape, constant power outages, short-term thinking and a lack of vision. We have to see the connection between our voting and our economic futures.

Finally, at the individual level, we face critical choices – about where we buy our goods and services, where we invest our money, and where we choose to live and work.

My biggest takeaway from working in other African countries is that as young Africans, we need to plough our talents back into our own continent. We need to throw away the mindset of pursuing narrow, individual interests at the expense of our continent and our countries. Perhaps one day we’ll see a sizable portion of the world’s VC money flowing into places like Lagos, Nairobi, Kigali and Johannesburg.

In the meantime, there’s work to do. Like Accra’s entrepreneurs who never seem to hit the stop button, the continent’s hustle continues. If you’re smart, and you really want your work to matter, you’ll join it.


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