Understanding the Tech Ecosystem in Francophone Africa

Francophone African founders have just as much talent as their counterparts in Nigeria, Kenya, and South Africa but they have largely been ignored until now.

Francophone African countries represented 10 per cent of the total VC funding received by African startups in 2017, according to a report released by Partech Africa. In the year 2021, the African startup space is still dominated by the same 5 countries receiving a majority of VC funding on the continent: Nigeria, Kenya, Egypt, South Africa, and Ghana. Nigeria year after year remains Africa’s top VC destination with $307 million in total funding received in 2020. At a close second was Kenya, accounting for $304 million of the total investments in Africa. Egypt came third, with its startups raising $269 million, while $259 million flowed into South African startups. Last out of the top five was Ghana with $111 million. 

Francophone Africa experienced an economic growth rate of 4.9 per cent in 2021 according to the World Bank’s Global Economic Prospects report, higher than the 2.9 per cent growth rate experienced by the rest of the continent. With their large youth populations, Côte d’Ivoire, Burkina Faso, Senegal and Guinea are some of the fastest growing economies in the world. As these economies grow, the mobile penetration rate is growing as well.

There are plenty of reasons for investors to start looking more at Francophone markets, such as Portfolio diversification. Francophone Africa has 116 million inhabitants, and some countries share the same language and currency. The mobile market is growing, and a highly experienced and qualified diaspora is returning home to start companies. There are a growing number of tech hubs and investment funds supporting entrepreneurship, and companies in those countries are more likely to expand outside their initial markets for scaling. First mover advantage, something that long ago became very unlikely to achieve in, say, Nairobi, Lagos or Cape Town, is also attainable in Francophone regions because many markets remain completely untapped.

Despite many objective metrics showcasing Francophone Africa’s growth potential, investors are still wary of investing in Francophone African countries, and the tech ecosystem in Francophone Africa is significantly behind the tech ecosystems of anglophone countries.

Why is Francophone Africa so behind?

Multiple factors have influenced the lagging of francophone Africa’s tech ecosystem compared to its Anglophone peers. These include ease of doing business, market size, entrepreneurial culture, and lack of access to early stage funding.

A glance at the World Bank’s Doing Business report – measuring the quality of global business environments – reveals that English-speaking African countries are ranked higher than their Francophone counterparts. Many French-speaking African countries are among the toughest places to do business in the world. 

Additionally, Francophone Africa suffers from the size of its economy. Combining the populations of all Francophone African countries results in  141 million people across 34 states. In comparison, Nigeria alone has a population size of over 200 million. English-speaking countries contribute to over 75% of sub-Saharan Africa’s average GDP, while French-speaking countries contributing only 19%. These factors contribute to the reasons investors tend to view most Francophone African markets as too small. In 2016, even after a deep recession, Nigeria’s GDP was still $405 billion.  That same year, the francophone members of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) excluding Ghana and Nigeria, had a combined GDP of $120 billion.

The language barrier also plays a big role. In 2020, North American VC firms were the largest contributors of funding to African startups. These firms are less likely to learn about Francophone African startups in the first place due to the language barrier. Additionally, the biggest tech firms in the world are from English-speaking nations. This provides a comparative advantage to English speakers learning about technology in terms of the information available to them. 

The entrepreneurial culture in Francophone African countries also leaves much to be desired. Every year the investment group Seedstars produces an Index to measure the quality of technological ecosystems in 75 emerging markets. The Index consistently gives low ratings to the entrepreneurial culture of French-speaking countries. In addition to this, the best students in universities are more attracted to corporate jobs with prestigious titles, and not much serious thought is given to tech startups. 

These factors contribute to the existing problems of lack of funding sources at the early stage. There are very few funding sources and accelerators in this region, but this is slowly changing. Aside from the World Bank accelerator, other key recent developments in Francophone Africa include the launch of the Partech fund and the continued investments of Orange Digital Ventures. These resources however are available only to startups at later stages, presenting still a lack of angels and early stage investors. This is starting to change with the establishment of a host of angel networks and early stage capital sources in countries like Burkina Faso, Togo, and Senegal. 

Players in the Francophone African Tech Ecosystem

Several startups have already proven that French-speaking countries can create innovative and high-growth models. In Senegal, Coin Afrique  raised €2.5 million in 2018 and has more than 400,000 active monthly users. Intouch has raised about €10 million in 2017 and operates in 7 countries.

Uchi Uchibeke, launched AfricaHacks in 2020.  The platform organises and supports hackathons across African countries. It also partners with African tech companies and others around the world to incubate startups in the region.

Born out of the need to tackle the widespread problem of maternal and perinatal death in Africa, Healthlane remains one of three Francophone African startups to be accepted to Y Combinator. 

Based in Ivory Coast, Djamo is a challenger Bank for consumers in french speaking Africa where less than 25% of the population is banked, building seamless and affordable banking solutions to break into this huge untapped market and bring millions of people into financial inclusion that was accepted to YC W21.

In Burkina Faso, Dunia Payment is a mobile wallet built on blockchain that provides secure financial services in the cheapest way within Africa. It also serves Business and financial institutions through it API, to pay, get paid, by their customers.

Government Response

Many of these countries are working hard to improve their business climates. Côte d’Ivoire for example moved from 167th in 2012 to 110th in 2020 in the World Bank’s Doing Business, and Burkina Faso from 175th to 150th.

Some Good News

Year after year more is done to support budding entrepreneurs. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ingenious City, exists as an incubator for local companies. 

In Burkina Faso, Sinergie Burkina exists and invests check sizes of up to $400,000 USD into promising Burkinabé early stage Burkinabé startups.

In Senegal, a $50 million start-up fund, the DER, aims to catalyze entrepreneurship throughout the country.

Africinvest, a private equity fund with several offices in French-speaking African countries, has announced the creation of a venture capital fund for startups in Africa. Similarly, Seedstars, which has a hub in Abidjan, has just announced the launch of its $100 million fund for African start-ups.

The Francophone African Investors Summit held at the end of March in Bamako attracted several hundred participants, including investors, politicians, support structures and entrepreneurs, strengthening the positive dynamics of the ecosystem

Conclusion

Francophone African founders have just as much talent as their counterparts in Nigeria, Kenya, and South Africa, but they have largely been ignored until now. It’s time for governments to promote the entrepreneurial ecosystem in their countries, and for investors to come to the region and discover these hidden gems.