too many name tags

African start-ups: excitement or ennui, asks the internet?


A common cry among those who organise start-up networking, training and competition events around Africa is that they’re often poorly attended. From Joburg to Cape Town to Nairobi, I’ve had many conversations with tech hub regulars who talk enviously about events that have attracted hundreds of delegates, while they struggle to get a round dozen seats filled.

Perhaps it’s just that word doesn’t spread about interesting days out for wannabe hackers or entrepreneurs as quickly as we think, or maybe it’s because the events in question are poorly attended. Nevertheless, a couple of articles in the continental blogosphere stand out today.

First up is Nicolas Friederici, at the World Bank blog. He asks if ‘competition fatigue’ has set in among African entrepreneurs in general. Given that there’s a limited number of people who have the background and skills to create their businesses, there are only so many hack days and pitching sessions they need to go to – and in Nairobi in particular that number may have already been achieved.

Friederici also adds that:

Competition hopping is another worrying phenomenon where technologists with an appealing app and strong presentation skills find more incentive in jumping from competition to competition, picking up small grants and seed capital from each, without actually building businesses and focusing on long term growth.

There’s hope, however, and ways to stop this ennui settling in, Friederici says. He points to the quality of the recent Pivot East conference, which brought together companies from Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania for a training and pitching session, but says what made it work was the amount of effort that went into the event and the competitors before and after the actual weekend.

Mawuna Remarque Koutonin over at Silicon Africa, however, is more sceptical. Local start-up culture has inherited too much of the arrogance and ‘big man’ politics from Silicon Valley, Koutonin writes, and spends too much time focussing on the problems of the iPhone-owning 1% while ignoring the problems of the vast majority.

If these young people want to work for Africa development, they should otherwise focus their creative mind and energy on creating Food processing or conservation startups, energy distribution research project, water purification devices, new methods for mass education, African languages revival and adoption initiatives, etc. We need captain of industries, innovators, managers addressing the big problems, not another web app or mobile game.

There’s some fair criticism, there, but as many of the comments below the post point out – many successful innovations start out at the top and become more democratically effective later on, and that bottom 99% is going to catch up fast as mobile tech continues to take off. Plus, it’s a bit disingeneous to overlook all the advances in mobile money, mobile health and games for education that have sprung out of the ‘scene’ (as I’m sure Koutonin is more than aware).

And finally, the ever-lovely Michelle Atagana over at SA’s own Memeburm picks up the theme and asks whether or not all the networking events for start-ups are worth the time and energy. Or are they just free beer and food lights to moth-eyed young dreamers who’ll soon become obese and alcoholic?

There is such a thing as too much networking. The event hoppers. Unless you are a journalist sniffing out a story or an event organizer, a single startup really has no business being at every single networking event one community has to offer. Unless your product is built and launched and you are simple spreading the message, being at every startup networking event can get in the way of actually building a product/business. If your company has all the pieces of the puzzle in place except for the actual product that needs launching, networking events should be the last thing on your mind.

It’s a strange combination of events that sees so many influential people asking a similar same question all on the same day. Is the start-up scene running out of steam, or is it just certain sections who are getting burnt out? Or is it just that we forget how new this all is for many people, and the various regional flavours of start-uppingdom are still working out what they should look and feel like?

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