Start-up ecosystems are emerging in urban areas across the world. Today, a technology-based start-up develops a functioning prototype with as little as $3,000, six weeks of work, and a working Internet connection.
Entrepreneurs are not seeking large investments in hardware or office space. Rather, they look for access to professional networks, mentors, interdisciplinary learning, and diverse talent. Cities are best suited to meet their needs, as they provide diversity and allow for constant interaction and collaboration. Thus, the shift caused by the so-called “fourth industrial revolution” makes cities the new ground for organic innovation.
The urban innovation model can be applied in cities in both developed and developing countries. The same trends are driving the urbanization of organic innovation ecosystems in New York City, London, Stockholm, Mumbai, Buenos Aires and Nairobi. This presents a great opportunity for developing countries to build innovation ecosystems in cities and create communities of entrepreneurs to support the creation of new sectors and businesses.
But while some cities have organically developed urban innovation ecosystems, nurturing a sustainable and scalable ecosystem usually requires determined action. Moreover, not all cities are building their innovation ecosystems at the same pace.
To support a local innovation ecosystem and accelerate its growth cities can promote collaboration through creative spaces and support networks, while also hosting competitions to solve local problems.
A start-up office in New York.
Photo Credit: © Victor Mulas
We are in the grip of start-up hype. Today, every large city in the world aspires to become a start-up hub. New York City became a start-up role model; Berlin and London were the “go to” start-up hubs in Europe two or three years ago; Nairobi is the start-up darling in Africa; and Dubai promoted itself as start-up destination.
Start-ups are seen as the new solution for job creation in the emerging economy of the so-called “fourth industrial revolution.” Indeed, they can help produce the jobs of the future — those new employment opportunities that are created in brand-new industries or technology categories. For instance, this has already happened in New York City, where the connection with local industries has resulted in new jobs, new industries, and greater competitiveness for traditional sectors. And it is has not been only about jobs. Solutions for critical development challenges, such as online payments and access to energy in off-grid areas, have emerged from Nairobi and India’s ingenious start-up scenes.
As I visit these cities, however, I wonder if the actual — and potential — impact of these emerging start-up ecosystems is being exaggerated and if we are all collectively witnessing an overflow of attention and resources that cannot translate into “magic” solutions to unemployment and other global challenges.
Indeed, many of the ecosystems I visited and studied seem to be overinflated. Not many start-ups become sustainable businesses, and the few successful examples are cited over and over again. Start-ups are disconnected from local industries and there is little absorption of start-up innovation by the economy.
In some cases, the result is a massive, large-scale training program where a new generation of aspiring entrepreneurs can learn technical and management skills (this is a good outcome). On fewer occasions, the ecosystem becomes sustainable, producing successful new businesses that reinvest in new talent and connect with the local industry base (this is a better outcome).
But these seem to be a handful of cases, and it’s not easy to get there. I suspect this is the result of a lack of maturity of the infrastructure supporting the ecosystem, as well as the poor understanding of what we need to translate the energy of new entrepreneurs and innovators into productivity and business success.
Attendees at Republica Berlin 2016, an annual conference on digital culture for entrepreneurs from around the world.
Photo Credit: © Victor Mulas/The World Bank
We have witnessed in recent years the emergence of technology start-up ecosystems across the world. New technology trends are reducing the costs as well as the barriers of access to markets and resources for developing technology start-ups. If in the 1990s an entrepreneur needed $2 million and months of work to develop a minimum viable prototype, today she would need less than $50,000 and six weeks of work.
Entrepreneurs are also surging in emerging economies. India hosts major start-up ecosystems in New Delhi and Bangalore, with their start-ups having raised $1.5 billion in funding in 2016, respectively. São Paulo ranks among the top 20 start-up ecosystems with more than 1,500 active start-ups, closely followed in the region by Santiago and Buenos Aires. Warsaw hosts around 700 active start-ups, and Nairobi is the home of leading African start-ups, such as Ushahidi, M-Pesa or Brck.
Tech start-up ecosystems present new opportunities for emerging economies. Local entrepreneurs develop new business solutions that address domestic demands. For instance, in Kenya, M-Kopa is addressing the demand for energy in off-grid locations, a major issue in the country's rural areas. Unicorns, those start-ups that raise more than $1 billion, are no longer a U.S./Europe-only phenomenon. Indian, Chinese and Indonesian start-ups, such as Lu.com, Flipkart or Go-Jek, have reached this valuation, and African Internet Group from Nigeria is poised to be the first African unicorn.
Start-up ecosystems also create new jobs. Data from New York City's ecosystem on employment generated in the tech start-up ecosystem shows that most of the jobs generated by tech start-ups are not in start-ups themselves, but in local traditional industries that either are influenced or disrupted by start-ups. Think about a bank or a retail company that has to react to a mobile app providing finance or retail business and that needs to hire new talent to develop a competing app. More than 40 percent of these new jobs do not require a college degree. These are jobs like building a website, a basic database, a web or mobile app.
Maybe it's just easier to think that the keys to economic growth lie at the national level of governance – where monetary and fiscal policies, national law and development strategies are conceived and debated. Certainly national policy is important, but it is rarely where entrepreneurs have their first experience interacting with law and policy.
The city is where people’s ideas create business, where people work and where the bustle of the economy comes alive. The city is where an entrepreneur will first interact with systems that are ostensibly created to attract and support business investment and growth.
Cities can and do engage in reforms to help improve their economic competitiveness. Often this includes the identification of a business sector deemed competitive and some strategy on how to do it better. Improved competitiveness also can include investment in more efficient transportation systems, better access to utilities and services, improved tax policies, better zoning, infrastructure investment and investment in skilled labor. While working on these complex policy and investment opportunities is rational, it often takes time to do the analysis necessary to identify the best opportunities – and it takes much longer to actually see the rewards.
Fortunately, there is a reform that cities can do almost immeduiately, and at low cost, to help support business development and improve the business environment: business entry simplification.
The Philippine Experience & Lessons Learned
In decentralized economies like the Philippines, cities play an important role in business registration. In fact, almost of one-third of the country’s business registration steps fall under the responsibility of city-level leadership.
In working with Philippine cities to reform dated, cumbersome, and confusing business registration requirements, a World Bank Group team was able to help its clients reduce registration steps from an average of 41 to just three. Cities also saw an average spike in new business registration of around 20 percent in the first year after the implementation of reform.
This article was originally published in SXSWorld Magazine
Hardly a day goes by without an African tech startup being featured in the mainstream media. CNN regularly updates its special report on the topic; The Guardian covers local debates surrounding emerging ecosystems; The Financial Times tracks Africa’s mobile revolution; Forbes has extended its “Top 10” series to include African female tech founders; Vanity Fair pins its hopes of “continental lift” on entrepreneurs. Blogs, opinion pieces and social media cover the sector in even more granular detail. Judging by VC4Africa’s 2015 report on venture finance, perspectives on African incubation and funding models, and the entrepreneurship program announced by Nigeria’s investor and philanthropist Toni Elumelu, it would seem that the African tech sector is among today's most dynamic industries.
Amid the buzz, many investors are asking: “Is the hype warranted?”
According to VC4Africa, an online community of very-early-stage startups and investors, investments through the platform more than doubled in 2014, rising from $12 million to $26.9 million, while the average investment grew from $130,000 to more than $200,000. Their research shows that 49 percent of ventures start generating revenue in their first year and that 44 percent are successful in securing external investment. More than 75 percent of these are in the technology sector, with agriculture, health, finance and energy startups also represented.
Further along the growth path, a smaller number of startups have recently netted over $300 million from a very diverse set of investors, according to CBInsights.
Recent Investments in African Tech Startups
Adapted from: https://www.cbinsights.com/blog/african-tech-startups
At least eight companies have acquired growth capital in Kenya in 2014, along others in Nigeria, Egypt, Ghana, Tanzania and South Africa and elsewhere.
New early-stage funds and angel networks in or focused on Africa are also on the rise. Among others, three models stand out: London-based NewGenAngels a collaboration between African and European networks (GAIN, EBAN and AAN); Kenya’s Savannah Fund, a partnership between Erik Hersman (iHub, Ushahidi and BRCK founder), i/o Ventures, 500startups and Draper Associates L.P.; and RENEW, linking American and African investors and startups.
Many early stage investors are still learning from their own experiences and adjusting their strategies accordingly. For instance, while most are bullish on Kenya’s tech scene, 88mph, an African seed fund has put further investments in Kenya on hold, while pursuing opportunities in Nigeria’s booming tech sector.
African entrepreneurship ecosystems have also benefited from a large number of technology incubators, accelerators and coworking spaces, connected through networks such as AfriLabs and backed by private sources, such as MEST in Ghana, and public-interest projects, such as infoDev’s mLabs and mHubs.
According to VC4Africa, the increase of capital is driven by three key trends: growing interest in startups from the African diaspora, the rise of local angel investors, and an increase in cross-border investments.
All of these instigate a positive change beyond investment returns; they set in motion a chain of opportunities in emerging and frontier economies. As Stella Kariuki, founder of Zege Technologies, once told me: “I want to be the change I want to see. [. . .] We build solutions that could be global but also solve African challenges practically.” Many of the startups serve consumers at the Base of the Pyramid -- the three billion people globally who live on less than US$2.50 per day, a market that is still largely underserved when it comes to basic services such as energy, education, health and banking.
It seems clear that investors and startups in Africa are getting to know each other better and are making more and better matches possible. This is an important step in reducing "the missing middle”: the absence of financing beyond the earliest stages of a company’s growth. As enterprises enter national or regional markets, their capital requirements increase exponentially. Without private and public sources of investment, these requirements stifle all but the independently wealthy entrepreneurs and those with established business networks. A diverse resource base for early-stage firms democratizes the opportunity for growth-oriented entrepreneurs and increases the overall potential of the local creative class.
So is now a good time to invest in African technology startups? The answer is yes, as long as investment decisions are made with care, patience, and in partnership with local investment communities.
Maja Andjelkovic co-leads the Digital Entrepreneurship Program at infoDev, a global program in the World Bank Group that supports growth-oriented entrepreneurship in emerging and frontier markets in the tech, climate and agribusiness sectors. Maja is interested in the potential of entrepreneurship to contribute to economic, environmental and social development. She has spent over 13 years connecting these fields, including as product manager in a web startup. She is a PhD student at The University of Oxford’s Internet Institute.
infoDev / the World Bank Group is organizing two sessions at Startup Village at SXSW Interactive 2015; one on the dilemmas and questions surrounding investing in tech startups in emerging markets, and the other on scaling up and accelerating technology innovation in Africa.
Angel investors interested in forming or growing their own local networks can benefit from practical advice and templates in a guide for angel investor groups published by the World Bank’s infoDev program and the Kauffman Foundation.
Sean Ding, Angela Bekkers and Jeremy Bauman contributed to the article.
Try to search for stories that feature the growing pains and gains of growth-oriented technology startups – content that is not only entertaining, but of high quality and most important, educating. It is a surprisingly hard task in today's economy, where entrepreneurship is booming again.
One of the winning 'startup' teams at Pivot East2013 (Credit: PivotEast)
Innovation competitions of all sorts have become prevalent throughout Africa, from hackathons to ideation challenges, demo days, code jams, bootcamps, roadshows, and pitch fests, the list is endless. This development is almost parallel to the rise of tech hubs (BongoHive counts about 100 African hubs) that have sprung up from Dakar to Dar Es Salaam.
While it’s evident that events and competitions are valuable opportunities—especially for young innovators looking to leave their mark—more advanced ecosystems, like Nairobi’s, have already begun to show signs of competition fatigue and competition hopping.
infoDev, a team within FPD, is committed to supporting promising entrepreneurs.
At infoDev, we’re fortunate to work with exciting technology startups in emerging and frontier markets every day. One of the questions we ask ourselves frequently is whether a startup team could achieve high-growth if it weren’t for the barriers they face that are specific to their local environments. These could include anything from a lack of experienced role-models and mentors, to inadequate early-stage financing, to challenging regulatory environments and the lack of an interconnected innovation ecosystem.
Note: This blog post is adapted from a much longer discussion by the author under the same title that was published at Tekedia on January 7, 2013. You can read that blog post here. Small sections of this article are identical to segments of the original article.
The problem in brief
Africa is experiencing a boom in entrepreneurship due to proliferating Internet and mobile computing technologies. Simultaneously African startups face the often life-threatening impediment of inadequate access to seed and early stage venture capital. Fortunately, a number of developments in other parts of the world point to the contours of an approach to solving that problem in a manner that necessarily starts out small, but that can eventually be scaled in a meaningful way.
A normative definition that I use as a recovering angel investor myself is that an angel investor actively helps a seed stage startup succeed with both mentorship and capital in exchange for those intangible benefits of mentorship and a return on investment. In World Bank parlance, then, they automatically provide both investments and technical assistance with no agency costs; a great recipe for solving multiple problems (funding capacity, entrepreneurial capability and access to early stage finance) in a cost effective way. Knowing that 318,480 of them invested $22.5 billion on 66,230 ventures in the US and achieved 27% annual returns forms the basis of our hypothesis that angel investing could work well in the developing world.