In this exclusive guest post, Simbarashe Mabasha, co-founder and former chief executive officer (CEO) at African content video streaming service Wabona, tells us about the opportunities available for those launching startups in Africa and gives some advice on how to make the most of them.
Today being part of a startup is all the rage in Africa, if not the world as a whole, and that’s awesome.
We are now in an age when entrepreneurship is considered one of the most important vocations in every society. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall capitalist aspirations and endeavours have fuelled the internet revolution leading to an internet boom and then a bubble in the 1990s. The internet bubble burst, ushering a new world order in which the internet was now part and parcel of the social fabric.
The new world order would be for ever be influenced and at times governed by the internet. Africa was far behind the world as telephone penetration was poor at best and non-existent in most parts of the continent. So the internet revolution never reached Africa as quickly as other places in the world.
However, it was not long until the internet revolution found a footing in Africa, and for the most part that came via mobile internet and now mobile broadband. The internet may have arrived on African time but it soon caught up with the world and spread like wildfire, and shows no signs of slowing down.
It is in this new environment that African entrepreneurs are afforded new opportunities to reshape and map Africa’s re-emergence as an economic powerhouse. Having been both a brick-and-mortar and a tech/media entrepreneur in Africa for over a decade, here are my insights on what it takes to be an effective and successful African entrepreneur in the new world.
It’s all in the mind
Colonial and post-colonial Africa is riddled with many mental and psychological wounds and scars that for lack of a better word “trap” the African entrepreneurial mind and spirit. So many aspiring entrepreneurs face the constant reminder that dreams are expensive and thus unacceptable in the daily reality of surviving poverty, disease and ineffective political and economic policies. Conquering this mindset is one of the hardest challenges any aspiring African entrepreneur. Before one decides to start a business they must be sure that they have the mental strength to overcome social ridicule, lack of effective funding opportunities, sleepless nights, lack of support, loneliness, fear, never ending pressure, and self-doubt, just to name a few. Winning the mental battle, I think, is half the battle in starting a business. Conquer the mind, win the war!
Eagle eye vision
Eagles are well known for having great vision. They can see small and large pictures all at once. The best entrepreneurs have to be able to see small details in the context of a bigger picture. Africa has one of the most complicated business landscapes in the world.
Navigating this landscape is like playing Super Mario (yes, I grew up in the 1980s and the 1990s before PlayStation. Nintendo’s Super Mario and Sega’s Sonic the Hedgehog were legendary video games) on the hardest level. It takes time, requires patience and more importantly great vision. The best entrepreneur translate microscopic decisions into big picture victories.
For example, my partner and I built Wabona before African internet could really handle online video, and to some extent audio streaming. We started the business focusing on the large and under-serviced African diaspora. It soon became clear that the online video streaming game had to be played on the African continent too. The question was how?
Mobile was the answer but we had to play a long game. Africa is one of the fastest growing mobile markets in the world. In the not too distant future there will be over one billion mobile phones in Africa. Smartphone penetration in Africa continues to grow but feature phones are still the dominant mobile phone in Africa. We had to build a video streaming service for feature phones and be ready for smartphones, all the while dealing with the obvious challenges of expensive mobile data costs, there being over 5,000 different types of the feature phones in the market, and the market notion that African mobile markets were not ready video streaming.
To deal with all these challenges we partnered up with one service that built a unique way of compressing and delivering video clips on feature phones. With their help we built a more robust backend to handle video editing and compression in the cloud thus making it easier to deliver content to over 3,000 feature phones. We started building an Android App so as to grow with our market as they adopted cheaper smartphones. In essence we had to build the idea of cost effective video streaming for the market while they were on feature phones so as to prepare them for the smartphone, which would offer a more robust video streaming experience.
Our micro challenges were how to deliver a video streaming experience to the market via feature phone so as to build the bigger picture of introducing the joys of on-demand, non-linear video streaming to Africans. Eagle eye vision is crucial, it helps one build a rich and bright perspective of how to navigate the African business terrain.
This is Africa. There is no place like Africa, and thus its problems are unique to Africa and thus require innovative problem solving. Many entrepreneurs and corporations make the mistake of trying to copy and paste western and eastern solutions for African problems. Most fail because they don’t sufficiently understand #TIA.
Take the much vaunted M-Pesa, this was an African solution to an age old African problem, money transfer outside the traditional banking system or in areas that were under banked or not banked at all. M-Pesa’s founders understood their problem well enough to build an Africa-first solution. Today M-Pesa is one of the most important pillars of the Kenyan economy and mobile money as a whole is changing how Africans and soon the developing world interact with money outside the banking system. African entrepreneurs are afforded a unique opportunity in that many of Africa’s problems are so unique to Africa that any solutions have the opportunity to become billion dollar business in the coming decades.
Much more can written about what it takes to be an entrepreneur in Africa but I think the Disrupt Africa editorial team may not have enough space for my musings on this subject, which is very dear to me. The above I believe are the most important tenants in building new businesses in Africa more so they are crucial to building a new entrepreneurial mind set in this new world powered by the internet.