It’s no secret that Africa’s growth sits in the hands of SMEs and startups. For many years, public and private sector organisations have discussed the need to create a more enabling and self-sustaining ecosystem for startups and SMEs, where innovation can flourish and businesses can grow.
Partnerships with corporates are a key part of these ecosystems, writes Muhammad Nabil, partners and startups lead at Microsoft 4Afrika .
In 2018, a lot of this discussion progressed into positive action and milestone moments. Tunisia, for example, passed an official Startup Act, a legal framework encouraging entrepreneurship and improving access to funding, markets and new technologies. Entrepreneurship platform, RiseUp, launched a new Startup Manifesto of actionable solutions to shape Egypt’s entrepreneurial policy. And African startups smashed local funding records, with 210 startups securing US$334.5 million worth of investment.
One of the other calls has been for more partnerships between SME enablers. Financial institutions, Telco’s, technology companies and government entities have been encouraged to consolidate resources and provide bespoke offerings, saving entrepreneurs the headache of going to multiple suppliers for every need.
Last year, First Bank of Nigeria Limited, Vodacom Business Nigeria and MTN Nigeria all joined forces with Microsoft to make headway in this space. Through these partnerships, SME customers have access to financial services, data bundles, cloud services, educational platforms and business networks all in one place, giving them a trusted and accessible path to digital transformation.
The need for partnerships
At Microsoft, entrepreneurs have always been one of the primary audiences we have catered for, given our own origin story. However, with over 20 million SMEs in Nigeria alone, we understand that no single entity can reach them all. Partnerships are essential in impacting as many SMEs and startups as possible, offering the most appropriate support and access to what they need most, including finance, technology and skills.
Partnerships promoting access to finance
Access to finance comes in a variety of forms, from cash prizes at pitching competitions to grants and venture capital.
Startup competitions such as DEMO Africa, Seedstars Africa and the MEST Africa Challenge – which this year is offering up to US$50,000 in equity investment – engage thousands of African startups every year. Microsoft is a regular sponsor and partner of these events, offering support in getting the startups investor-ready. These events are also where we scout for high-potential startups to integrate into our own programmes, such as payment technology company SpacePointe, who we first met at DEMO Africa in 2014. Today, we continue to support them in meeting their business goals, integrating new technologies and forging strategic partnerships of their own.
But access to finance also comes in the form of digital tools that help startups better manage and increase their own funds. We recently called on our partner, Stadia Corporate Advisory, to support one of the fintech startups in our network with building a financial model, which resulted in the closing of a recent capital raise.
Partnerships promoting access to technology
For any startup or SME to scale and remain competitive, digital transformation has become essential. With intelligent cloud technology, SMEs and startups can enhance their agility, resilience and reach.
In 2017, Liquid Telecom combined their extensive reach with Microsoft’s business solutions to deliver cloud services to businesses of all sizes across Africa. For SMEs, this includes a ‘Business in a Box’ programme, which offers a cloud-based toolkit of relevant applications and connectivity.
In the same year, we also teamed up with the Tony Elumelu Foundation in Nigeria and Technopark in Morocco to provide over 3,000 startups in their acceleration programmes with access to technology-based tools, resources and mentorship.
Partnerships promoting access to skills
For organisations large and small, digital talent is currently in high demand, but short supply.
To balance this, Microsoft partners with startups themselves, such as MoVAS Group in Kenya, providing them with certified interns as part of the Interns4Afrika programme. While extending their own talent pipelines, these startups are also providing youth with real-world job experience, enhancing their employability.
Partnerships promoting access to markets
Like many startups, Popote Payments in Kenya had a great business idea and early product, but needed more resources to get to a scalable point. After migrating their product onto the cloud, we helped to facilitate their engagement with a management consultancy firm, who assisted them in getting market-ready with a clear path to launch.
Similarly, in Nigeria, Diamond Bank were on the lookout for a solution to promote financial literacy in the youth. We connected them with mobile game production company, Gamsole – one of 4Afrika’s first innovation grant winners – who developed DreamVille, a game that encourages youth to plan their financial futures, save and chat with their peers.
Through various partnerships, we’ve been able to make a more sustainable, scalable and meaningful impact on startups and SMEs, no matter where they are on their business journey. With this support, startups like access.mobile have expanded their healthcare service to 100 health facilities across East Africa, reaching over two million patients. N-Frnds, has grown from a demo product to 15 million users across sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia, expanding from agriculture into fast moving consumer goods, banking, health, and retail. And MoVAS Group has scaled to 12 million users across Kenya, Malawi, Ghana, Somalia, the Republic of Congo and Swaziland.