DRC has an image problem but is a land of opportunity for tech startups

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To say the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has an image problem is an understatement when it comes to a country best known internationally for poverty, civil war, and now Ebola.

Yet for tech entrepreneurs, the DRC is rapidly becoming a land of opportunity. With a population that has passed 80 million and is rapidly growing, GDP on the march, increasing internet penetration, and signs of increasing political stability, the business environment is becoming more favourable.

Meanwhile, with the government becoming more supportive, and some – but not many – local success stories garnering attention, there are hopes the country can rival the likes of Kenya as a tech hub.

The international outlook

Barrett Nash built and initially launched moto-taxi app CanGo Africa in the “test kitchen” of the Rwandan market, but has now expanded the startup to DRC in pursuit of growth. He told Disrupt Africa that is most exciting about DRC as a market is its greenfield aspect.

“Sure, this is an earlier stage market than a Nairobi or Lagos, but that is an opportunity. We can look at how other cities developed and be influenced by what worked, but also try to avoid the pitfalls,” he said. 

“For example, we can assume that users will eventually get hooked onto their smartphones like in other markets, but we can try to avoid the “10,000 startups without a plan of exit” issue that faces a lot of other markets in Africa. While the word “leapfrog” was overused when talking about how Lagos instantly becomes Singapore, I do believe that in a short amount of time, with the right approach, Kinshasa could become a Nairobi.”

A bold prediction, and one that seems all the bolder given the fact smartphone adoption across DRC remains low. Yet Nash says this is the advantage of being based in a “mega city” like Kinshasa.

“Even if there may be a smaller percentage of technology adopters, the numbers can still be huge. For example, Facebook has 1.9 million active smartphone users in Kampala, a city people usually associate as being among the leaders in African startup, which is only a little bit larger than Kinshasa’s 1.7 million active smartphone users,” he said.

Growth in this respect is also assumed to be inevitable, and many are looking towards a brighter future following the period of relative political instability ushered in by Félix Tshisekedi succeeding Joseph Kabila as president in January. Nash said the new government has “clicked a reset” in the general perception of the country. 

“I was cynical in early days of how much would change, but honestly I’ve had to eat my words a bit. The government hasn’t just been supportive, they’ve been thought leaders in how they want the future of the country to look, and I think there are green shoots of the sort of thought leadership that may be remembered retrospectively as visionary,” he said. 

“The guys at the top seem really willing, even excited, to try something new. This has a strong alignment with what a technology ecosystem and startup needs to thrive.”

His overwhelming thought the first week he was in Kinshasa was, in fact, “man, this country needs a better PR team”. 

“The fact is, Kinshasa is a tough city – but so is Lagos, so is Johannesburg,” Nash said. “And a lot of the truly incredible things that this city has, like an educated, open-minded and entrepreneurial business class, awesome major city roadways, a ginormous population and totally open competitive playing field, seem to be completely invisible to outsiders.”

This all serves to make DRC “an entrepreneur’s dream”, combining a host of unique challenges with a population of innate early adopters looking for solutions. 

“This is a market that I don’t expect to host a thriving native developer scene for a decade, but if it was to hire a best-in-class PR team, airdrop Startup Tunisia blueprints and put in a “Startup Chile-style system I’d invest my own money on this being a market that will in the future take its rightful spot as one of Africa’s largest,” said Nash.

The local view

Local entrepreneurs that have been involved in the Kinshasa startup ecosystem – to the extent that one has existed until recently – agree with Nash that DRC is a land of opportunity. Paul Emmanuel, hub manager at co-working space and tech hub Ingenious City, highlights the size of the market and the nascent nature of the local tech scene.

“There are a lot of opportunities that a tech startup could tackle. DRC is a large market and because of scalability tech startups are more able to reach more people than normal businesses,” he said.

Kanik Pascal is chief executive officer (CEO) of local ed-tech startup Schoolap, a learning and school management platform that has features for pupils, teachers, parents and school administrators. He shares the view that the opportunities come from the size of the market and the fact it has lacked a startup culture, something which is changing.

“The economy needs digital transformation and for entrepreneurs that is a very good time to start businesses. The second thing is the new political environment, which is trying to support local innovations and to push more local entrepreneurs to create new companies,” Pascal said.

“The ecosystem is really looking to support and push startups; there is a new mindset, even from big companies. They are trying to include startups partnerships in their company strategy. We can see that the new president is talking a lot about local entrepreneurship promotion, and there are some good decisions like the guarantee funds announced for entrepreneurs.”

Challenges remain, however. Emmanuel says internet connectivity is more expensive and less efficient than in other African countries, while finding talent is also an issue.

“We have an education system that trains students in areas that are not in line with the demands of the job market. It is difficult to find entrepreneurs or students already equipped for the use of digital means to follow the idea of the projects they have,” he said.

Pascal also highlights the lack of entrepreneurial skills, and shortage of local support structures.

“Entrepreneurs need more training on business development and incubators need to improve their ways of providing support and training to startuppers. Without good incubation, it will be very difficult for startups to raise money and make an impact,” he said. 

“Our social environment is yet to understand how difficult it is for a startup to move from zero to one, from nothing to a company. There are lots of pressures from different sources of our community who can be a blocking point on startup development.”

Lack of funding for DRC-based startups is another major issue. Pascal says there are some early-stage investors, but they don’t understand what startups need.

“I think there are a lot of people who want to invest in startups, but these investors need to align their investment policies to startup investments models,” he said.

Lionel Kabeya, co-founder of local legal-tech startup Avocats, agrees there is money available that is not yet finding its way to entrepreneurs.

“Investors who are present locally are essentially business angels. In recent years corporates are also interested in tech innovations and tend to be more involved, but do not really invest yet. The government is interested in the issue of startups since very recently. Several incubation programmes, guarantee funds, and business creation facilitations have been launched,” he said.

Emmanuel believes continued government support could give the ecosystem the boost it desperately needs.

“The government is doing its best to be able to contribute to the growth of the ecosystem, but much remains to be done. Already a good step in the making was the national digital plan that brought together all the actors within the ecosystem to lay the foundations and objectives to be achieved in the next five years,” he said.

An image problem, but huge potential

Nash’s view that DRC needs better PR to combat its image problem rings true with local entrepreneurs. Old biases towards the country are holding it back now.

“There is a very old paradigm about DRC’s image and the political environment, which is still a blocking point for local entrepreneurs. But we hope that it will be improved soon,” said Pascal.

Emmanuel said this negative image is still being pedalled by international media, which only writes about Ebola cases, the war in the east of the country, or corruption, and ignores all the efforts being made to change the situation. Kabeya says there are positive stories that could be told too.

“There are many beautiful stories to tell about the DRC, several dream destinations, many opportunities to seize, but unfortunately the media speak only of politics and isolated incidents,” he said.

All these entrepreneurs are optimistic, like Nash, that in spite of the problems and the negative image, Kinshasa and the DRC could one day rival places like Nairobi as African tech hubs.

“DRC is now attracting lots of people from around the world – everything can go very fast. I think DRC will surprise the world in a very short time,” said Pascal.

Kabeya said DRC had become an exporter of talent, due to the lack of infrastructure at home, meaning Congolese people were rather shining in South Africa, Rwanda or Kenya. As local infrastructure improves, they will return.

“For us to compete with other African technology hubs, we simply need local infrastructure to be up to date. I think it’s just a matter of time. Things have already begun to move,” he said.

“You will hear about the DRC more and more.”

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Passionate about the vibrant tech startups scene in Africa, Tom can usually be found sniffing out the continent's most exciting new companies and entrepreneurs, funding rounds and any other developments within the growing ecosystem.

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