Why Ghana’s tech scene was booming even before Twitter and Dorsey moved in

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The Ghanaian tech space has received some major exposure in recent months after the April announcement that Twitter was to make the country the site of its Africa headquarters, and subsequent news that the company’s co-founder and chief executive officer (CEO) Jack Dorsey actually plans to relocate there for a while as well.

According to Twitter, the decision to set up shop in Ghana, rather than a more acclaimed ecosystem like South Africa, Nigeria (where Twitter has in fact since been banned!) or Kenya, stemmed from the country’s involvement with the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) and its attitude towards the internet.

“As a champion for democracy, Ghana is a supporter of free speech, online freedom, and the Open Internet, of which Twitter is also an advocate. Furthermore, Ghana’s recent appointment to host The Secretariat of the African Continental Free Trade Area aligns with our overarching goal to establish a presence in the region that will support our efforts to improve and tailor our service across Africa,” the company said in a statement.

More cynical minds might also note that the move also served to avoid Kenya’s digital taxes, Nigeria’s power issues, and South Africa’s capital control regulations, while still allowing Twitter access to the talent pools of those countries, but indisputably the arrival of Twitter has put Ghana in the headlines for all the right reasons, just as the 2019 launch of Google’s AI lab in Accra did. Yet to those in the know, the Ghanaian tech scene has been developing for some time now.

Steady development under the radar

Funding-wise, Ghana is very much the “best of the rest” on the continent, having ranked as Africa’s fifth most active market investment-wise – behind South Africa, Kenya, Nigeria and Egypt – in 2016, 2018, 2019 and 2020. Last year, 15 Ghanaian startups – 3.8 per cent of Africa’s funded ventures – secured investment, up 25 per cent on 2019. The total amount raised – US$19,897,000 – was slightly down on the previous year, but the first few months of 2021 have been extremely positive.

Between January and the time of writing, we have seen rounds for Ghanaian startups Jetstream, Zeepay, OZÉ, AgroCenta, Redbird, Complete Farmer, BezoMoney and SFAN. Gone are the days when a large round for either mPharma or PEG Africa accounted for the vast majority of the country’s investment, and we are seeing a nice mix of verticals too. Recently, there was even an acquisition, as fintech startup Zeepay bought Zambian counterpart Mangwee.

It wasn’t always this way. When the Meltwater Entrepreneurial School of Technology (MEST) was established by Jørn Lyseggen in Accra in 2008, there was little local startup scene to speak of. For many years one of the only organisations investing in local startups, MEST has since expanded to a host of other African countries, but remains very active in Ghana. What has changed in the last decade?

Thea Sokolowski worked for MEST in a variety of roles until 2019, when she took up her current position at Catalyst Fund. She first moved to Ghana in 2013, when the country’s tech space was still nascent and MEST was one of the only established players. Yet she says it was clear there was “significant interest and a bubbling startup ecosystem”. 

“It could be seen by the popularity of Mobile Monday meetups, or hackathons we’d hold at MEST – even by the sheer volume of applications MEST received, or attendance at events, for instance, focused on women – like those often held at iSpace by mentors like Ethel Cofie,” Sokolowski told Disrupt Africa.  

However, it took a while for this interest to translate into tangible action and results. Patrick Beattie, co-founder of Ghanaian e-health startup Redbird, says the local tech ecosystem has undergone “incredible change” since he arrived in Ghana in 2015.

“Back then, infrastructure to support early stage tech entrepreneurship was much less developed. I remember working out of the Impact Hub, which at the time was mainly a few tables in a building with internet coming from mifi hotspots on the only 4G carrier at the time, and it was the best set up in Accra in my opinion!” he said. 

“Now the infrastructure is much more developed with multiple fibre internet options, much better 4G coverage even outside of Accra, and more developed co-working options – Impact Hub takes up most of a block at this point, I think. Additionally, there is a greater presence of international tech offerings and the continued presence of MEST has done a lot to attract tech talent.”

Another expat, Meghan McCormick, who is co-founder and CEO of fintech startup OZÉ, has noticed a change in the types of businesses being launched in Ghana, which she believes speaks to growing maturity.

“When I first came to Ghana, the tech companies that were around and doing well mostly did payments, infrastructure for telcos, or were dev shops focused on corporate clients,” she said. “Now, I’m seeing many more technology companies that are product-focused and working to solve a particular problem. I also think for the new tech companies, there is less of a focus on serving the base of the pyramid, but now that there are investors beyond only impact investors, there are many more companies serving startups, SMEs, and corporates.”

A conducive environment for entrepreneurship

But what is behind these changes? Why is Ghana slowly establishing itself as a force to be reckoned with in the tech space, ahead of other countries with similarly sized populations and economies? Ashwin Ravichandran, who has worked for MEST since 2015 and is now the school’s managing director, cites a host of factors.

“Ghana as a country has always been doing well economically. Given that and Ghana’s new laws and participation in AfCTA will just make sure Ghana will be collaborative as an economy,” he said.

Meanwhile, the local market is big enough to sustain local tech companies.

“The population of Ghana is 30 million, out of which less than five million live in the capital city. The impact in tier two cities such as Kumasi, Tamale and Takoradi is incredible but tier three cities will now participate as well,” said Ravichandran.

Kayode Adeyinka, Ghana Country Manager for Catalyst Fund, believes Ghana is fast emerging as one of the most robust and developed startup ecosystems on the continent.

“Ghana’s growth is due to several strengths, including significant consumer and business markets, a growing entrepreneurial talent pool fueled by an influx of accelerators, code academies and training programmes, and relative economic and political stability,” he said.

“Beyond economic and political stability, Adeyinka said there has also been a concerted effort by the government to enable the tech ecosystem to grow, while fairly stable infrastructure and security, amongst others, make Ghana a good location to launch a business in the West African region. 

“As well, thanks to a growing number of developer training programmes, there is a steady stream of tech talent also available in the region. Hubs and co-working spaces, like Impact Hub, iSpace and Workshed are also popping up to accommodate the growing startup ecosystem,” he said.

“The market is robust enough to have launched several successful startups, such as mPharma and Zeepay, who were able to gain enough traction and prove product-market-fit to then expand into other markets. Due to the relative ease of doing business and stable political climate in Ghana, many see it as a great place to test, iterate and grow an early-stage business before attempting to launch in larger, more challenging markets such as Nigeria.”

This is exactly what OZÉ has done, and McCormick agrees that Ghana can prove a perfect launchpad for a startup with wider African ambitions. However, it also has other strong points.

“Accra attracts talent from across Ghana, across West Africa, and around the world. We found that our early customers were so willing to partner with us and build with us. The market is large enough that you can demonstrate traction but small enough that you can really get to know your customer segment and get your hands around the market,” she said.

All of this is increasingly bringing money into the ecosystem, with other, more institutional investors arriving to provide necessary growth capital to startups.

“A notable change in the Ghana tech space is the increasing growth of access to local capital and ties to a growing number of international investors who before now were focused more on later and matured companies. There has been an increase in both VC and PE investments in early-stage companies in Ghana across different sectors,” said Adeyinka.

Difficulties to iron out

In spite of tangible signs of progress, in terms of startup development, funding, and ecosystem support, Ghana still faces the kind of challenges you would expect to exist in any early-stage startup ecosystem. Some of these are quite fundamental, though the situation is perhaps better than in many other African nations.

“Challenges with regards to stable internet access, consistent electricity, particular regulatory barriers and general high costs for items like rent need to be addressed if the country hopes to take its place as a regional leader in the tech community,” said Sokolowski.

Mubarak Sumaila is co-founder and CEO of Ghanaian fintech startup BezoMoney. He says finding product-market fit can often be an issue for local entrepreneurs.

“Ghana has a relatively small formal sector, which makes it difficult building products and services for that segment,” he said. “This does not mean targeting the informal sector is any easier. We have a smaller population compared to Nigeria which means you have to run a model of low volumes with high values.”

McCormick’s primary issue is around local talent, which though highly skilled is relatively inexperienced. 

“Because the ecosystem is so nascent, most people who work at OZÉ have never worked at a high-growth tech company. That means that we have to rely on on-the-job learning and peer-level exchanges between companies rather than being able to hire in people with specific experience,” she said.

Adeyinka cites another challenge related to ecosystem maturity.

“There is a lack of second-generation entrepreneurs within the space, who are usually very relevant in building and transforming ecosystems,” he said.

And though funding is on the rise, there is still not enough capital coming into the ecosystem. Andrew Quao, Beattie’s co-founder at Redbird, said in this regard Ghana still lags behind the likes of Nigeria and Kenya. 

“There are important local angel groups and VCs, but many VCs on the continent still restrict their investments to just East Africa or to just Nigeria within West Africa. The trend is definitely moving towards more interest by the groups, but currently it is a disadvantage in the market,” he said.

Sumaila notes progress in this regard, but says it remains extremely difficult to raise pre-seed funding in Ghana. 

“This is where entities like MEST play a significant role, but we need more organisations like MEST to equip entrepreneurs or would-be entrepreneurs with the skills and support they need to be investor ready,” he said.

A bright future

Many of these challenges are easily addressable, however, and those related to ecosystem maturity will naturally ease over time. All the data, and anecdotal evidence too, suggests Ghana is an ecosystem on the up. 

Adeyinka believes the tech space in Ghana is just starting to take shape, and that there are several opportunities waiting to be explored. 

“We also foresee an increase in partnerships between corporate entities, like banks, insurance companies and FMCGs who are prioritising innovation, and local startups,” he said.

“Ghana is increasingly a testbed for launching great innovations that can be replicated in other African markets. I foresee digital commerce specifically picking up significantly as the middle class continues to grow and leverage the electronic payments rails that have been built.” 

The arrival of Twitter, and Dorsey, in Accra, has great symbolic importance, but can it bring any other benefits to the local tech startup ecosystem? Adeyinka said he hopes it will encourage an even greater focus on tech innovation, and inspire the government to continue to prioritise the development of the ICT sector. 

“Similarly, I hope that this momentum will continue to inspire young people to pursue careers in tech and entrepreneurship, to continue to move Ghana and the wider African tech ecosystem forward,” he said.

Quao said Twitter, Google and other companies setting up shop in Ghana was validation of the exciting momentum of the tech space.

“These arrivals and the knock-on effect of sector growth attracts talent from across the globe and provides opportunities for highly-skilled Ghanaians working abroad who are looking to return home,” he said. 

“The support that brings to the ecosystem kicks off a virtuous cycle of accelerating growth, the impact of which can be much larger than any of these announcements might appear on their own.”

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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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