Friday, May 13, 2011

Why Africa May Never Produce a Facebook, Groupon, Zynga or Google

Africa has its own Mark Zuckerbergs, Andrew Masons, Mark Pincuses, Larry Pages and Sergey Brins. But it lacks its own Yuri Milners, John Doerrs, Vinod Khoslas and Y Combinators.
I recently read Parmy Olson’s interview with Yuri Milner on Forbes’s recent Billionaires issue. It is riveting stuff. Milner, a Russian billionaire venture capitalist, has made a pile of money investing in some of the web’s most brilliant success stories- Facebook, Zynga and Groupon. These companies have rewritten the rules of social networking, connected the world and revolutionized our shopping experiences. They have shaped our lives, influenced popular culture, and brought in stellar returns for their investors- people like Mr. Milner.
But as I read the article, I could not help but ask myself the pertinent yet habitually unanswered question: What about Africa? Why hasn’t a globally-renown, groundbreaking software, social network or mobile application ever emerged from the continent?
From my experiences, I have discovered that Africa equally has its own plethora of techies with earth-shaking ideas, rock-solid business plans and the commercial know-how required to transform a concept into a world-class business concern. There is no shortage of capacity. Africa has some extremely intelligent techpreneurs.  Last year, a Kenyan mobile software developer and entrepreneur, John Waibochi, beat several other software developers from the U.S, Canada and India to win the Nokia Innovation Challenge Award. It came with $1 million in prize money. Today, his company, VirtualCity develops pioneering mobile software that’s extremely successful in East African markets. Then there is Mark Shuttleworth, a maverick South African Internet tycoon who founded Thawte, a web security and certificate authority company. Thawte became so successful that it was snapped up by VeriSign (VRSN) for $575 million.
There is also Ory Okolloh, a remarkable Kenyan lady who founded Ushahidi, a hugely popular company that develops open source software for information collection. She recently left Ushahidi to take a job as Google’s Policy Manager for Africa.
Last December in South Africa, I met a remarkable young lady who has developed a voice-based mobile application which helps farmers track the oestrus stages of their cows. It’s amazing. She’s been looking to raise capital to commercialize her invention, and there’s definitely a market for her product, but there are no venture capitalists willing to gamble on her idea.
Africans can create hugely successful tech products that will sweep the world off its feet. There are several entrepreneurs out there waiting to break through, but their ideas might never see the light of day because of a lack of seed finance. This is the reason Africa might never produce a Facebook, Groupon, Zynga or Google: There are no venture capital firms in Africa to fund these ventures. It’s unfortunate. And even if, by any little chance they actually do exist, they possess a flagrant disregard for technology and the very crucial role it is going to play in the future. As a result, they are unwilling to fund this sector and give it the acknowledgement it deserves.
Africa is undergoing a technology renaissance. More than ever before, the population is becoming more technologically-inclined, more web-dependent. With the right financing, our entrepreneurs can put Africa on the global map of technological innovation.
But until its financiers and the self-proclaimed ‘venture capitalists’ are easily accessible and listen to these entrepreneurs, Africa may never have its own answers to such internationally famed corporations like Google, Facebook, Zynga and the rest of them.  Africa needs several Y Combinator-type firms who will believe in and support the dreams of entrepreneurs and get those big ideas out of the boxes and into the pages of history. Africa’s techies are equally as smart, gifted and visionary and if supported can transform big ideas into money-making, world-class companies that’ll change the world.
Forbes Magazine brings up some interesting points. If you take the article from 100,000 feet down to 50,000 feet, the opportunity is in mobility. Large geographic areas, lack of infrastructure, mobile devices and apps are ideal for the culture and environment.