Don’t build for Africa

Think Global

No, the title is not wrong. I have also not been abducted by aliens. Sometimes, reality hits you so hard that you blurt out the truth. Building for Africa is a mistake. Don’t do it!

Building for Africa is hard. One of my most significant mistakes in life was to think “Africa First” in business and services. It should have been “Global First”. Surmounting African barriers does not necessarily give you a Global edge. It may just waste your time. I think it wasted mine.

The first thing that I realised too late was that Africa sells more as “African” outside Africa than inside Africa. Africa is more of an emotional construct than an economic one. We are not even one political or ethnic entity.

The Safaris, the perception of the “Dark Mysterious Continent” has maybe created more millionaires outside Africa than inside Africa. America also probably sells more outside America than inside America. I think China probably now sells more inside America than America does. Why can’t we be more like Chinese or the Americans?

In my domain of “technology”, there are global standards which make it easy to scale products and localise when necessary. What I have learned from Silicon Valley and Israeli companies is this — when you start building, don’t think “country” or “continent”. That is the first flaw. Great markets are not sovereign entities they are unions and NOT intersections. A great market is the union of all potential users irrespective of geography.

I think restricting a product by geography is a cop-out. It means we don’t believe we have a product great enough to transcend regional identity or preference. I am using a browser to draft this, and the browser does not care if I am in Togo, Nigeria or Sri-Lanka. Even when it has to care, it is an option and not a core feature.

For tech products, African diversity is more of a weakness than strength. An American can start in Palo Alto and sell in Maine. An African can start in Cape Town and will find it hard to sell to Harare. I had a conversation with a product team of one of the American tech heavyweights a couple of years ago about scaling a payments product to Africa. The first thing they told me was that “Africa is not one market” and it is hard to implement anything there.

It is true. We don’t even have one universal language, and they didn’t see the effort of scaling there worth it. We built a business on helping businesses overcome those constraints, and I wanted to partner with them, but they were not biting. I didn’t see their point of view at that time, but now, I do.

I discussed with my friend Kenneth M Kinyanjui that maybe we should adopt Swahili or Edo as a universal African language? We desperately need to find a higher basis for uniformity beyond common suffering, poverty, wars and corruption. I believe technology can help with that.

The new generation of Africans will share more in common than the older generations who have been divided, ruled and subdued by colonisation. I smile each time I hear Nigerian music at a bar in Lome or a nightclub in Nairobi. We are creating a new culture, but some fear that it is one of Nigerian domination. I think it is a culture of other Africans appreciating what Nigerians have finally discovered — the fact that Africans can also produce good stuff with global appeal.

Recently, I have seen great products built in LATAM and South East Asia. While those products may have been created initially to solve local problems, they have proliferated and acquired global appeal because the markets there have given the founders the resources to be able to think bigger. I believe in Africa, the market in most cases rarely does that. My friend Emeka Okafor pointed out yesterday that it is because we are the least industrialised continent. Distribution is also still archaic and resists change.

These obstacles present excellent opportunities especially when we look at Africa from the point of view of consumption. I have always asked why we don’t look at Africa from the point of view of production? Why can’t our rapidly growing population be retooled to produce for the world rather than consume from the world? I believe that the African opportunity is not in Africa. It is more about what Africa can do for the world and not what the world or Africans can sell to Africa.

I know that this would have ended as another series of tweets with back and forth conversations going on on many threads, I decided to make it a blog post so that I can answer any questions and have a more streamlined discussion in the comments section. I now know why Medium exists. It is not Twitter. It is also Global.

I wrote an article which was published in the Nigerian Guardian newspaper yesterday. It may also help to give context to my thoughts here —