Q: Please tell us about yourself and the career path that led you to Disrupt Africa.
Jackson: I trained as a journalist in the UK but have worked exclusively in Africa, at a Nairobi-based news agency, as a freelancer for a number of sites and magazines, and heading up a pan-African tech news site. Co-founded Disrupt Africa in November 2014.
Mulligan: I originally trained as a lawyer, before pivoting to become a business journalist. While working for a range of African business-oriented publications, my interest in technology, tech startups in particular, developed. I spent two years working for a niche African technology news portal, before leaving to launch Disrupt Africa.
Q: Tell us about Disrupt Africa. What is Disrupt Africa ? Why was it created and by whom? What services do you offer and who do you serve?
Mulligan: Disrupt Africa is a one-stop-shop portal for all news, information, commentary and analysis pertaining to Africa’s techpreneurship and investment ecosystem.
Launched in 2014 by my co-founder Tom Jackson and myself, our aim is to provide a comprehensive source of news and analysis; be the go-to place for support for startups; and offer a database of opportunities within Africa’s tech ecosystem.
Disrupt Africa was launched through our belief that Africa has the most exciting, innovative tech entrepreneurship space in the world.
However, the continent’s entrepreneurs - and investors - hitherto did not have ready access to a database of all the information they need to support and fuel their work.
We aim to be responsive to the needs of Africa’s entrepreneurs and investors. We try to be a joining point, connecting the various elements of the ecosystem. And we hope to be a valuable resource to all those interested in the ecosystem. Ultimately, we hope we can contribute to Africa’s amazing techpreneurship journey.
Q: Can you please tell us about Disrupt Africa’s report: the DISRUPT AFRICA AFRICAN TECH STARTUPS FUNDING REPORT 2015. Also, share with us some of your 2015 report’s findings that you found compelling.
Jackson: Aside from the actual data itself, all of which is very interesting and informative, what is crucial about this report is that it serves as a starting point for tracking the continued progress of the sector. Nobody has attempted a report like this before, and thus potential investors have lacked information on how many others are actively backing tech startups. With this beachhead established, we will now be able to track the overall growth of the sector in general and various micro-sectors, in order to demonstrate the exciting opportunity African technology offers and stimulate investment.
Mulligan: As mentioned, we try to be responsive to the needs of the tech community, and one key issue that has been raised to us over the past years has been the total lack of data available on Africa’s tech startups and investment scene.
We’re in a unique position with access to much of this data, so we decided to commit to a research project, and work to make the data available to the community, as requested.
The Disrupt Africa African Tech Startups Funding Report 2015 is the first dataset available on the tech investment ecosystem across Africa, and covers the amount of funding raised broken down on a country- and sector-specific basis.
The report covers six country markets in detail, and digs down into 10 different sectors.
One of the most interesting findings to me is that while the majority of the investment in 2015 went to three key hubs - South Africa, Nigeria, and Kenya - there is an increasing trickle of investment going to less publicised destinations, which points to the fact that the investment ecosystem across the whole African continent is picking up.
It’s also interesting to see that solar is the most funded sector, and that within this sector, East Africa’s startups receive the most funding - making the region the prominent pioneer in solar innovation. It’s great to see home-grown African startups building the solutions to a global challenge, through innovative tech and sustainable resources.
Q: In your opinion, what are the top 3 challenges that African startups face today?
Jackson: Funding is obviously key, and the most spoken about, but there are other hindrances. Infrastructure is inadequate, and a challenge to startups across the board, notably in e-commerce. Lack of skills is also an issue, but not so much in that they don’t exist, but rather in marrying individuals with different skill sets. Too often we see a brilliant technical founder who just can’t make a sale operating a business alone, or a remarkably innovative entrepreneur without tech skills. Marrying the two is important.
Mulligan: While investment into African tech startups is increasing, there’s still not enough to unlock the potential of the continent’s myriad of brilliant startups. So access to funding is one key challenge.
Infrastructure is a huge hindrance too. Africa’s entrepreneurs need access to stable, fast, and affordable internet; reliable and secure payment options catering to the nuances of local markets; even the lack of road infrastructure makes logistics a nightmare for many innovators… to name a few.
Uniting the various elements of the ecosystem, and working together to build Africa’s own unique powerhouse of an ecosystem. Currently there’s a tendency to compare and aspire to being a clone of Silicon Valley. There’s also hundreds, if not thousands, of communities and organisations working to build Africa’s own success stories. To me, uniting these different groups, and embracing Africa’s uniqueness is such an important challenge. If achieved, Africa’s own reputation and strength could rise far above the need for any forced comparison with Silicon Valley.
Q: Are youth, technology and entrepreneurship a ‘winning combination’ in Africa, in your estimation?
Jackson: Of course. The continent has huge challenges with unemployment, and a huge youth population. Young people need to be encouraged to start their own businesses, employing themselves and hopefully others, and technology is a major avenue for this. Luckily there are a number of private and public sector initiatives already underway encouraging entrepreneurship, and we expect more to develop.
Mulligan: Youth, technology and entrepreneurship is the winning combination in Africa. And all the elements are already in place - Africa has a thriving population of young people, the majority of whom stand ready to embrace the potential of technology, and all of whom are true entrepreneurs at heart.
It’s a very exciting space, which has the potential to transform Africa’s economic narrative - for itself, and in the eyes of the world.
Q: Finally, in your view, what is the importance of STEM education, innovation, technology, entrepreneurship and investment as well as infrastructures and the rule of law to the socio-economic development of Africa?
Jackson: They are all vital, and need to develop together. There is little point in creating a thriving innovation ecosystem if infrastructure cannot support it, and little point in seeking investment if rule of law is such that investors won’t put money into a country. I think the tech innovation ecosystems across Africa have taken the lead, and it is now up to governments to support this and build infrastructure and regulatory environments that can assist its growth. We are seeing it already, and progress will get faster.
Mulligan: What a question! I’ll try :-)
STEM education is fundamentally important, as it empowers in every way imaginable - from intellectual empowerment to economic empowerment and beyond . It’s a non-negotiable, fundamental right in my view. It’s vitally important that the right to STEM education becomes a reality for all, especially so for girls and young women, who to date have often not received the same opportunities and encouragement when it comes to STEM subjects.
As I mentioned above, I believe technology, innovation and entrepreneurship hold the key to changing Africa’s economic narrative. Through these channels, Africa can become a global shaper, providing solutions to the world’s biggest challenges. However, in order for this to happen, the innovators and entrepreneurs need to be supported by the requisite investment.
The development of stable and lasting infrastructures, as well as the creation of open, enabling nations based on a respect for the rule of law, are also absolutely vital to Africa’s socio-economic development.