As the year winds to a gradual end, after a flurry of activities and success stories across Africa’s dynamic tech ecosystem, there are many lessons to be learned, many vistas opened up for growth. And these featured prominently in critical perspectives and discussions that were broached and raised during Africa’s biggest tech conference – The Art of Technology 3.0. The Art of Technology conference is a platform that has witnessed for three years running now, the powerful precipitation of relevant perspectives of Africa’s biggest tech stakeholders to solve Africa’s challenges in startup growth.
The first conference, which was held in 2019, birthed the Lagos Innovation Masterplan, which was built on four distinct and critical pillars: Access, Funding, Talent, and Infrastructure. With that roadmap to investment and startup growth drawn-out elegantly, it became crucial that the second conference, initiate the building process on the first pillar, dealing with data and access. As such, the conference gave life to the Startup Lagos platform and the Eko Open Source initiatives, critical platforms for sharing and utilizing data in driving growth across the ecosystem.
With the focus set on positioning Lagos as the epicenter of investment growth and startup success, this year’s event was set around the theme: FUNDING AND A CONNECTED LAGOS.
African Startups in 2021: A Funding Deluge
This year alone, Maxime Bayen and Max Cuvellier record that African startups have exceeded the $4 billion mark in investments drawn in, which is remarkably 2.5 times more than the investments attracted last year. Africa’s ecosystem, after the dip in investments last year due to the pandemic and the apprehensions that followed it, has resumed its upward climb. However, this time, it has taken a sprint. It is also worthy of note, that in the bulk of investments that have poured into the continent, to oil the wheels of different startup initiatives, Lagos has been at the center of the entire paparazzi. The megacity of Lagos was regarded by Global Startup Ecosystem Report 2021 as the leading startup ecosystem on the continent, and the 52nd globally, with its relative significant haul of the entire funding into the continent this year. Relevantly, these successes in investment deals have actively contributed to the spawning of unicorns across the African continent.
In spite of these successes, it is the case that a large fraction of the funding that is coming both into the continent and into Lagos is from foreign investors. This implies that when there is an exit, the capital would invariably leave the continent. Also, even though startups, continent-wide, are capturing investments in droves, a good number of startups, especially at the early stages of growth, are cut off from any funding opportunities. Regulation is likewise posing huge challenges both for startups and keen investors, as their eyes are majorly set on sectors that have fewer regulatory bottlenecks. This has disadvantaged many startups within sectors, which are making a viable economic and social impact but are riddled with red tape.
It is these concerns, timely and relevant, that necessitate and fuel the impetus of this year’s Art of Technology conference, bringing together all the different stakeholders at the various levels of startup growth and engagement on the continent.
The Art of Technology Lagos 3.0: Deep Insights, Palpable Energy
It was easy to feel on entry into the halls of the Oriental hotel in Lagos, the identifiable energy and drive that innovation brings. Just like Archimedes, exclaiming Eureka! on happening on innovation beyond imagination, the power of creative energy was shouting through at the AOT 3.0 event. From the students who had curated novel and innovative solutions to different challenges, that were given awards by the Lagos State Governor, Mr. Babajide Sanwo-Olu, to the investors and stakeholders who led and guided the critical discussions at the event, to the pitching sessions, the energy was palpable.
The Honourable Commissioner of Science and Technology, Lagos State, Mr. Hakeem Fahm, the Special Adviser to the Lagos State Governor on Innovation and Technology, Mr. ‘Tubosun Alake, and the Lagos State Governor, all echoed in unison, the importance of technology in driving growth in Lagos State and across Africa. They reiterated the developmental steps that the Lagos State government is taking to consolidate on the successes of the years within the startup ecosystem, and plans to set in motion further growth initiatives. As a way of supporting innovation as well, the Lagos State Governor awarded cash prizes to three secondary school students, namely, Morris Raphael, of Jakande Estate Comprehensive Senior College, Abesan District, who created music for sustainable environmental sensitization, Ajasa Kehinde of Jakande Estate Comprehensive Senior College, Abesan District, for developing an innovative waste robot, and David Joseph Chika, of Victoria Island Senior Secondary School, for building an imagery drone from scraps.
Various keynote speakers graced the occasion with their nuggets of depth and insight, such as Mrs. Ola Williams, the Nigeria Country Manager, Microsoft, who emphasized the importance of public-private partnerships in spearheading the growth of the African startup ecosystem. She highlighted the need to drive inclusive economic growth, build trust in technology and likewise support fundamental human rights. She also pinpointed the efforts that Microsoft was making especially to increase connectivity on the continent, enable upskilling, and trigger digital transformation. The goal as she pointed out, is to ensure that the challenges that hinder Africa’s internet penetration are mitigated and that these would help in greater digital innovation across Africa.
Significantly, many startups in Africa still grapple with challenges, some of which Mr. Kola Oyeneyin identified as a culture discount, where startups seem to copy successful startup ideas in other cultural climes, and replicate uncritically on the African market. He also highlighted the challenges of religion, that if not taken to note, can affect one’s planning or mapping of a total addressable market, as well as that of purchasing power parity (PPP) that creates an imbalance between country situations.
Mr. ‘Tomi Davies, on the second day of the event, discussed the importance of managing conflict as a startup founder, especially with regards to equity sharing. Drawing from his wealth of experience investing in startups across the continent, he highlighted the necessity for startups to broach the conversations on equity sharing early on in the growth of the startup. He stressed the need for startups to set up a Founder’s agreement and a vesting schedule for any share allocation. In creating these, it is important for the startups to not overestimate the early value of contributions to the startup, to include provisions to enable flexibility of the agreements, and to consider dynamic approaches.
The discussants also shared important insights on the necessity of the startup bill, with Mr. Olumide Soyombo, a top investor highlighting how this bill would create an enabling environment for the growth of the ecosystem. He pointed out that most investors are really interested in value, and less of the individuals, disproving any myths that there was some form of startup cliche that investors were only wont to support with investments. Without a doubt, regulation was held to be a major issue and yet a possible catalyst for growth. Mrs. Teju Abisoye highlighted the importance of startups not being cowed down by regulation but operating innovatively on the gaps.
The first day of the event closed with a captivating pitching session that saw top investors and stakeholders as Mr. Olumide Soyombo, Mr. ‘Tubosun Alake, Mrs. Solape Hammond, Mr. Taiwo Ajetunmobi, Mr. Joseph Agunbiade, and Mrs. Oreoluwa Lesi as judges. The winning pitches came from Sabiteach, a platform for real-time online learning; Retailar, a platform connecting manufacturers to the last mile, and Vinsighte, a startup building an inclusive world for the visually impaired.
The Future for African Startups
As Mr. Andrew Nevin had emphasized during the conference, African startups are taking advantage of opportunities to advance the circular economy. And this holds a lot of promise for the continent, as it ensures that the economic growth that African startups trigger is not only effective but likewise is sustainable. As such, the conference not only precipitated lively discussions and visible energy, but it also exuded hope – hope in the bright future that belongs to Lagos, to Africa. It spoke in loud and clear terms of the hope that innovation is bringing to communities, to individuals, and to society, transforming the obstacles that they face, into building blocks. It carried with it, the faith in a public-private sector commitment to changing the face and circumstances of Africa, and writing a new narrative through technology.
As Africa ends the year on a high, throughout its startup landscape, many questions and concerns are in the minds of young innovators. How do I get myself positioned for the future? How can Africa upturn its misfortunes, and create wealth for its people through technology? How can I be a part of that positive revolution?
These are the important questions that will push us into the new year, and likewise trigger new vistas of opportunities for Africa’s growing tech ecosystem.