Africa’s tech story – hype or substance?

Influential media outlets have been expressing enormous optimism around Africa’s tech ecosystem in recent years, but is it line with what’s happening on the ground?


Image : Katsiaryna

Africa’s tech and startups coverage has grown massively over the past few years.

Influential media such as Nigeria’s TechCabal and Techpoint, South Africa’s iAfrikan, and Kenya’s Weetracker, are constantly telling new stories about African tech startups and their practical solutions in finance or agriculture.

And a whole industry, from PR to data scientists, is working towards changing an African narrative which has long been hindered by negative images of migration, drought, poverty, or wars.

This January, four state-of-the-art reports about African startups’ funding in 2022 were released. Most of these reports mention Africa’s “resilient tech ecosystem”, “record year in funding”, or “extraordinary achievement”.

While it is true that Africa was the only region where funding increased between 2021 and 2022 (by 5%), it represented only 1.2% of all the startup funding raised globally, as Max Cuvellier, co-founder of Africa The Big Deal, has pointed out.

The question, therefore, is whether the enormous optimism around Africa’s tech ecosystem is in line with what’s happening on the ground.

‘False determinism’ fails to deliver

In 2015, Kenyan researcher and policy analyst Nanjira Sambuli published a note on Medium arguing that most writings about tech in Africa were creating a sense of “false determinism”.

Sambuli argued that still-nascent African tech startups were portrayed as the key to the continent’s infrastructural gap when, in reality, they were still trying to figure out what their business models were.

Now a Carnegie fellow, she tells African Business that this trend is still prevalent.

“The effects of this determinism are perhaps most felt in the world of digitising finance, where many millions of investments later, in both fintech and traditional forms of financial inclusion, estimates tell us that over 400m people in Africa remain financially excluded,” she says.

“And even for those who are [included], the tech determinism may not have delivered considering that, rather than financial empowerment and financial health, digital finance and fintech have driven many in society into debt and financial vulnerability, through digital loans and betting for instance.”

Stories about the realities of founding a startup on a continent that holds significant physical and legal infrastructural challenges, and the failure it can lead to when results do not meet expectations, remain largely untold.

The gap in the narrative can lead to harm, argues Sambuli.

“The African startups rising narrative is a welcome thing, but we just need to be more critical and separate hype from substance insofar as their tech offering and the real impact is concerned,” she says.

Promoting startups while avoiding the hype

Jessica Hope, CEO of PR agency Wimbart, founded her company approximately at the same time Sambuli wrote her critique of tech determinism.

Wimbart is one of the few PR agencies that focus solely on Africa’s tech and startup sectors – and has the difficult task of promoting promising startups without succumbing to hype.

“We certainly do our due diligence when it comes to working with particular companies. If someone comes to us, we will usually ask around about them: Are they reliable? Are they trustworthy?” she says.

The London-based company also carefully handles the lexicon it uses to market its clients.

“I think generally founders used to be – maybe not so much anymore – at the mercy of too much hype or hyperbole. What we try and do is if, for example, we draft a press release and someone says ‘we are the leading company in X’, my first question would be: Who says you’re the leading company? Where’s the data? Where are the numbers? What we’re always trying to do is try and get the tech companies that we work with to quantify what they’re saying.” 

According to Hope, the narrative around African startups is still new and critical voices will surely emerge in the coming years. However, she says that “critical” should not mean diminishing the efforts African startup founders undertake to make their business thrive.

At a time of relentless flow of information regarding tech firms, the work of tech journalists in Africa is increasingly valuable in helping the audience distinguish between fact and fiction. 

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This article originally appeared in Tech54, the African Business newsletter that takes an incisive look at the continent’s tech scene. Subscribe to the newsletter here.

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