For Africa, Or From Africa?

I’ve spent three years running a Cameroonian startup, carving my niche with B2C products for the African market. This is what I have to say. I think developing for Africa sucks right now for small to medium-sized companies. It had not always sucked. But right now it does.

A few years ago, the African market was a very lucrative market for the average zero-funded entrepreneur. The African market has always been plagued with poor infrastructure, corruption, limited skills, poor education, poor government support and many others. But even with limited branding and advertising budgets, the typical African entrepreneur had the advantage of being local. Being local meant that we could carve our niche in a market that was not interesting before for our mightier competitors out of Africa. That was then. We’ve lost that local advantage for one single reason.

Africa is no longer invisible.

Now more than ever, foreign (tech) companies are facing difficulties growing in an already saturated developed-world market. Naturally, this has caused a situation where the foreign companies are paying closer attention to Africa and other emerging markets where growth potential still exists. This is probably good news for the local consumer market, but bad news for the local entrepreneur. The foreign companies are coming in with bigger guns. You, the local entrepreneur, will be bringing a knife in a gun fight. You will eventually go out of business.

China’s solution to the problem is quite radical. China either implements blocks or imposes heavy restrictions that discourage foreign businesses from entering the Chinese market. China can afford to do that because of the sheer size of their market. It would be unreasonable to propose we try the same approach in our tiny African market. No. I have something else to propose. If the foreign companies are trying to enter our African market, why don’t we try to enter the foreign market ?

Developing FROM African rocks right now. Internet connectivity is getting better, skill sets are improving to acceptable levels, labour is cheaper, the food is better. There are more and more VCs interested in the African market which increases the probability of getting funded, or getting introduced to the right people. Now is the best time to build a product FROM Africa that you can sell to a bigger global market. India is probably the best example I know of where local entrepreneurs are increasingly selling their craft to the whole world.

I am not saying it is impossible to build a commercially successful (tech) product for Africa. However, past commercial success stories have shown that you need both patience and heavy capital ( we are talking about millions of dollars ). Branding and marketing in Africa still depend on expensive TV ads. Your aunt in Africa, who probably goes online once every month won’t find out about your product on google adwords. Payment still requires setting up many sales points. Government officials still need to be bribed.

On the other hand, developing from Africa and selling to the whole wide world has become easier with the rise of AppStores, SAAS, online fashion stores, freelance websites, and global ad networks where your traffic can be monetized at global rates. Marketing to the world is getting easier with social media and search engine marketing/optimisation. The list goes on.

There are so many ways we can get better at selling to the global market, where the money is. Yet, we spend so much time fighting with our brothers over this tiny African market.

Here is a counter argument I am expecting to hear. If the foreign market is already saturated, why do we think we can carve a sizable niche in such a market ? I believe building products FROM Africa puts us in a unique position to build most products cheaper, and sell them cheaper. Building FROM Africa also puts you in that unique position where you can look at existing solutions from a new perspective and come up with something that is radically disruptive.

What I’m saying is this. If you are a small African entrepreneur and you want to generate more cash for less unnecessary work, your next big idea should be one you can sell to the whole world. Sometimes we shy away because we think we can’t build products that have the minimum amount of quality that the global market expects. We’re all using the same “brainware”, we too can learn how to produce quality. Target markets out of Africa. The diaspora, for example, is a good market out of Africa. 10 years later, you can use the money you’ve earned out of Africa to make Africa a better place. Just remember who gave you this tip.

I am putting my money where my mouth is. You should try Feem.

20 Comments

  • Sola F. says:

    So checked out feem…. Like the hussle. Like the product design and concept…..

    BUT, the business need is the part I question. When I want to send files or pictures among friends or college I do either of the following:
    1. Email it.
    2. Use bbm to share it.
    3. Use whatsapp to share it.
    4. If, file is too big share with dropbox

    All these satisfy my need for sharing. So how does feem differentiate?
    I would be interested to know.

    Do you have some sort of special compression that makes it work better on bad african network?
    Do you have some retry mechanism that guarantees my file gets there even in the worse network conditions?
    Does the receiver of my file need feem to receive it? Or does it work seamlessly?

    • Fritz Ekwoge E. says:

      Hi Sola F.

      I wrote a lengthy reply before, but looks like Disqus is having issues accepting my reply 🙁

      The difference between Feem and all the alternative solutions you mentioned is that Feem DOES NOT USE THE INTERNET.

      Feem is all about painless LOCAL transfers.

      Many people, probably because of hearing a lot about Dropbox/Whatsapp assume we are making a dropbox/whatsapp clone. Which is very far from the truth. All the solutions you mentioned above are about the “cloud”. View Feem as the “anti-cloud”.

      Feem uses your local Wi-Fi network to transfer files and chat. In theory, there is no way your Internet network can get faster any than your local network.

      Nearly all homes in developed countries are equipped with Wi-Fi. Nearly all offices in developed or developing countries are equipped with a local network. We think that is a huge market.

      Feem uses P2P. It doesn’t require a server, and doesn’t require a username/password combination. Feem also auto-resumes interrupted file transfers. This makes everything, seamless.

      We still recommend email, though, for more formal exchanges.

      You really should try Feem. Feem is in the category of things you never knew you wanted until you’ve tried it. We accept feedback on ways to improve the product at info@feeperfect.com .

      You might want to read http://www.feeperfect.com/2013/03/09/why-feem.html , in which I compare Feem to all other alternatives.

      Peace man.

    • Fritz Ekwoge E. says:

      Hi Sola F.

      I wrote a lengthy reply before, but looks like Disqus is having issues accepting my reply 🙁

      The difference between Feem and all the alternative solutions you mentioned is that Feem DOES NOT USE THE INTERNET.

      Feem is all about painless LOCAL transfers.

      Many people, probably because of hearing a lot about Dropbox/Whatsapp, assume we are making a dropbox/whatsapp clone. Which is very far from the truth. All the solutions you mentioned above are about the “cloud”. View Feem as the “anti-cloud”.

      Feem uses your local Wi-Fi network to transfer files and chat with others in the same local network. In theory, there is no way your Internet network can get faster any than your local network.

      Nearly all homes in developed countries are equipped with Wi-Fi. Nearly all offices in developed or developing countries are equipped with a local network. We think that is a huge market for local file transfers.

      Feem uses P2P. It doesn’t require a server, and doesn’t require a username/password combination. Feem also auto-resumes interrupted file transfers. This makes everything, seamless.

      We still recommend email, though, for more formal exchanges.

      You really should try Feem. Feem is in the category of things you never knew you wanted until you’ve tried it. We accept feedback on ways to improve the product at info@feeperfect.com .

      You might want to read http://www.feeperfect.com/2013/03/09/why-feem.html , in which I compare Feem to all other alternatives.

      Peace man.

      • Sola F. says:

        Ok, makes sense.
        I noticed the front page of your site tryfeem.com does not include this very important feature “DOES NOT USE THE INTERNET”. It is your critical differentiator and I think it should be included.

        Probably has a lot of business and education use case more than consumer. IMHO.

        • Fritz Ekwoge E. says:

          Thanks man. We’ve updated our website to make it clearer that Feem doesn’t use the Internet.
          We also believe it is most useful within offices, schools and conferences. However, we seem to be (naturally) attracting more consumers than businesses right now. Our users typically transfer files from their Samsung Galaxy phones to their iPads. The second popular use case is from Windows to iPad.
          Let’s hope we can scale our reach to businesses too.

          • Sola F. says:

            Nice.
            I just downloaded feem. I gotta transfer lots of files from an old PC to a new PC. The old pc has lots of virus so I dont connect it to the internet. I’m gonna try feem to make the transfer. If it works out I’d buy a subscription.

          • Fritz Ekwoge E. says:

            OK. If you face any issues, don’t hesitate to contact us: info@feeperfect.com
            We’ll like to help.
            Remember both devices have to be in the same network (Wi-Fi, cable or ad-hoc).
            Shoot us an email, any time.

  • Wale Eseyin says:

    If the foreign market is already saturated, why do we think we can carve a sizable niche in such a market ? I believe building products FROM Africa puts us in a unique position to build most products cheaper, and sell them cheaper. Building FROM Africa also puts you in that unique position where you can look at existing solutions from a new perspective and come up with something that is radically disruptive.

  • Owen McGab Enaohwo says:

    I believe that the Africans Abroad Market is a big market to provide solutions for. They have the money and willingness to pay.

  • Peter Akporume says:

    Nice article. i agree with you on the point of building to go global but I still believe we need to succeed in our local market.I believe that if you prevail in Africa then you can conquer the world. But it requires loads of patience.

  • Freeze plus says:

    Nice article until the second-to-the-last paragraph. Africa’s unique selling proposition needs to be something much much better than being able to sell to the rest of the world “cheaper.” Besides the fact that China and India are already doing that (and competing against them in price, well,…) it is also not good for Africa since we have so much more to give creatively and quality-wise.

    I live in Spain, which is the China of Europe. Everyone comes here for cheap labour, thanks to the 50% youth unemployment rate. For example, 22,000 euros per year is considered a great salary for the average person in tech or pharmacy, aged 26. Needless to say, hearing my friends complain daily about being disposable, cheap labour for multinational companies and local employers is quite disheartening.

  • zuworks says:

    The Diaspora market makes sense, if you consider Nigerian migrants remitted $21b in 2012. look at irokotv as a case study. Lovely article. I personally believe that the arbitrage of cost as you mentioned will be an advantage for local entrepreneurs.

    • Owen McGab Enaohwo says:

      @zuworks:disqus are you currently working on any products for the Diaspora market?

      • zuworks says:

        Yes I am. I’m incubating some products for that market but the product that is near launch is A business video platform. It would boost a video catalog with in-depth research on business opportunities in Nigeria and the requirements for those businesses.

        Its basically about answering that question every Nigerian in diaspora has asked themselves before “which business can I do back home”.

  • chinedu says:

    Nice and interesting article… I think the idea of building FROM Africa (for the foreign market) is more true for the African who has lived outside of Africa than for the African who has always lived in Africa and hasn’t had the opportunity to live out of Africa.
    I believe that for the African living in Africa, building products for the foreign market also has its own challenges – such as understanding the market they’re build it for given that they haven’t lived there, competing with better funded & more experienced entrepreneurs, and reaching out to their potential customers, etc. While in developing FOR Africa, inspite of the challenges mentioned in the article, we have the advantages of having direct access to the market, which makes it easier to understand the real needs of consumers and businesses – leading to opportunity to build better products (in addition to the other advantages of building FROM Africa).
    That said, I think it’s an interesting idea worth considering by the African entrepreneurs, especially those that haven’t thought of the idea of developing for the foreign market.

    PS: I like the idea of Feem. Will try it out :).

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