Laura Eboa Songue is a communication, digital marketing, and PR strategist. She is an advisor to high-level executives, impact ventures, NGOs, and IGOs such as the United Nations and its affiliated agencies (UNDP, UNCDF, WHO…). Find her on Twitter and Instagram.
This year was a definitive turnaround for the African startup ecosystem. With more funding than ever—US$3.1 billion US were raised alone as of August 2022—the financial influx was matched only by the sensational headlines, the trending hashtags, and the masterclasses in poor communications that ensued. From the alleged culture of tyranny at Bento in Nigeria to accusations of poor Kenyan workers’ treatment at Meta and Sama, allegations of sexual misconduct at Risevest, and fraud claims against Capiter’s founders and unicorns like Flutterwave and ChipperCash… It’s been quite a ride.
Ultimately, the collective uproar on social media raises multiple questions about communications in times of crisis on the continent, the obvious struggles African tech firms face in navigating public relations matters, and the ethics behind it. Savvy social media audiences all over the continent have grown wary of poorly-written—and sometimes quite frantic—Twitter semi-apologies, regurgitated press releases glossing over the most pressing issues at hand, and claims of ‘internal investigations.’ It all seems insincere and disconnected from genuine attempts to rectify the roots of the crises.
The key element in any organisation’s crisis communications strategy is to assess how the current situation measures against its core stated values. However, this is where things become tricky. When company values are not systemically coupled with strong governance mechanisms and not vigorously regulated within the company, they end up being pure political posturing. In such an instance, managing crisis communication in an ethical way proves quite difficult. In other words, it’s virtually impossible to defend something that was never there, to begin with.
In contrast, when top management consistently sets the right example by embodying and encouraging values-based behaviours and systems, startups can remain on solid ground. Said values are usually established around key principles like creating transparency, righting their wrongs, delivering sustainable results, clarifying expectations, practising accountability, and listening first. They must be used to create, monitor, and evaluate ethical crisis communications.
One could argue that the work environment is ripe for abuse due to the rising unemployment rates and sub-standard working conditions in many African countries. South Africa’s unemployment rate is at the top of the list with 33.9%, followed by Nigeria with 33% and Djibouti with 28.40%. Workers across Africa struggle with little or no pay, poor social security, and no systemic application of labour laws.
On the one hand, African tech startups are making rapid and great moves in creating new models of employment with remote & flexible work, hip offices, and global-standard perks. However, on the other, there are still a lot of discrepancies between the perceived image of the tech world and the work environment employees sometimes have to endure. Moreover, with credible public databases being nearly nonexistent, there is a lot of opacity around tech startup revenues and governance in Africa. According to AVCA, close to 48% of VC deals made in 2020 on the continent were either partially or entirely undisclosed, making it more difficult to assess the size of tech companies and how they afford to compensate their workforce. Unknown investors are also harder to pinpoint, as they can also constitute sound advisory boards to rising startups.
It is virtually impossible to count on private companies to apply high ethical standards “out of the kindness” of their heart. They need firm rules and corporate policies to abide by. Investors and consumers have a key role to play in being more vocal (e.g. on social media) and ensuring that these companies live up to these requirements.
Granted, some critics would argue that tech ethics can seem utopian, as most statements seem too abstract and not reliable enough to anchor sustainable change. Others point out that corporations’ logic and profit-making incentives are most likely to subdue any ethical inclination and eventually even end up as “ethics-washing”.
So, what mechanisms are necessary for tech companies to be diverse, equitable, and inclusive (DEI) work environments? The ecosystem should look into:
- Setting up DEI policies, frameworks, and procedures.
Instead of creating a one-size-fits-all DEI policy, it is recommended to have a number of different policies, including a Diversity & Inclusion Policy, a Flexible Work Policy, a Work-Life Policy, a Code of Conduct, a Bullying, Harassment & Discrimination Policy, a Disability & Reasonable Adjustments Policy, a Whistleblowing Policy and a Mental Health & Wellbeing Policy.
- Investing in DEI personnel by either training thoroughly existing HR teams and expanding their mandates to include these tasks, or recruiting DEI managers. Getting a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion advisory committee to support these task forces might also be extremely helpful.
- Implement DEI & Ethics training sessions for each employee of the company. This culture shift must happen on every level.
- Engage with CSOs. Civil Society Organisations in the field might also be a great avenue to collaborate on these topics.
There are also multiple resources from key stakeholders in the industry to support companies that are willing to grow and implement change systemically. Vazi Legal, a pan-African tech law firm led by the brilliant Moe Odele, recently launched a sexual harassment policy guide for African startups. 54gene, an African genomics startup that has raised over $45 million since launching in 2019, has been exemplary in the way it has been vocal about its DEI policies, which paves the way for greater accountability and clearer communication should a crisis arise.
As the African tech ecosystem grows like rapid fire, we have to question the direction we want it to take. In 2022, the 12 largest African startup deals amounted to over US$1 billion. How many of them have the above-mentioned mechanisms in place? How many are systemically upholding the values they claim to represent? The #1 rule of crisis communications is anticipation. The more you prepare your organisation for crises, the less likely they are to happen. And integrity might just be the number one metric to monitor if we are truly building an ecosystem that is fair and worthy of the continent’s promise.