Noel K. Tshiani is the founder of Congo Business Network. In this exclusive interview for TechCabal, he discusses with Marc Tshibasu, head of Orange Digital Centre in Kinshasa, and they touch on the major needs of startups in Kinshasa and how the tech ecosystem is evolving in the country. With a rich background in sales, marketing, and talent development, he brings a wealth of expertise to the table as he shares insights on revolutionising innovation and fostering technology advances in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

What is Orange Digital Centre aiming to achieve in Kinshasa, and what are its priorities for this year?

Orange Digital Center’s mission is to promote innovation, enhance employability with high-value-added skills, and foster entrepreneurship among the youth. We bring together all the support programmes for young people and entrepreneurship in one location, which are free and open to all. These programmes encompass training, startup support, acceleration, and investment opportunities.

Our focus on the integration of academic training with employment or entrepreneurship ensures that we generate a critical mass of competent and qualified entrepreneurs and young individuals who are ready to tackle the challenges of the digital economy. Additionally, we aim to extend our programmes to rural areas to reduce the digital divide and create a regional ecosystem. Orange Digital Centre 2.0 is built on four key pillars:

1. Scaling up: Strengthening activities and expanding the reach to a larger number of beneficiaries, particularly in the regions and provinces, through the establishment of Orange Digital Centre Clubs.

2. Women leadership: Implementing a program designed to provide priority access to individuals excluded from the digital world and to encourage women to become digital entrepreneurs.

3. Entrepreneurship development in priority sectors: Focusing on energy, environment, agritech, health tech, manufacturing, education, greentech, fintech, trade, and human mobility, aligned with the country’s priorities.

4. Strengthening impact: Establishing strategic partnerships with key players in the priority sectors.

How do you envision the tech and startup ecosystem evolving in Kinshasa in 2023 and 2024?

In my opinion, if efforts invested in training, support, and structuring of startups continue with unwavering commitment and with continuous monitoring of their progress, we can expect the emergence of Congolese unicorns by 2025. This achievement is feasible and attainable through synergy among various stakeholders, including entrepreneurs, incubators, support organizations, investors, and the government.

What do you consider the main challenges currently facing startups in the country? What is the primary need of the startup ecosystem in Kinshasa today? Is it fundraising, skills development, or government support? And what role can Orange Digital Centre play in addressing these needs?

The three aspects mentioned are pivotal in establishing the foundations of a flourishing ecosystem, especially now that legal instruments such as the startup act and the law on the digital sector have been put in place. There is no better time to be an entrepreneur in the DRC than now.

If I were to prioritise them, skills development and startup support would be the foremost areas. Presently, there is a genuine need to acquire entrepreneurial and managerial skills, as well as a need to foster a mindset change. This is why support organisations, such as incubators and innovation hubs, play a vital role in providing training, mentoring, and helping to structure startups. Their assistance is crucial in enabling startups to transition from the project phase to accelerating their growth and preparing them for fundraising, which ultimately paves the way for the emergence of intermediate-sized startups and, potentially, unicorns in the DRC.

The second priority is collaborating with investors to address the funding needs of startups. The expectations, access criteria, and available funding amounts are currently very high, making it challenging for the majority of entrepreneurs to secure funding easily. I advocate for the establishment of intermediate levels of funding that are better suited for testing the absorptive capacity and ensuring the successful execution of funded startups. This approach would also stimulate their continuous growth. We cannot expect to have unicorns if we haven’t had sufficient time to mentor, support, and mature projects to ensure genuine scalability. Otherwise, it would be a leap into the unknown.

Government support is also crucial, as fostering national entrepreneurship is a key driver for boosting the DRC’s economic development. Although legal frameworks have been put in place, it is essential for the government to continue supporting the Congolese entrepreneurial ecosystem as defined in the enacted laws. If the promised support measures are effectively implemented, they will generate a stimulating effect, fostering more entrepreneurial initiatives and attracting greater investment. This is already evident in certain African countries like Nigeria, Ghana, and Kenya. The DRC has a significant role to play as a key player, given the potential of its market. I believe that all the necessary elements are in place to achieve this ambition.

What role should the government play in assisting startups’ growth and promoting the digital sector in the country? What are the greatest opportunities for collaboration between the government, startups, and the private sector at large?

As mentioned earlier, the government should act as a facilitator to ensure the realisation of the entrepreneurial ecosystem and the promised support measures within a short timeframe. The government should also strengthen its partnerships with private entities to create cohesive programs with impactful outcomes for the ecosystem. For example, collaborations like the deployment of Orange Digital Centers in all provinces through a public-private partnership between the government and Orange Group, or the Ishango Startups Center project in collaboration with the National Agency for the Development of Entrepreneurship in the Congo and the national Ministry of Entrepreneurship.

Furthermore, there are numerous opportunities for collaboration in the digital and entrepreneurial sectors. It’s worth noting that the DRC’s population has surpassed 100 million, providing a substantial domestic market for Congolese entrepreneurs. All the mentioned stakeholders should work together to promote the adoption of digital technologies across various sectors, including agriculture, health, education, commerce, and energy. This collaboration would create a favourable environment for startup development and attract investment in the digital sector.

The DRC is currently at a crucial juncture in its history, and digital technology presents immense opportunities for economic and social development. The startup scene plays a central role in this transformation, and it is vital to support and assist Congolese entrepreneurs to seize these opportunities and contribute to the growth of the national economy.

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