African tech startups spotlight themselves to partners, investors at 4YFN

Four NTF IV beneficiaries from Senegal and Uganda recently exhibited at 4YFN, the startup business platform of the Mobile World Congress that is designed to help mobile innovators go global.

by ITC News

For many investors, Africa doesn’t even appear on the world map. African technology startups such as Innovex, LAfricaMobile, Paps and Xente are trying to change that.

‘There is no large investor for startups in the French-speaking countries of West Africa,’ said Malick Diouf, chief executive of LAfricaMobile, a Senegalese multichannel mobile platform that allows startups and African organizations to better interact with mobile users. ‘We are trying to show investors what we are doing, telling them that something is happening in West Africa.’

That’s one reason Diouf was excited about participating in 4YFN, one of the biggest and best-known global exhibitions for startups. LAfricaMobile was one of some 600 companies from 45 countries that exhibited at 4YFN – an acronym for Four Years From Now – during the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona in late February.

‘It was an opportunity to say “Hey, guys, we’re here, we’re doing some amazing things here, come talk to us and it could be a good thing for us and for you, too”,’ Diouf explained.

He seems to have gotten his message across. Diouf distributed all 250 business cards he took to Barcelona and has since received more than four dozen e-mails from people seeking information about LAfricaMobile’s services, pricing and the possibility of building partnerships or selling their own services to his company. ‘It’s too early to measure the returns on this, but what is sure is that these people are interested,’ he noted.

The International Trade Centre’s (ITC) Netherlands Trust Fund IV (NTF IV) project in Senegal and Uganda sponsored LAfricaMobile and the three other companies that manned booths at 4YFN. All four are beneficiaries of NTF IV, which is based on a partnership between ITC and the Dutch Centre for the Promotion of Imports from developing countries (CBI) affiliated with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Netherlands.

Good visibility is a must

4YFN offered LAfricaMobile an opportunity to raise its profile as it works to expand across West Africa, Diouf said. ‘We need to have good visibility, especially by those interested in this region of Africa, and participating in these kinds of events shows us as leaders and innovators,’ he said. ‘We focus on mobile services, the main channels used by startups and small companies in West Africa. When we have events on mobile, we do not want to miss them.’

Douglas Baguma, cofounder and managing director of Innovex, was pleased with the exposure his company got at the event. The Ugandan firm, which helps companies distribute energy more efficiently, was scouting out new partners – including funding partners – at 4YFN. 

‘Some of my great moments have been people coming up to me at my booth,’ Baguma said. ‘They have read a lot about what we do and they simply want to get to the next step of partnering with us.’

Xente was also keen to showcase itself at 4YFN, said Francis Nkurunungi, cofounder and chief operations officer. The Kampala-based company, which offers e-commerce platforms that enable Ugandan firms to accept both bank cards and mobile money as a mode of payment, saw the three-day event as a chance to meet potential partners and investors as it grows in Africa, he said.

Pursuing partnerships as well as funding

‘We need not only funding, but also partners who are strategic enough to help us enter the countries we want to get to quickly,’ Nkurunungi said, adding that Xente will soon go live in South Africa and expects to enter Ghana and another Southern African country next year. ‘We got a lot of interest from parties that asked for more information, but funding takes time and we expect the conversations to go on for a while before we know what happens.’ 

Thanks to 4YFN, Xente is now in talks with a potential partner from North Africa. 
‘It was definitely interesting for us to go,’ Nkurunungi said. ‘The audience was really well targeted; it was specifically looking for new businesses to partner with, and we happened to be in the right place. It was a good opportunity to get the brand out there, to get people to see you.’

Bamba Lô, the chief executive and founder of Paps, agreed. But 4YFN was more than just a way for the Senegalese urban logistics service for businesses and retailers to promote itself, he said. It was also a ‘very good opportunity … to know what is happening the logistics and innovation field’. 

Building credibility

Like Nkurunungi, LAfricaMobile’s Diouf says it’s too early to know whether the contacts he made with potential investors at 4YFN will bear fruit. But simply exhibiting at the event motivated existing investors to speed up business plans with LAfricaMobile, he said.

‘Before we went to this event, we began talking with some investors in Africa and Europe. The fact that they know we were at the Mobile Congress impressed them and forced them to accelerate the decisions we already had with them,’ Diouf said. ‘One of them is really accelerating now.’

4YFN also made it possible for Diouf to meet with some current partners face-to-face – for the first time. LAfricaMobile has been working remotely with international brokers from Europe, India and the United States for a while, but ‘we never had the opportunity to see each other. This was a great opportunity for me to meet some of our customers for the first time’, he explained.

Diouf sat down with partners from India, the United Kingdom and Kenya – all of which have now added new services.

‘We were able to see them multiple times and this reinforced our partnership, since these people know that we are serious,’ he said. ‘This is more than business, because there is now a human relationship, a social connection. The relationship changed since 4YFN.’

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