Crowdfunding and Seed Funding in African Tech

I’ve written a couple of times about the lack of seed funding in Africa, and how to find the entrepreneurs to fund if you did have seed capital. We’re starting to see a few angel investors like Sean Murphy of Chembe Ventures making their way around the continent, but they are not nearly enough to fulfill the capacity of ideas and individuals who need startup capital.


Just this week the CrowdFunding South Africa site was launched (look for them at SXSW this week in Austin), working off the theory that, “South Africa cannot compete in the global online sector if it isn’t funding start-ups at the beginning stage.” Their plan is to do this by getting:

“1000 people get together investing R1,000+ each by pooling the money into the Crowdfund.”

Seed funding is risky, and the idea of Crowdfund is to distribute that risk over a number of people thereby reducing it for everyone. Their goal is to invest 50,000-100,000 Rand in 10-20 “excellent ideas”, and also provide legal advice and contracts, designers, specialized developers, bandwidth, hosting, office space and running costs, mentorship and time saved.

This idea is similar to what Ben White at VC4Africa is thinking about, basically a “Kiva on steroids” as Bill Zimmerman puts it. A way for you to invest in people and projects with larger sums of money and greater risk and returns than on the microfinance investing sites.

Finding the Real Tech Entrepreneurs

Both the Crowdfund and VC4Africa initiatives are excellent steps in the right direction, as they both provide platforms that allow less-knowledgeable investors (of tech in Africa), and deeply involved African tech investors alike, to get involved without too much risk at one time. There remains one issue to be solved though, and that is finding the entrepreneurs to invest in.

Any VC worth their salt will tell you that they invest in the people behind good ideas, not just the product/service that the entrepreneur is trying to create. So, how do you find these individuals? It’s generally through your network, people you trust, that serve as a filter to guide you towards the promising ones. That’s the same in Africa as it is anywhere else, yet here in Africa, there are fewer of these trusted intermediaries who act as filters (especially for international capital), than there are in the US or Europe.

In a meeting this last week of the people behind Limbe Labs (Cameroon), Appfrica Labs (Uganda), the iHub and the iLAB (Kenya) we discussed how these spaces could act as that type of a filter for investors and funds. Each of us sees more young tech entrepreneurs every day, and sees these individuals consistently, than most any other single person could by themselves.

Could these labs, which are now showing up all over Africa, be a way for entrepreneurs to make themselves known, show their stuff, then be introduced to the funds and investors with a greater level of confidence than normal?

When do You Need Funding?

I’ve spent the last couple days in scenic Salzburg, Austria with 20 other people from both traditional journalism and new media backgrounds. Our goal: discuss strategies for more effective engagement and investment in “tomorrow’s media“. There are a mixture of organizations in the room, some established and others start-ups, like myself representing Ushahidi.

One of the questions posed, and which I’ve been ruminating on, is “when do you need funding?” (At this particular meeting, we’re talking grants primarily, but this applies to traditional seed and VC funding as well.)

Invest in Doers not Talkers

972816_tape_measureI don’t think it’s as early as most people think. There are a lot of people out there who claim they need funds in order to build a product. I disagree. Your first job is to build it. It might be in your nights and weekends, but that’s to be expected.

Yes, at a certain level you need funding that allows you to live, feed yourself and grow a business, but that’s not until you actually have something to show. Why would you expect someone to pay you money for a good idea? There are good ideas everywhere, but few examples of great execution upon these ideas.

A great presentation, Powerpoint or speech will get you a long way, and the ability to communicate is essential in both getting funding and getting user adoption or partners to work with you. However, nothing sells a good idea like a working product.

Whether it’s building a prototype, like we did with Ushahidi in Kenya, or a couple guys in a garage creating a new search algorithm and having to shop the product of that research around before they find investors, it’s too be expected that the work comes first, the funds second.


When is funding needed then? It’s needed when you have a product and it shows potential for success. Where you can talk to smaller investors who can support your work a little longer so that it can be refined and grow into something that has a real chance to make a difference, make money or both.

The second level of funding is about scale. It’s when you have a proven product that already has some success and needs more than it’s current cash-flow, or personnel, to take it to make a broader impact.

Investing in Africa Redesign

Over the last couple of months I have been in the process of moving from my consultant position to working full-time on Ushahidi. One of my favorite projects to be a part of was the redesign of Investing in Africa, by Ryan Shen-Hoover. We’ve rebuilt the site from the ground up using Expression Engine as the core CMS, and have redesigned the look and feel completely.

One of the benefits (most of the time) of working so closely with people is that you tend to get to know them pretty well. Ryan ends up being one of those quiet and unassuming individuals who has a great depth of knowledge pertaining to Africa’s capital markets. As he states:

“…there is another side of Africa that gets a lot less press. It is a place full of hopeful and enterprising people who are confident of a better future. This is the Africa that I believe is home to some of the most attractive potential investments in the world today.”

At Investing in Africa, Ryan profiles companies and gives monthly detailed reports on his insights into local markets. So far his library includes annual reports, announcements, and financial results for more than 350 companies spanning 16 markets.

A few last changes are on the way, and a few bugs to be worked out. However, it’s up and ready to use, so take a look, sign-up for access to company reports, and definitely subscribe to his monthly newsletter ($49 annually). Below is a sample:

Investing in Africa: Sample Report, May 2008