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This February, for the 21st year in a row, more than 1,000 people will travel from near and far to the campus of the Harvard Business School in Boston, MA to discuss business opportunities across Africa. According to the conference website, this year’s theme is Africa Forward: Forging New Alliances for the Future. While many will come to the conference to hear insights from the illustrious keynote speakers, such as Dr. Agnes Binagwaho, Vice Chancellor of the University of Global Health Equity and former Minister of Health of the Republic of Rwanda, others are there to meet Africa’s new and rising stars. These startup founders have not yet gained name recognition or notoriety among African business elites.
All of that could change for businesses that earn the chance to compete in the New Venture Competition. Now in its sixth year, the NVC is a chance for early-stage, for- or non-profit ventures to get up in front of hundreds of influencers and pitch for a chance to win up to $10,000. All competing startups must be Africa-focused, with a majority of their operations on the continent. They have to have been operating for less than 5 years, have less than 50 employees and raised less than $250,000 in funding to date. This is truly an early-stage competition for young start-ups embarking on their journey, but one that can put a business on the fast-track to future funding and success.
That is why it is so critical for women to pitch in competitions such as the NVC. Women, especially women of color, are virtually excluded from the venture capital market. But in competitions, when the ‘investment’ is a grant, women seem to be given more of chance. One of the conference’s sponsors, Sundial Brands, recognizes the importance of supporting female-led enterprises, especially those that also aim to help women thrive. They will be awarding an additional $5,000 prize to a finalist that meets that criteria. This year, 30% of the shortlisted applicants are female-founded or have at least one female executive.
Female representation is not the only dimension of diversity that is important to the competition committee. A group of 15 students from the Harvard Business School and Harvard Kennedy School of Government spent their holiday break poring over 350 complete applications from 36 different countries and 16 different industries. If these applicants are representative of larger trends in the entrepreneurial ecosystem in Africa, there are some interesting changes underway. Based on analysis by the New Venture Competition team led by Lucy Shaw, a joint-degree candidate at the Harvard Business School and Harvard Kennedy School of Government, half of all applications were from West Africa: 37% from Nigeria and 13% from Ghana. Kenya, the Silicon Savannah, which has long been hailed as the center of the entrepreneurship ecosystem in Africa only contributed 5% of all applications.
Francophone Africa has generally been seeing an increase in investment activities. Partech Ventures launched a $100M Africa-focused fund based out of Senegal this year. Despite this uptick in investment in French-speaking Africa, less than 6% of applications came from French-speaking countries. And while FinTech has led the pack in terms of investment for the last 2-years, Agriculture led the applications this year, representing 19% of all applicants according to NVC analysis. FinTech only accounted for 6%.
Whether this batch of applicants is giving us a snapshot of African start-up trends in 2019 cannot yet be determined. These statistics represent the applicants to the competition. The team is currently winnowing down the list to the 10 companies who will earn the chance to compete and another 10 who will be invited to showcase their companies at the conference. According to Shaw, “When assessing companies, we looked at the magnitude of the problem they were addressing, how innovative their approach is compared to other offerings in the market, how feasible it will be to profitably scale their enterprise and how much traction they have with their initial business model.” Even if these statistics do not provide a crystal ball to see which industries and geographies will drive the ecosystem in 2019, it is certain that the competition will provide a glimpse into the technologies, business models, and leaders who will play a key role in driving innovation forward.
The Harvard Africa Business Conference will be held at the Harvard Business School from February 15th-16th, 2019. More information can be found on their website.
December 30, 2018 at 09:22AM
Forbes – Entrepreneurs