Is Francophone Africa The Next Big Tech Opportunity On The Continent?

Written by Tom Jackson
Francophone Africa
A tech hub for startups in Francophone Africa. Photo – Quartz

When we speak about Africa’s tech scene and its inherent opportunities, most of the discussion typically centers around English-speaking nations like South Africa, Kenya and Nigeria, and not necessarily Francophone Africa.

However, we may now be witnessing the arrival of Francophone Africa as a tech force on the continent, as growth in the telecoms space and improvements in infrastructure spur the development of local startup ecosystems.

Francophone countries still lag behind the rest of the continent tech-wise. At the end of 2017, they accounted for just 21 percent of the continent’s 1 billion mobile subscriptions, compared to 51 percent for predominantly English-speaking countries. The mobile penetration rate across Francophone Africa was 69 percent, compared to the pan-African rate of 81 percent.

But things are changing.

“Over the course of 2017, the mobile market’s growth rate was 11 percent across Francophone Africa, with the top five highest growths recorded in Burundi, DRC, Madagascar, Ivory Coast and Niger,” says Thecla Mbongue, a senior research analyst at Ovum, a data, research and consulting business.

“The growth is now essentially fuelled by 3G uptake. In comparison, the annual growth rate was 2 percent across English-speaking countries and 4 percent for Africa overall.”

In the past, governments have been a hindrance, and recent internet shutdowns in countries like Cameroon do not speak to especially enlightened attitudes towards tech. Regulation has been very centralized and bureaucratic.

“As a result, licensing processes are often longer. This was the case for 3G licenses and now for 4G licenses. As at 1Q18, 4G was available in nine out of 19 Francophone countries, compared to 20 out of 22 for English-speaking countries,” Mbongue said.

“While the majority of English-speaking markets migrated to technology-neutral telecoms licenses over 10 years ago, most governments in Francophone Africa still issue licenses based on technologies.”

Francophone Africa on the rise

Yet there is more and more evidence that governments are starting to understand the crucial importance of internet access, resulting in increased investment. Orange Cote d’Ivoire, for example, invested $74 million in its network in the fourth quarter of last year, up from $45 million in the same period in 2016.

This is helping the local startup scenes in a number of French-speaking countries. Yann Le Beux is co-founder of Senegalese startup YUX Dakar, and says he is seeing growth in the number of tech companies in the region.

“It comes from both local startups being able to structure better, and get customers or raise funds. International, mostly French, entrepreneurs are choosing these countries to open their first offices in Africa,” he said.

Governments are also offering direct support to local startup scenes. In Senegal a startup fund of $2 million has been announced. Le Beux, however, says startups don’t need much from government, rather believing they should focus on establishing top-notch universities and research centers.

Otto Akama, managing director (MD) of Cameroon-based startup Makonjo Media, is less optimistic, however. He points out a number of local success stories and says corporates like Ecobank and UBA are pushing their digitization programs with mobile apps.

However, he says Cameroonian companies in particular still lack government support.

“Of course there are programs for startups in Cameroon. But the government doesn’t really understand what a startup is. During a few meetings I have had with government agencies, they interpret startups as small businesses,” Akama said.

“There has been no investment entering Cameroon’s tech space this year, except a few startups who won funding from the Tony Elumelu Foundation. The infrastructure seems weak. There is not much money coming in. Talent is under-developed and there are not many new products coming out.”

Divergences in opinion, then, across Francophone Africa. But there are clear signs of technological development and hope that the benefits will be realized by governments and startup scenes able to develop.

Tom Jackson is co-founder of Disrupt Africa, a news and research company focused on the African tech startup ecosystem.