I recently received an email asking a bunch of great questions of things I have been thinking about regarding entrepreneurs and investment in Africa. Below is the question and my response based on the very limited experience I have had so far.
“…I also heard phrases from Western businesspeople, such as : “Their culture and mentality just won’t let them make good on what they can do”. As much as the phrase stings – I definitely understand the concern (it is kind of a Wild Wild West out there, right?). Yet I feel like the perception of risk is still too extreme. I think you can do business with smaller entrepreneurs if you control for certain factors and make good information flow in. I am just not sure what would be a good feasibility indicator for these projects? How do you deal with this in your internship? I understand that having a local network and facilitators is key, but can you quantify something at all? Since standard assessment criteria may not work, are there any more exotic indicators that you can come up with, if you are not based locally? I imagine that valuation is still valuation, so would they mostly concentrate on corporate governance criteria and product/consumer assessment? How do you know that the team can succeed if you don’t trust the mentality of local businesses?”
I have definitely heard similar concerns about investing/getting financing in Africa (and I would imagine the same exist in Central Asia). I am not sure if I would agree so much that it is a cultural/mental barrier as much as a lack of entrepreneurial education and resources. Yes, there are probably a few more “highly ambitious entrepreneur-types” in the U.S., but I have met a fair share of incredible people in Africa, who, if had access to the resources of silicon valley, would be incredibly successful. That being said, because those resources are nonexistent, a successful VC investor in Africa would need to be incredibly “hands-on”- much moreso than an American VC would be. They would need to take almost a weekly (if not daily) interest in advising and counseling the company. An American VC does not have the time to do this, nor is it even feasible because none of them have local offices in Africa. We have seen this in India and China recently (many of the top firms have opened branches there as I am sure you are aware of) and I would think that will happen in Africa at some point…but possibly not for 10 years.
It is a bit ‘Wild Wild West-like’ around some parts in Africa, but actually in South Africa where I am, technology and infrastructure is quite mature and the private equity market is solid as well (late stage, though, and not early or seed stage VC yet). There is a trend toward earlier stage investments, thus the founding of our firm and others recently, but the early stage investment market is definitely still quite young, precisely because of the concerns you raise.
We do use much of the same assessment criteria that a VC in the states would use: the team is incredibly important, the technology, their unique advantage, the market need etc, but to figure out the answers to those questions takes a much more proactive approach of talking to customers, experts, and others as there isn’t nearly the amount of research reports or statistics that we can look at it as in the Western World. Further, we must consider political issues such as the Black Economic Empowerment movement and how they may impact the company. You’re right, valuation is valuation, but the exact same company with the same team in Silicon Valley might be perceived as both higher value and less risk because of political considerations, larger market, etc and thus be a better investment opportunity.
To your last question, we really have to figure out what the mentality of the team of a potential investment is- just like a VC on Sand Hill, we are ultimately looking for stellar returns on our investments and if the management team does not have the mentality of hyper growth and large ROI, it may not be what we are looking for.