South by SouthWest: Connecting Africans Outside of Africa

SXSW connecting African entrepreneurs to Africans in the diaspora

Entrepreneurs from all over the world see South by SouthWest (SXSW) as an opportunity to showcase not only their work, but also the markets they work in as places to invest. As ever, ways of securing funding was a key conversation, and one of the topics that came up in sessions on global entrepreneurship was the importance of early stage finance — and what form it should take.

Entrepreneurs joked that they traveled all the way from Africa to meet people from Africa, pointing out that the networking opportunities at Africa House in Austin offered connections to members of the African diaspora and fellow entrepreneurs from the continent they might not otherwise have had.

At this year’s festival, three entrepreneurs took the stage at Africa House, a new effort to highlight and celebrate technology, entrepreneurship, and design from across the continent.

Kemo Toure from Senegal talked about his work leveraging machine learning to help users find jobs. Brenda Katwesigye from Uganda talked about her work to provide affordable eyeglasses handcrafted from recycled plastic. And Wesley Owiti from Kenya talked about his work providing sewing machines to women who are trained to run fashion businesses.

Facing a lack of risk capital in their countries, emerging market entrepreneurs are looking to a combination of grants and investments to seed, de-risk, and scale up their startups. Devex explores how blended capital could be the key ingredient to bursting through the “missing middle.”

“There is a gap between the significant sums of money that are available from international development organizations that are not getting into the hands of entrepreneurs,” said Kamran Elahian, founder and chairman of Global Innovation Catalyst, who spoke on a session called “Future of Education’s Relationships with Startups.” “In many parts of the world, what entrepreneurs need is not millions of dollars but $5,000 or $10,000 or $20,000 to get started.”

He spoke about his work advising the World Bank on better ways tFAo support entrepreneurs in countries including Jordan and Morocco. Originally from Iran, he founded 10 companies, including three failures and several multibillion dollar “unicorns.” He explained how entrepreneurs in emerging markets need equity investment, not loans, because the risk capital model assumes a high number of startups are likely to fail, but there is a lack of access to the capital they need.

Most of the sessions at Africa House focused on the benefits of technological transformation. Elsewhere on the SXSW agenda, there were concerns about what the rise of automation could mean for the future of work. But at Africa House many attendees were optimistic that entrepreneurs could create local solutions to such global challenges.

C.D. Glin, president and Chief Executive Officer of the United States African Development Foundation, a partner and sponsor of Africa House moderated the session with the three African entrepreneurs, and when a member of the audience asked Glin how he defends the work of the African Development Foundation within the new government administration — which takes an America First stance — Glin said it is all about demonstrating the return on investment.

“When you’re investing in African entrepreneurs, whether in the creative sector or fashion or technology for development, you want to see them developing business models that are self-sustaining, and that demonstrates tax dollars well spent,” he said.

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