Crowdfunding: A Viable Solution for African Entrepreneurs
What do “BRCK”, “Fashizblack”, “La vie d’Ebène Duta (LVDD)” and “Librii” have in common? They’re all successful crowdfunded projects originated by Africans. They are the living testimony that the digital culture in Africa, spreads further than Facebook or any other negative stereotypes associated with the internet (finding husbands, scams, you know the list). I don’t want to talk about what makes for a successful campaign per se, but what the success of these projects – most recently LVDD in the case of Cameroon – represents for the digital culture in Africa today, and more importantly where we’re going.
La vie d’Ebène Duta started as comic strip created by Elyon’s, a talented young artist from Cameroon. It all started circa 2011 on her blog where she would feature a collection of “Ndem” meaning jinx or unfortunate events as they occurred to her alter ego’s life. A facebook page was born, now bolstering an impressive community of 15 617 members (and counting) from all around the world. In November 2013, Elyon’s made the jump and decided to share her idea of creating a full-fledged comic book for the beloved character and on February 16th 2014 she not only successfully funded her project, but surpassed her fundraising goals.
Let’s take a step back to 2012, early 2013. There was a complete lack of African crowdfunded projects on sites like Indiegogo and Kickstarter. No tech projects, no arts projects, just a bunch of people and sometimes non-profit that capitalized on people’s generosity to indulge in what I call “Voluntourism” (a mix of volunteer work and tourism). (Don’t get me wrong these type of projects are nice, but what is the sustainable added value to the local communities? Sure you built a well, or a park. But how many jobs were created in that process? What did you leave behind that will empower the community to move forward and provide for future generation? Food for thought.)
Today, we count several successful African projects funded by the people who believe and decide to “back the project”. How does crowdfunding really work? To quote the founder of Thundafund, a South African crowdfunding company, “Crowdfunding is the democratization of funding for startups”. In the African context, getting funding for projects is one of the hardest feats to overcome. The success of crowdfunding in western countries was bound to attract African startups. But let’s make one thing clear, there’s a dynamic process to take into consideration when embarking in the crowdfunding journey. It is important to have a solid community already engaged in your idea (doesn’t have to be fans, could be people struggling with the same issue, looking for alternatives etc..) and it is also important to understand the culture of the crowdfunding company and the people you’re targeting. With that said, here are the few things I’ve learn or confirmed about the state of the digital culture in Africa, particularly Cameroon:
- Cameroon is ready. Sorry to burst any bubble, but in case you didn’t know, Cameroonians have been ready for the digital age since late 2006 when the first SMS/MMS campaigns rolled out. Local brands and corporation are just too busy ignoring the people (read: afraid to take a chance). Sure Cameroon is not where it should be when it comes to digital technology especially in regards to hardware (blame tax prices) and broadband access (blame Camtel’s monopoly), but we are making considerable progress in the sense that locally, technology is not perceived as just for geeks anymore and people are starting to become more digitally savvy. Also, Cameroonians outside of Cameroon need to stop holding their western standards of broadband access against the visible progress made. Don’t be biased.
- LVDD made it clear that crowdfunding is an option for Cameroonian startups. Sure it’s not the first Cameroonian startup to be crowdfunded, but more importantly, it’s the first “local” project to be funded. It’s encouraging for people who live in Cameroon and understand the difficulties of the field. It shows that with the right idea and the right community of fans and support, you can live your dreams.
The implications for the future are pretty clear. Local solutions are needed and are starting to appear. South Africa alone counts 3 crowdfunding companies; Nigeria, Kenya and Ghana have also produced their own crowdfunding companies to cater to the African entrepreneurs.
There’s a need to understand the fundamental relationships between “Local vs. International” backers. As more and more people decide to opt for crowdfunding as their source of capital, they need to know how to create a message (a campaign) that is not only appealing to their core (local community) but also to the international community, because let’s face it, that’s where the money is, at least for now.
By the numbers, Cameroon has a little over 1 million users, out of which more than 500 thousands are active Facebook users (World Internet Stats). This means that using social media alone to promote a project is not the wise thing to do, instead it shows on the other hand where there’s room for innovation with solutions specific to Africa. How about crowdfunding through sms? Using SMS to promote campaigns or to engage with the backers? M-Changa, a crowdfunding company in Kenya is already doing it.
Another innovative crowdfunding initiative from Cameroon comes from Thierry Ntamack and his movie, “Le Blanc d’Eyenga 2” currently raising funds to start production. Their crowdfunding initiative involves selling notebooks to students. With price ranging from 800-1200 FCFA, the movie director is raising the money to shoot the second movie.
In addition, the team is raising money through SMS. People are encouraged to send airtime transfer to specific cell phone numbers (which are certified by the local service providers) to help the movie director raise money; the team can ultimately go to the provider and retract the money in cash. Now that’s what I call adapting to your market. There are more cases of African entrepreneurs using the tools at their disposition in new and innovative ways, more often than once, inspiring western countries.
The bottom line is the digital divide is shrinking. Maybe not as fast as those living in the west would like, but little victories like the backing of LVDD is a sign that there’s movement and a shift is coming. Like the BRCK campaign tagline said “If it can work in Africa, it will work anywhere.” Africa will change how the world thinks about digital technology.