When a little over a year ago I ‘retired’ from active duty as an entrepreneur, I decided a good retirement job would be to work with my co-founders, Binjo and Denike to build Future Africa.
Our goals were primarily to build an online community in deep conversation about Africa’s future. We hoped that perhaps by doing so we could help shape a better future for our continent. We talk about our humble aspirations in our first article – Welcome to the Future.
Nonetheless, the reality is that the future is being built in Africa as we speak – by Chinese venture capital funding disruptive business models for transport and financial inclusion in Lagos. By American corporate and venture capital filling gaps in our public infrastructure. By Pan African hubs in the world’s largest free trade area coming together to enable African innovation scale from East to West and beyond. Indeed, it is an exciting time to be building the future in Africa. Almost a year later we realize that we may have been wrong about at least one thing – building the future does not just require conversation or consensus building, it requires us to take bold and committed action today.
So here at Future Africa, we were presented with a choice; do we want to build the future or do we want to just talk about it?
In pondering this question we made the decision to rethink the work we do here at Future Africa as we go into the new decade. Today, alongside our exciting and bold new visual identity, we are announcing our evolution from being an online community in deep conversation about an African future to a platform for innovators building an African future today. We believe that by partnering with mission-driven innovators turning our continents biggest challenges into global business opportunities, we can build a just world where purpose and prosperity are within everyone’s reach.
Our theory of change is simple. Africa and indeed the world at large faces incredible and evolving challenges – wicked problems as my mentor Bosun Tijani would call them. For example, how do you build enough schools to educate 400 million new children when you already have over thirty million kids out of school and one in three Nigerian kids under five have learning difficulties that educators aren’t properly equipped to handle?
How do you stop Nigeria from being the country with the world’s highest maternal mortality rate as you simultaneously deal with a rise in teenage pregnancy induced by the combination of a child sexual predator epidemic and religiously and culturally endorsed underage marriage?
How do you build a health care system that can track, trace and resolve evolving health care epidemics like Ebola and Lassa Fever and deal with a new wave of lifestyle diseases like cancer and diabetes when all your trained medical personnel are fleeing the country in droves? Contrary to what most might believe, template silver-bullet solutions to our multifaceted problems imported from “saner climes” are not only hopelessly expensive but ultimately ineffective because of the many false assumptions built into their poor design.
We can only leapfrog and solve our present and future challenges by empowering local innovators who are passionate about these problems to design solutions, prove with data that these solutions will work in our context and build large organizations that can exponentially scale proven solutions through venture-backed entrepreneurship.
This has been the testimony of the founders and investors who have built, backed and blitzscaled impactful businesses like Andela, Flutterwave, MAX, 54Gene and numerous others over the past decade. From our chronic youth unemployment problems emerged Andela. From our payments and financial inclusion challenges emerged Flutterwave. From our nightmare of a healthcare system emerged Life Bank. All are solutions defining a new wave of African innovation.
Unlike our mostly white counterparts in Silicon Valley, these innovations are not about optimizing algorithms and eyeballs to deliver unicorn valuations. This innovation is about using the powerful gifts of science and technology that God has given us to build a just world where prosperity and purpose are within everyone’s reach. In doing this we will not only build new wealth and create jobs for millions of young people across Africa, but we can also leave an everlasting legacy by building a better society. A wise man once said the obstacle is the way. African innovators have no choice but to create opportunities by squarely facing our challenges.
To lead our team in this new direction, we have brought on an additional co-founder Chuba Ezekwesili. Chuba has been instrumental in helping us think through this pivot over the last year alongside other new members of the Future Africa team we will announce very shortly. Together, we have determined that going forward our work at Future Africa will be centred on three initial focus areas; capital, coaching and community.
The first is Capital. Despite a growing number of impatient investors complaining of too much capital and too little exits in Africa, we know that there is still not enough capital for mission-driven founders building socially impactful businesses. In particular, true angels who can boldly write that first cheque to unproven innovators solving new and real problems at the earliest stages of the business are rare. This is why we have established the Future Africa Fund – an angel fund whose founding Limited Partners are myself and Nadayar Enegesi, my friend and co-founder at Andela. This fund will back up to 20 founders with up to $50,000 of capital each year. The beautiful thing is we will not just back innovators with money but also provide access to a vast network of talent, and early customers which could make the difference between success and failure for many startups. We’re excited to partner with passionate founders who are creating brilliant solutions to different problems. If you are one of these innovators, please reach out to us.
The second is Coaching. After a decade of building the future in Africa, we know there are many questions that your average entrepreneurship course or article conveniently skips – especially in our context. For example, how do you prove traction for a product you have no funding to build? Or my favourite, how do I value my brand new startup for investment? Through the Future Africa Venture School (FAVS), we will work with an experienced faculty of founders, investors and operators from across Africa and around the world to share their practical wisdom on these issues through articles, webinars, videos and podcasts. We will also host public and private virtual office hours where we will help founders navigate the many complex scenarios that arise while building a high growth startup in Africa in real-time.
Finally, Community. As I said earlier, when we started Future Africa, our goal was to build a community in deep conversation about Africa’s future. While our goal has changed. We haven’t lost sight of the fact that it will still take a village to build an African future. When we started, we thought the only way to build this community was online through our newsletters, websites, social media and Slack. However, our biggest revelation is that the old magic of bringing people together in the flesh never fails. Whether it was run-down San Francisco bars on a rainy night, swanky VC digs in Palo Alto or in our living room in Yaba, the conversation and connections that have built our community thus far have been forged in person at our Future Africa Venture Entrepreneur (FAVE) Hangouts. Building on this, we will be taking FAVE Hangouts with us as we travel the world to bring together communities of innovators who like us committed to building an African Future.
I have always believed it will fall to young Africans to build our technology-driven future even when it wasn’t a popularly held a point of view. Yet, I cannot deny that particularly in the last year, my faith in an African future driven by a new generation of young innovators was incredibly shaken for obvious reasons. After all, imagining an African future sounds insane in the face of our continent’s seemingly insurmountable challenges – poverty, hunger, disease, a growing population without education or skills, a lack of infrastructure, a rudderless political and business elite, a despondent and misguided youth and the list goes on.
However, as I spent this last year in the wilderness I have become increasingly convinced that the correct response to the present darkness is to build a different future. Perhaps in the future, if we are successful, like their peers in saner climes, our children may have the privilege of asking the question, “what happened to the future?” and history will proudly answer, “It was built at incredible cost by great men and women against all odds.”
I will close with the words of Proverbs 23:18; a bible verse that has become my mantra as we lead our continent through this era of great change;
For surely there is a future, and your expectations for it will never be cut short.