The queens of African pageants aren’t the most beautiful ones

Wednesday April 24 2019

An illustration of the world wide web. The English bias of the web has already created an orbit in which a large chunk of start-up funding is sucked toward projects clothed in English. ILLUSTRATION | NATION MEDIA GROUP


On Tuesday, Nation publication Business Daily had an interesting story on Kenya’s fortune’s in the venture capital market.

Kenya, it reported, saw “an impressive 136 per cent year-on-year growth in tech start-up funding in 2018 to net Sh34.8 billion ($348m), pipping traditional main rivals South Africa and Nigeria”, it said, citing a report by US-based global investment firm Partech.

“Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa are still leading the race, absorbing 78 per cent of the total funding, exactly as per last year …” Partech said.

With Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa having hogged most of the start-up funding in Africa, the morsels went to, in descending order: Tanzania, Egypt, Malawi, Senegal, Rwanda, Ethiopia, Angola, Ghana, Tunisia, and Zimbabwe.

It all led, inevitably, to why three countries are dominating the tech start-up funding scene in Africa. The commonalties, on the face of it, are hard to immediately see.



If one looks more broadly, of the top 13 countries, it’s only in three — Rwanda, Senegal and Ethiopia — that the governments are aggressively throwing money and policy at enabling the growth of the tech sector, and building things (film schools, coding colleges, science parks, tech “cities”) to support innovation.

You still do have some official effort from Kenya, and the occasional smart policy, and indeed from South Africa and Egypt.

However, in Kenya, it’s mostly the moment from the aggressively tech activist period of the Mwai Kibaki government, and today the personal digital evangelism of Joseph Mucheru, the Cabinet Secretary in the Ministry of Information and Communications.

South Africa dropped the ball, and Nigeria remains dysfunctional — but its creativity and innovation just keeps ticking.


Because the internet (in its global sense) still remains largely English (with the significant Chinese bit of it largely constrained behind the censor’s wall), it has privileged the Anglophone markets, and those often-unacknowledged advantages are playing out in Africa too.

English-speaking markets benefit in two main ways. First, even if you are a country where education is in shambles, as long you can get on to the internet you will have a wider range of free high quality knowledge in English — more than if your primary working language is Arabic, Kiswahili, or Yoruba (India, colonialism, and the internet did save English, after all).

In fact, you might be better off with a bad education system that’s not sufficiently competitive against some of the refreshing material you find in the good parts of the web.

The English bias of the web has already created an orbit in which a large chunk of start-up funding is sucked toward projects clothed in English or the Anglophone world.


If you pitched a good idea for a documentary on climate change in English today on some global funding platform, and a slightly better one in Spanish, the English one is far more likely to get the money.

There are many things that are very wrong with this picture, but it’s the reality.

Related to that, we are seeing some payoffs in many African countries, especially the bigger ones, where incompetence, political paralysis, corruption, means the states, while still functioning at some level (in other words they can’t be failed states) cannot dominate all social spaces, and provide answers to most of the urgent problems of the day.

It has left room for several independent creative institutions to play. Therefore, we see the continuing proliferation of innovation hubs.

Of the nearly 450 tech hubs in Africa, most are in the same top countries that are sucking up the start-up money: South Africa, Nigeria, Kenya, and Egypt.


In the chaos of the public transport systems, we have more taxi and, lately in Kenya and Egypt, matatu-hailing apps emerging.

From the bowels of social angst and rebellion against the old, we are seeing ground-breaking films (“Rafiki” in Kenya); new types of choirs from youth communities and children from families riven by forces of change; ever better film, music, and theatre from Nigeria (perhaps none more so than the musical about Nigerian Afrobeat legend Fela Anikulapo-Kuti and his wives, “Fela and the Kalakuta Queens”), and art.

Even in places where you’ve fairly effective dictatorships, like Equatorial Guinea, where dictator Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo has run the place with an iron fist for 40 years, he’s finding that the area of imagination and creativity is one he can’t control.

Early this year, Equatorial Guinea held it’s first Bodypainting Festival in the capital, Malabo. And quite bold it was. It would have raised the hackles of the moral guardians in otherwise more permissive Kenya or Uganda.

In short, the queens winning the pageants in Africa today aren’t the most beautiful ones.

Mr Onyango-Obbo is the publisher of and explainer @cobbo3