Building the Bridge Between Africa and Silicon Valley

Stephen Ozoigbo, the CEO of the African Technology Foundation, spoke with BE about the burgeoning tech scene in Africa

In case you’ve been living under a rock, Africa is one of the fastest growing, emerging markets in technology. Recently, Black Enterprise sat down with, Stephen Ozoigbo, the CEO of the African Technology Foundation, to talk about his entrepreneur and investment journey, and where he sees the startup landscape going on the continent.

Black Enterprise: We’re sitting here with Stephen Ozoigbo from the African Technology Foundation. Tell me about your background.

Ozoigbo: I’m an ex-investment banker. I worked with Smith Barney, Citi Group, and Morgan Stanley Smith Barney, right before the 2008 crash. Following that, I completed my MBA in global business and started advising governments internationally on investments, internationalization, and innovation. My experiences took me to Europe, where I advised the Government of Catalonia, and ran their FDI activities with the West Coast of the United States(with a focus on Silicon Valley).We incubated quite a number of startups from Barcelona, and we also took U.S. companies to Barcelona.

Across the technology spectrum, we ran a lot of initiatives. One of the most notable ones is the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, which is the biggest technology platform for mobile ecosystems, economies, and technologies, and that has been in Barcelona for the last five years. About four years ago, we took Google down to Barcelona and set up a smart city’s initiative called “Barcelona Go Mobile,” and this was to turn on all of the small businesses in Barcelona to becoming mobile-ready. We did Cisco as well, to connect WiFi, creating city connectivity.

Black Enterprise: Okay, so how are you now building that ecosystem between Africa and Silicon Valley?

Ozoigbo: So, as ironic and hypocritical as it sounds—being the African guy who is doing all of this stuff for Europe for the past five years—has always led me to situations where people ask, “What have you done for Africa?”

That challenge led to projects involving the White House and State Department around Technology, Innovation and Entrepreneurship in emerging markets, particularly Africa. When I was winding down from the Barcelona operation, I became fully focused on the Africa operation. Then we set up the African Technology Foundation (ATF).

Over the last three years, we have focused on enabling public and private innovation stakeholders, including governments and institutions. We took Evernote to Africa. We took Relativity Studios to Africa. We’re working with Microsoft’s Africa initiative, and we’ve touched the lives of over 3,000 African entrepreneurs with the Lions@frica flagship program DEMO Africa. We were just announced as the managing partners for the State Department and the Lions Africa initiative, which is really a public-private partnership inside of the U.S. government that allows for innovation and entrepreneurship between the U.S. and Africa.

Africa(Demo Africa/Image: Stephen Ozoigbo)


Black Enterprise: So, tell me more about Demo Africa.

Ozoigbo: Demo Africa is our flagship program. It was launched by the U.S. State Department, and it started five years ago, with a focus around getting African entrepreneurs to build global companies.

The application process begins online and we receive over 600 applications annually. We filter down to the top 40 and they get to pitch at a technology showcase in a major African city to investors and innovation stakeholders. the grand finale involves selecting the top five startups to come down to Silicon Valley for the Lions@frica Innovation Tour.

We have done this for five years. The first two years, DEMO was held in Nairobi, Kenya. Following that, the summit moved to Lagos, Nigeria for two years. This year, it was held in Johannesburg, South Africa.

Black Enterprise: What are some of the successful companies that have come out of that?

Ozoigbo: Successful DEMO Africa Alumni include SOKO – an e-commerce (jewelry) platform that empowers many of the artisans in East Africa. They also work with the United Nations and notable Hollywood celebrities.

WEZA TELE, is also a 2012 DEMO Alumni that was recently acquired by AFB.

Two years ago, we had Spacepointe. Spacepointe is a point of sale e-commerce system that allows small SMEs in Africa to get online. They just raised about a million and a half in the last year, as well.

Black Enterprise: This is true. Now do you have a fund, specifically?

Ozoigbo: The ATF is set up as an advisory practice. We are not a fund.

Black Enterprise: Tell me more about what you guys offer—you mentioned advisory, but what else?

Ozoigbo: Public institutions like the US State Department have always engaged Africa from a diplomatic and foreign relations standpoint. These same state actors have now ushered in a new wave of engagement to support economic growth and entrepreneurship with platforms like Lions@frica

The Obama Administration has been very focused on Entrepreneurship as a key economic driver on the continent. By supporting his signature Global Entrepreneurship Summit (GES), we have ensured that Africa continues to have a seat at the table, especially in relation to the global entrepreneurial ecosystem. This administration has gone a long way in making sure that the Africa of tomorrow is actually built on the backs of young entrepreneurs.

So, we look at a continent that is very much driven by the youth—very much driven by the age of the internet. A lot of these folks are self-taught and do not have the formal training in certain aspects of venture creation and digital entrepreneurship. They have built companies on binary codes and learned new skills through the mobile internet. If a Silicon Valley technology event is live streamed across the world, there are African entrepreneurs huddled somewhere, watching it and consuming every panel, consuming every fireside chat, taking notes, and then applying those notes to their local context.

It’s really very proactive that way, and we’ve been very much the bridge builders in making sure this happens. As I mentioned earlier, we’re very committed to making sure that more investments enter the region. So, we’re synthesizing the Diaspora to make sure that they’re aware of what’s going on. When we bring these companies here, we take them around and allow people to [get to] know them and what they’re doing; to know the problems they’re solving; see how much they’re raising; then look for creative ways to raise funds for them—whether it’s equity or debt or crowdfunding. We usually like to have a hybrid of sorts.

Our operations also have a distinct gender lens through which we see entrepreneurship on the continent. We are big fans of Women In Tech, and we believe that female entrepreneurs are the backbone of a lot of things happening on the continent.

Black Enterprise: Essentially, you’re introducing them to the ecosystem of Silicon Valley?

Ozoigbo: We are, and we plan to continue building innovation platforms for future growth. They learn the startup curriculum on venture creation and scaling enterprises. They get the necessary tools to build and scale a venture, and they get to go back home and apply their learnings in ways that suit their local context.

Ozoigbo: We are recruiting our next cohort for DEMO Africa 2017 in the Spring. We are also program partners for Geeks on a Plane with 500 Startups. For the five startups that won DEMO Africa2016, they will be joining us for the LIons@frica Innovation Tour in February 2017. We will be premiering our movie – Venture – in February as well.

On the educational side, we continue to encourage technology transfer, and facilitate innovation exchanges between governments and institutions. We will also be expanding our training programs for African media entrepreneurs through the Hollywood in Focus initiative.

  • Original article can be found here.