The Key Reason Startups will Keep Failing in Africa


By Cobe (Junior Partner at Purple People Consulting)

Reading this will only take 5 minutes of your time, but trust me it will be 5 minutes well invested.

Why are most startups failing; and particularly in Africa? Does Africa have what it takes for a startup to thrive? You will agree with me that most of, if not all, the startups that failed looked wonderful when the idea was pitched or presented. I am sure that is why they were considered for funding; they must have passed the bar set for high possibility of them growing to full blown businesses. But, what then happened?

Okay, I think I am the one asking the wrong question here. The question should not be: Why are startups failing? It should rather be: What are they missing? Or simply; what did they do wrong? Obviously, funding is not the key problem for most startups in Africa because seasoned investors and accelerators are ready and available to provide the needed support. One might then be quick to conclude that the reason most startups fail is because the ideas behind them are not time-appropriate (it is either that the ideas are those whose times are far behind us or they are yet to come).

Given, experts, scholars and intellects have propounded reasonable and logical explanations as to how this trend can be nipped in the bud; but even with the diverse schools of thought, founders (of startups) still find themselves stranded and confused as to which school of thought actually guarantees success.

In order for us to fully get to the bottom of this problem, we will have to examine another important question which is: How does the world work? Finding an answer to this question will guide us in tackling the problem at hand; and will also serve as the foundation to a solution that is beyond logic, but also practical.

If you carefully examine the world we live in, you will realize that there is ‘a process all things must follow’. This process cuts through everything we do, and it is responsible for all we achieve. This process can be considered a ‘law’; and when this law is neglected, there are severe consequences. I am sure you must have heard about this law. The problem with this law has always been in the implementation. When this law is neglected the repercussion are evident, like, in the high failure rate in businesses, the high rate of unemployment and the high rate of poverty, especially, in Africa.

I can confidently tell you that the reason most of the solutions which have been proposed and suggested to handle/manage problems plaguing Africa has always failed is because this ‘law’ is mostly ignored and taken for granted. This law is none other than the Law of Seed-time and Harvest.

The law of seed-time and harvest has been the foundation to every enterprise; right from when the earth was established. Now, most people are aware of this, but they don’t understand how it works; this is what I want to quickly explain, and also show how it can help startups succeed better.

You and I will agree that the Environment plays a key role in determining success or failure (permit me to speak of success and failure in the ‘harvest and famine’ parlance). While some environments are perceived to be prone to famine and failure, others are not. That is why, if you are given a choice to either implement your idea in a developed country as against a developing country; you will most likely opt to implement it in the developed country, because (deep down) you perceive that the developed country is the right ground to sow your idea and reap a big harvest, compared to sowing same in a developing country where you are bound to struggle in order to reap any harvest. This line of reasoning might be the ‘collective agreed fact’, but does that make it the truth?

Let me use this illustration to drive home my point.

Imagine that you and I are farmers and we have been presented with 3 different types of land. The first land is in a state we can call ‘barren’; it has nothing growing on it. The second land has different types of weed sprouting all over it; while the third one is covered with beautiful, well grown and matured crops. Which one would you pick?  Well, while you are still trying to decide, I quickly pick the 3rd option because it is obviously a fruitful land. I ignore the other options, because I can perceive that nothing good can come out of them.

While I am still rejoicing at my smart decision, you step aside and walk down to the land covered with big weeds. These weeds symbolize all the problems that are currently plaguing any continent but instead of focusing on the weeds a thought drops in to your head, ‘if these weeds can thrive here then, there is a great possibility that if the right seed is planted here it will grow well’. The problem is not with the land, but with what currently is on it. As you digest this profound thought, you curiously walk down to the first land. Well, what can be said about this land beyond the obvious fact that it is empty? On closer examination you realize that the reason it is in this current state is because the land has not seen rain in a long time. This means that if it experiences rainfall, it has a tendency to be like the one covered with weeds or if the right seed is sown then, it has the tendency to be fruitful.  What you have just discovered is Africa.

The next important question is: What do you do with this new discovery?

So, you decide that the first thing you need to do is to provide the right conditions for the land to be fruitful. This is what most hubs/incubators and accelerators strive to achieve. It is a move that excites; because you are trying to solve a problem and are excited about the possibilities and great outcomes expected. But after a while you observe that instead of the project/land becoming fruitful, it is rather struggling/covered in weeds. Now, this is the state most start-ups and investors find themselves in; and it is the reason most startups in Africa fail.

To solve this problem, I will like for you and I to consider what I call switch thinking. There is so much pressure to succeed; that we can’t help but fail due to fear. This is because the label ‘developing continent’ has created in us a mindset which evidently plagues us; we are more of a consuming continent than a producing one. The problem with this mindset is that it puts us in what I have termed the receiving mode. The receiving mode can be simply explained as a mode where we value what we want to receive more than the value of the solution we want to provide. A good example I can use to describe this mode is that of the beggar on the road side.

His hands are always stretched out to receive; all he says is, give me! Give me!! Help me!!! Most times, this is the same mindset most startups have; because they have an ‘unconscious’ conditioning by the environment. Don’t get me wrong, I’m merely stating the truth. I know most startups say they exist to tackle serious life challenging issues; but somewhere along the line their focus shifts, and the predominant mindset (of receiving) sets in and changes the course of their enterprise.

However, if they apply switch thinking they will move from the receiving mode to the giving mode. It becomes less about what they get, and more about what they give. This is because when you switch, you make receiving easier and faster.

Remember, all that the farmer focuses on is releasing the seed and encouraging it. He understands that the fruit is locked in the seed and the only way to unlocking it is by sowing. Likewise every problem has pain locked within it. It is this pain that the solution identifies with; because the potency of a seed is not about how nice the idea is or the problem the idea solves, but it is about the pain it takes away. The fruit in the seed is the differential result which is measurable. In simple terms, this can be likened to moving people from a situation that is unbearable to one that is acceptable. That truth is that, people learn to adapt to problems; but when in pain, life becomes unbearable and they are then pushed to seek and readily accept any solution offered.

Delivering fruits that eliminate pain is what makes startups successful.

Let’s get practical; let’s assume I started a software company called Microsoft. And the software I created was the Microsoft Word. The first marketing option I have is to go around selling my new software. I actively do presentations to get people to buy; I urge them to buy, now!! “Please, buy my product!” I keep harping. At the end I realize that people are not responding as I expected despite the fact that I am trying to solve a problem for them. The truth is, all along I have just been tilling the land. Problems are solved by tilling the land, while the pains are taken away by sowing the seed. Most startups are just tilling the ground; and they think they are failing, but in truth they are yet to identify what their seed is. What pain they can cure.

Next, what I need to do is sit down and try to identify the seed/pain my software takes away or cures. This is what I come up with:

Let’s go back to the times before we ever had the computer; when only manual typewriters were in use. Let’s say you have a 100 page manuscript that has to be typed for an important meeting in 5 days. You set a goal to finish it up in 4 days and on the 4th day, with just a few pages left, you realize that you have made a mistake! You need to add some extra information onto some of the pages already typed; the manuscript will be incomplete without the additional information. Oh my! What do you do? The problem is that it will take you an additional 4 days to re-type hence; the manuscript will not be ready before the deadline. But if you have Microsoft Word, all you need to do is edit and make room for the additional information, and in an hour or less your problem will be solved. You have achieved, using my software, what would have ordinarily taken you an extra 4 days (that you don’t have) to achieve. The fruit that my solution delivers is SPEED. The next day I am out not to sell software but to sow ‘speed’. Will people be ready to pay to avoid the pain of stress and also save time? Can you imagine the amount of difference I will be making for businesses when I help them achieve in a few minutes what would have taken then hours and possibly days?

When I switch from the receiving mode to the giving mode, my perspective changes; I will no longer wake up each day and ask ‘how do I sell more’ or ‘who will come and buy my product’, I will rather be asking: where can I make a difference; who is possibly going through the pain/stress of running their business the hard way?

So, all I need to do is; identify and sow seed in places, encourage it, monitor and analyze feedback then, I can be rest assured that my harvest will come.

This is what differentiates an idea which sounds great from one that makes a measurable difference.

Being in the receiving mode is the reason for the explosion in unemployment levels. People graduate with fine degrees, but don’t have a clue as to what difference they are supposed to deliver to the world. That is why you see graduates who had spent, at least, 4 years in school begging for just any job; whereas, the employers on the other hand are not ready to take on liabilities.

The truth is, most startups in Africa are struggling with a smile on their faces; going on as if all is well, without wanting to admit it. Are their ideas brilliant? Yes with a capital Y. Are the founders smart? Yes again; possibly with two capital Ys. But, is the process faulty? Sincerely, yes. All they have to do is switch think; and I guarantee that just as the farmer who sows his seed in the right season and encourages it, they will likewise usher in a season of greater harvest. They will succeed in lighting up this great ‘dark’ continent with vibrant enterprises which will create opportunities for genuine employment and empowerment opportunities for the teeming African population. Then, we all can (in unison) raise our glasses and drink to their success.

Purple People Consulting is an organization on a mandate to redeem businesses from the struggle cycle so that they can start experiencing tremendous growth; by helping them identify overlooked opportunities, untapped markets and undervalued assets. For over 11 years we have tried to answer one key question, which is: How do businesses grow? With a wealth of experience in over 15 key sectors (Consulting, Technology, Oil & Gas, Automobile, Shipping, Printing, Advertising, Power, Logistics, Security, Real Estate, Commodities) and having system-profiled over 20 international brands (Dell, Microsoft, Zappos, etc.), we have clearly identified what works in business growth and what is a waste of time.


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