The African Startup Manifesto — Systems or Tech What Comes First?

The Non-Tech Part of The Startup

Tech startups in Africa have always been seen as artificial things or concepts. Something that young people do for fun. For the love of the American dream. When the modern-day startup movement started in Africa, the focus was on replicating startups and business models that work in mature markets. Everyone wanted to make a replica of Facebook, Amazon, Google, etc. Most founders focused on the tech side of the business, improving the UI/UX of the products to mimic similar products in the West. The products struggled to connect and grow in the local markets. Few founders realised this early, and instead of focusing on the tech side of things. Their focus was on building "real" businesses by looking at existing systems and finding ways to plug into what already works. Companies like MaxCom Africa (Max Malipo), a payment aggregator, now Tanzania's technology product adoption problem was not a technology problem. It was a "system." problem. To solve it, you needed systemic thinking beyond just being a good developer. You need to know who does what, where and how they can plug into your core system.

African Startups and Systemic Thinking

Systemic thinking is about debugging complex relationships and roles in an ecosystem, approaching a problem as a whole instead of focusing on specific things. You apply it when solving problematic issues involving multiple engagements and overlaps between actors and resources. Most problems that startups in Africa are trying to solve a systemic, and they are complex problems requiring systemic interventions. When your solution only focuses on the tech side of things and ignores all other essential aspects of the business and the community, you are setting yourself up to fail.

The above Cynefin framework is used to classify problems/challenges into four categories; Simple, Complicated, Chaotic and Complex.

African Complex Consumers

What do you sell? Convenience or Necessity. If your primary focus is the "app", you have already lost the customer. It is imperative to understand your customer's empathy. To you as a founder, half a dollar might look cheap to access an online service, but there are myriad things African customers can do with that money; pay for the internet bundle, buy lunch, or pay for the business ticket. Your customer has to go through all that decision-making process before deciding to pay for a service on your platform. Your proposed value needs to go beyond providing convenience to address necessities. African consumers have one of the most complex definitions of value for money, and their willingness to pay scale is always low. Your biggest task is to get that money out of their pockets.

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Reverse Integration

It is not too late. You can revisit your product or service design and see how to integrate it with the existing systems. Some successful startups in Africa are already doing this. To guarantee quality and sustain supply, Twiga started commercial farming. All the services offered by the company focus on connecting with the physical "real" ecosystem. It is the same discussion we have been having with the founders of GasFasta. How do you disrupt one of the most significant sectors in the country, the LPG sector, without being part of the value chain? The simple answer is you can't unless you understand how the industry works and find a way to plug yourself into it.

LPG Value Chain Tanzania.



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Jumanne Rajabu Mtambalike

Jumanne Rajabu Mtambalike


Entrepreneur, TZ Patriot, Loves Tech, Founder, Project Management Consulting firm, Co-Founded and Sahara Accelerator.