Why Macron is remaking France’s “factory of African unicorns”

No African heads of state were in Montpellier on Oct. 8 for the 28th Africa-France summit. President Emmanuel Macron did not invite them.

Instead, the southern French town hosted more than 3,000 young people – entrepreneurs, athletes, and representatives of civil society. It was an exhibition of Macron’s vaunted plan to refocus France’s relationship with Africa around what the continent’s youth want, a position he first articulated on his first Africa tour in November 2017.

“I am from a generation that doesn’t come to tell Africans what to do,” Macron told students at the University of Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso.

What he wanted was to support young Africans “who want to shoulder their responsibilities, who want to do what they can to see the winds of freedom and empowerment blow.”

In May 2018 at the VivaTech conference in Paris, Macron introduced a €65 million ($76 million) fund to invest in African businesses under the umbrella of a “Digital Africa” initiative. The public money was to be managed by the French Development Agency (AFD) to invest equity in startups, give interest and non-interest loans to businesses, and provide tech hubs with technical assistance.

At last weekend’s summit, Macron announced a fresh €130 million ($152 million) for these and other purposes, signaling France’s earnest commitment to invest in Africa’s future digital economy. But a look at the way Digital Africa has evolved in three years raises concerns as to whether France is putting Africans first in how this agenda is being shaped.

“Digital Africa” looks French

When Macron launched the $76 million fund, it came with the formation of a Digital Africa association which included African entrepreneurs and investors. It was to be an avenue for Africans to collaborate and provide perspective on France’s intentions in Africa.

The association wasn’t formed to administer the fund because that was the AFD’s duty. But as Rebecca Enonchong tells it, there was an understanding that Digital Africa’s board would have a voice on how the association operates and what ventures the fund targeted. Enonchong was on the board as the representative of AfriLabs—Africa’s largest network of tech hubs—with three other Africans representing other groups.

None of those Africans are on Digital Africa’s board anymore, as the organization becomes a subsidiary of Proparco, the AFD’s venture capital and private equity vehicle.

When asked to explain why Proparco, Expertise France, La Ferme digitale, and AFD are now the only board members of Digital Africa according to this article (link in French), a Digital Africa spokesperson said the article was incorrect as of today. She added that Digital Africa will have a future leadership that includes French and Africans, and that a new Oversight Board will be appointed early 2022.

To emphasize the presence of Africans in the organization’s current leadership, the spokesperson noted that Aphrodice Mutangana, a Rwandan, is the deputy CEO and chief  operating officer, while Tunisian Ali Mnif is the chief investment officer.

France’s one-stop shop for African startups

Until now, the organization has functioned as a channel that finds and assesses African businesses for French funding. When Digital Africa introduced a “Bridge fund”that offered loans of between €200,000 to €600,000 to African companies last year, it was deployed by Proparco.

But Digital Africa will now be a direct early-stage startup one-stop shop for training, research, project-structuring, support to pro-tech and pro-innovation reforms, and financing, according to CEO Stéphan-Eloise Gras, who is French.

“Digital Africa’s new organization, redefined with our partners, allows us to reinforce our commitment to ‘made in Africa’ tech innovations and become a factory for future African unicorns,” she said in the organization’s statement.

One of the new Digital Africa’s first projects is the “Fuzé project” which aims to give repayable loans to 200 startups in Francophone Africa, from €10,000 to €200,000. An initiative to connect startups with skills was announced too.

Digital Africa has some African support

Apart from the new board planned next year, Digital Africa is apparently going to get a “strategic committee” to guide its actions.

It will include “high-profile individuals representing tech ecosystems from across the continent,” as a spokesperson told Quartz in an email. These individuals will range from entrepreneurs and policy experts, to researchers and investors.

No clues are given for who these could be, and if it will include former board members like Enonchong of AfriLabs.

Digital Africa clearly has support from some other respected African tech leaders, like Bosun Tijani, CEO of Co-creation Hub in Nigeria, and Juliana Rotich, co-founder of the Kenyan data crowdsourcing platform Ushahidi. Whether it changes Africa’s relationship with France remains to be seen.

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