Do black lives matter to white founders and investors in the Silicon Savannah?
The global outpouring of support for the black lives matter (BLM) movement in 2020 sent shock-waves around the world as peoples of different nationalities came together to demand an end to the profiling and abuse of black people. Folks from across the world stood up to demand equal treatment of all men regardless of their race or color, and an end to police brutality as exemplified by the murder in broad daylight of Mr George Floyd. In Europe and the US, large crowds of mixed race protestors rallied to protest day in and day out to send a clear message that racial discrimination is no longer acceptable in the global community.
Big corporations put out paid adverts asserting that black lives matter, ordinary people marched on the streets with hand made placards and social media was awash for weeks with trending hashtags and memes around the BLM movement. As the discussion around black lives continued, it moved away from the overt abuse of young black men in America, to the more subtle discrimination that people of color face everyday in a world filled with racial inequity. It also moved to a discussion of white privilege, and how that acts as a structural barrier to the progression of black people in different aspects of life. None of this seems to have left any impression on the denizens of the Silicon Savannah, where white privilege and black exploitation run riot.
The Silicon Savannah is a popular colloquial for the nascent tech and startup scene in Kenya (and East Africa at large). It is a play at the moniker ‘Silicon Valley’, the famous home of innovation and tech startups in the US from where the Kenyan scene draws its inspiration. In the context of this article, Silicon Savannah refers to the startup scene in Kenya, which is the biggest in the region. It is one of the places where white privilege and black exploitation are at their highest levels, driven by structural barriers and racial prejudices. Barriers that systematically lock out young Kenyan entrepreneurs from fair participation in building the startups that operate in their own country. Barriers that lead to racial discrimination by investors, abuse and exploitation of Kenyan youth by expatriate founders and the domination of the Kenyan tech and startup scene by white founders from abroad.
A Village Capital study back in 2017 found that over 90% of funding in East Africa goes to white founders and their startups. The same study revealed how most early-stage investors in that region tend to also be white and therefore some forms of biases come into play that skew the field in favor of white founders. This overwhelming privilege that white founders get when it comes to access to funding ensures that they have resources that can out-compete any similar startups founded by locals who struggle to raise funding. The result is a situation where the face of startups and technology in Kenya is white men and women with black founders left trailing in the dust of an anti-trust regime.
The issue has long been documented and many people have spoken out about it in blogs, media articles, journals and even tweets over close to a decade. However, not only has it gone unchecked, it has actually grown worse over time. An analysis by Viktoria Ventures found that of all the startups that received more than USD $1 Million funding in Kenya in the year 2019, only 6% were led by locals. That means white expatriate founders got 94% of the big money investments, and the corresponding lion-share ability for their startups to capture and control local markets. For all intents and purposes, black startups are simply unable to compete in such markets against such well funded adversaries. A situation that sees more and more of the Kenyan market and business opportunities get monopolized by a closed group of foreigners. Its a structural barrier choking the life out of startups founded by locals.
One of the consequences of this racial discrimination by investors and the white domination of the startup space in Kenya, is that black founders are often forced to look for white founders to partner up with. This is so as to significantly increase their chances of raising funding as opposed to if they didn’t have white people on their team. So black founders, especially the technically inclined, will partner with white founders who bring to the table funding networks. However such partnerships don’t always have a happy ending, and in many cases the black founders end up being shortchanged by their white partners.
This happens in the form of their shares in the company being fraudulently taken and usually the black founders find themselves kicked out of their own startups once they become successful. The white founders then go on to croon how they have built some wonderful technology and brought it to Africa to help the black man. Its a complete appropriation of both the credit for the innovation as well as the profits resulting from it. Rather than this scenario being a fringe occurrence, it is widespread and an ongoing abuse that continues to deprive black youth in Kenya of the fruit of their innovation and hard work. It is basically no different from slavery, only this time it is the mind of the black man that is being sent to the fields to line the pockets of the white man. This ‘bleaching’ of African startups is an unspoken paradigm of the Silicon Savannah. One that is rarely brought up for discussion, and whose anguish is carried by those who bear its yoke and are wrapped in its chains.
As someone who has personally borne the brunt of this white privilege and black exploitation in the Silicon Savannah, I believe it is time to hold this important discussion and bring it into the limelight. Having run the gauntlet of founding tech startups in Kenya as a local, I find myself wondering whether black lives truly matter to investors operating in this part of the world. Yes, I saw the flurry of BLM tweets when the topic was trending, from different expatriate founders and investors with operations in Kenya. However, after everything I’ve witnessed in the past and continue to see through to today, I am not convinced that the sentiments many expressed regarding BLM were genuine or heartfelt. More likely it was just public posturing to appear to be on the politically correct side of history.
Instead of using tweets and drawing placards to demonstrate, let us see the white community in Kenya take action to show true solidarity with the BLM movement. If you are a white founder or investor in Kenya, try answering the following questions to gauge your solidarity with black people in your industry.
Do you at the very least acknowledge that there has been and continues to be a racial problem in the discriminate funding of startups in Kenya? Do you appreciate that black founders have to struggle through exponentially more barriers in order to raise funding and have a shot at competing on a fair footing with white expatriate founders? Do you accept that powerful structural barriers exist behind the imbalance in the funding of startups in Kenya? Do you accept that there are racist elements within the community of white founders in Africa who use fraudulent means to dispossess black innovators of the just fruits of their labor and innovation? And most of all, are you doing anything personally to address these systemic issues which have such an outsize impact on the black lives around you and of the people of the country you live and run your business in?
If you answered yes to all the above, then you probably believe black lives matter, and are doing something tangible about it. Congratulations, you are a good human being.
If you didn’t, you probably need deep introspection and soul searching. And possibly prayer.
I would like to challenge the community of white investors and founders in Kenya to self regulate and break the culture of discrimination against locals. Whether that be in matters of access to funding, respecting agreements made with local partners, or even how they treat and pay their local employees. Let us see some change in how Kenyans are valued and treated in the tech industry. Most of all to the investors who control the purse strings that decide which founders get funding to transform their dreams into reality in Kenya, I would like to tell you that black founders matter too. Their dreams are just as valid as those of the white founders you bring from abroad and fund to start businesses here. And yes, these dreams can be implemented by Africans and turned into robust companies with bright and profitable futures. A study by GALI found that black African founders are just as competent as their white counterparts when it comes to startup success.
All that black entrepreneurs need is a chance, same as is given their white counterparts, and they will perform just as well if not better since they know the market and the people more intimately. The belief that black Kenyan founders will run away with investor’s money and buy a second hand car from Japan or a plot of land on the outskirts of Nairobi, is a very old and outdated stereotype. However, it is also strangely pervasive among investors and oft stated when black founders are on the fund raising trail. It is one of those stereotypes that aims to portray the black man as being of such low intelligence as to lack the capacity to distinguish between personal funds and the finances of a business. A bias whose only purpose is to cast aspersions on the ability of Africans to manage funds in a trustworthy way. Such racially discriminate biases seriously need to come to an end. Investors need to look beyond the biases informed by the popular narrative and see the wealth of potential, talent and ambition that black founders have to build successful startups with global outlook. Many of us want to succeed and build legacies that span the globe.
One only has to take a look at other countries such as Nigeria and South Africa, which have vibrant tech and startup ecosystems that are rightly dominated by the youth of that country. Yes they also have white expatriate founders there, but the local founders are just as visible in the top ranks of the industry and attract just as much funding as their foreign counterparts. This leads to a sustainable ecosystem where all founders have equal opportunities regardless of skin color or race and everyone feels content.
White investors in Kenya need to realize that the exclusion of local youth from the tech and startup scene of their own country will only lead to a build up of resentment from other Kenyans. As the racial inequities become more obvious and the domination of an industry by a cohort of foreigners is further exposed, calls for boycotts of such companies will begin to sound. The profiling of white-led startups and sanctioning of their products and services by the market will inevitably follow once the locals realize that they are living under a Neo-colonial regime that disenfranchises local entrepreneurs. This all-up-in-your-face attitude adopted by white founders and investors in Kenya where they have no problem with the continued domination of the tech space at the expense of locals is a brewing pot of trouble.
The only sustainable option for the expatriate community in Kenya is to look deep within itself and begin taking actions to correct the racial imbalance in the Silicon Savannah. Investors need to actively strive to foster diversity in their portfolios and stop looking at startup founders through a racial lens. More over, venture capital firms and other investors need to begin releasing so-called ‘diversity numbers’ annually, indicating what proportion of their portfolio went to white and black founders respectively and the details around those ratios. If investors are unwilling to take such affirmative actions of their own initiative, then the law makers of the land (many whom are youthful) should heed the cry of their constituents and institute regulations to govern the industry. Regulations that ensure sanity is returned and Kenyan youth once again have a fair chance at achieving their dreams and reaping from their hard work and innovation. Regulations that prevent abuse of Kenyan youth and the extraction of their innovation by fraudulent foreigners.
Only by deliberate action can the blatantly unjust situation in the Kenyan tech and startup scene be remedied. Instead of furious tweeting, let us see white investors putting their money where their mouth is. Invest in black founders, end the racial stereotyping and prove black lives matter to you. Stop setting up structural barriers that lock black founders out of funding and deny them the opportunity to build successful startups in their own country.
Perhaps even more pertinent, is the role of investors in breaking the culture of exploitation of locals by white founders who they have funded. If investors care about black lives let us see more involvement in preventing IP theft, stock grabs, dispossession of locals and other fraudulent activities by the white founders they bankroll. I am one of many Kenyans who were kicked out of tech startups they literally built from the ground up. Defrauded by white people I partnered with to co-found a startup. And none of their investors even batted an eyelid when I was thrown under the bus in the most brutal way possible by my white co-founders.
Even the local investors of the startup silently went along with what happened, and none ever so much as got in touch with me to find out why the black co-founder was suddenly no longer in the picture. In fact, some investors even went mute on Twitter when I mentioned the issue on related conversations that they were contributing to. If investors remain silent and turn a blind eye while the white founders kick out their black partners and bleach the startup, then they by extension acquiesce the fraud and all the racial undertones it represents. Both white investors and founders need to take measures to ensure that exploitation of black locals by white expatriates is not encouraged and that those who do so get ostracized to avoid painting the entire community in bad light. To keep silent in the face of injustice is to be unjust.
Unless steps are taken and soon, the tech and startup scene in the Silicon Savannah will become a powder-keg of resentment and a contingent liability for white investors and founders alike. As more black Kenyans(who are demographically the overwhelming majority) become awake to the extreme domination of the tech and startup scene by white foreigners, as well as the dirty tricks being played on their fellow countrymen, the risks to foreign businesses will rise exponentially. If white investors and founders wait for calls for boycotts to begin before they take action, they will find themselves exposed to persistent risks with the potential to ruin their current businesses and affect future ventures in the region. Risks that could have been avoided.
And even if the risk profile doesn’t change exactly as predicted and business isn’t affected immediately, there is still the issue of being a decent human being. A lot of the folks who tweeted BLM would fall into the category called liberals. Folks who consider themselves tolerant and progressive. However, the very same white co-founders who conned me and stole all my IP and innovation are liberals themselves. Folks who hit the campaign trail for Obama and the Democratic Party in the US elections of 2008. Their investors are also majorly liberals and they too maintained a fastidious silence when a black guy was being oppressed by one of their investees. This two-faced hypocrisy is the reason I have grown wary of liberals who shout emotive sentiments for political mileage while doing the very opposite of what they preach in the communities they live in. Investors who stand for human rights must reject this duplicity and extend their due diligence to ensuring no disadvantaged groups are victimized by their investees.
To the white community in Kenya, without any concrete actions on your part, those BLM tweets you sent out when the issue was trending will remain nothing but empty rhetoric. Gestures devoid of meaning and lost in a flood of racial inequity right where you live. Inequity that is perpetuated by the very same people who claim to tweet and march against it.
Don’t let that be you. Educate yourself, do your research, find out the depth of the problem in the Silicon Savannah and be proactive about finding a solution. Particularly when it comes to the issue of IP theft and what has been called ‘slave entrepreneurship’. The act of white foreigners coming to Africa, conning local innovators, and furthering the narrative that great solutions are created in America or elsewhere then exported to the dark continent. Don’t stay silent in the face of such a narrative. Personally get involved in finding out which elements of your community are perpetuating such deceit and furthering the savior mentality. And talk about it to as many people as you can. Stop acting like everything is normal and have the courage to talk to your friends, colleagues and fellow expatriates about the elephant in the room. If there ever was a time to show you stand for something, this is it. Help fix the Silicon Savannah and level its playing field for black entrepreneurs. Show us black lives truly matter to you through both word and deed.
The author is a Kenyan entrepreneur based in Nairobi. He was the technical co-founder of Safi Analytics. He has also founded other startups and is currently working with a great team on an e-learning platform called Techpreneur School. He is passionate about technology, empowering African youth and matters social justice. Follow him on Twitter: @kenwes254