The Big Four – A Conversation on African Giants

Africa comprises 54 countries but only four stand out in innovation, digital entrepreneurship and funding received. The “big four” consistently receive around 75% of funding and have birthed five of Africa’s unicorns (companies valued over a billion). The year 2022 set new records in funding, amassing an impressive $4.85 billion, signifying a remarkable increase of 7.6% from the preceding year. Apart from the financing, these countries boast of the highest numbers of startups. In 2024, The National Information Technology Development Agency (NITDA) in Nigeria has registered 12,948 Nigerian startups for labelling. Through the registration portal, which opened in November 2023, NITDA said it registered 912 venture capitalists, 1,735 angel investors, and 925 accelerators, incubators, and hubs. South Africa’s startup ecosystem boasts nearly 700 startups. A significant percentage operate in fintech – 40%. Between 2018 and 2022, Egypt founded 667 new startups with other countries like Senegal boasting just 29 startups.

But why do these countries stand out among the rest?

Population: Nigeria and Egypt have around 211 million and 103 million, respectively. Nigeria also has a GDP of 440 billion and is predicted to be the third-largest population in the world by 2050. According to Disrupt Africa, their sizeable populations and large GDPs make them attractive destinations for investment. According to the World Economic Forum, Egypt, Kenya and South Africa boast some of the largest economies in Africa, with $404bn, $110bn and $420bn GDP respectively. However, it is important to note that these four countries do not take the first, second, third and fourth place in the largest economies in Africa. ar as the population is concerned, Nigeria, Egypt, South Africa and Kenya occupy the 1st, 3rd, 6th and 7th place respectively; Ethiopia (2nd), DRC (4th) and Tanzania (5th) complete the top 7.

Regional dominance: Is it a coincidence that these four countries are in the four regions of the continent? Nigeria represents West Africa, Kenya for East Africa, South Africa for Southern Africa and Egypt for Northern Africa. Seeing that Africa is at its tipping point where things are being formed and could be fundamentally changed forever, is it wise to say these four regional giants are encouraged to as they help each region develop exponentially? Is it going to be that as these regions get more stable and successful, funding and growth will eventually spread around neighbouring countries or as the startups in these countries begin to expand, the development spreads to neighbouring countries?

Financial technology: These countries are known for solving financial economic problems using technology. According to Statista, Fintech offers more widely accessible financial products that can help close the unmet credit demand of micro, small and medium-sized businesses in the country. A 2022 IFC Nigerian SME Finance Market report estimates this to be US$9 billion. For instance, Moniepoint’s payment machines have become ubiquitous across Nigeria. The Lagos-headquartered Moniepoint is emerging as the most reliable payment system in Africa’s largest economy. According to Disrupt Africa, In Kenya, fintech has emerged as the country’s most prevalent tech startup sub-sector, accounting for 30.2% of all young tech companies in the nation and employing most of the ecosystem’s staff. This report goes ahead to state that- In H1 2022, fintech investment in Kenya reached a new annual record, totalling US$124 million. Egypt’s startup landscape is flourishing, particularly in the fintech sector, which has seen significant developments in recent years. Numerous fintech startups are introducing cutting-edge products and services, reshaping the conventional financial industry. The expansion of Egypt’s fintech industry is highlighted by several key statistics: the number of fintech startups surged from just 2 in 2014 to 177 by 2023; fintech investments skyrocketed from approximately USD 1 million in 2017 to USD 796.5 million in 2022; and the value of mobile payments increased dramatically from around USD 1.5 billion in 2019 to USD 10 billion in 2022.

Can other countries interested in building a thriving ecosystem double down on solving the financial challenges of the country?

Conclusion

In light of these insights, one must ponder: what are the precise catalysts that enable only a select few countries to dominate Africa’s innovation and digital entrepreneurship landscape? Is it sheer population size and GDP that make Nigeria, Egypt, Kenya, and South Africa the primary hubs, or is there an interplay of more nuanced factors such as policy environments, educational infrastructure, or perhaps the synergy within their startup ecosystems?

Furthermore, as these nations continue to pull ahead, what strategies can other African countries adopt to emulate their success? Is there a roadmap that can be tailored to smaller economies with less developed startup ecosystems, or is each country’s path inherently unique due to its distinct socio-economic fabric?

As we look to the future, an even more pressing question emerges: will the concentration of innovation and investment in these four countries eventually foster more inclusive regional growth, or will it widen the gap between the leading and lagging nations in Africa? The answers to these questions will not only shape the entrepreneurial landscape of the continent but could also redefine Africa’s role in the global innovation economy.

Ultimately, can a collective effort across all African nations to address financial technology challenges become the keystone in achieving a balanced and robust digital transformation across the continent? The possibilities are immense, but so are the challenges.

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