On the occasion of the 6e edition of Bpifrance Inno Génération which took place in Paris at the beginning of October and benefited from the presence of Emmanuel Macron and Uhuru Kenyatta, respectively President of France and Kenya, the French Secretary of State in charge of Digital, Cédric O, and his Kenyan counterpart, Joseph Mucheru, have agreed to explore, through a cross-interview, the opportunities for connection between the tech ecosystems of France and Kenya, but also more broadly of Europe and Africa. . As the Covid-19 crisis puts pressure in an environment where the American and Asian digital giants dominate the market, it is necessary to think about the space and the uses that will allow the most suitable developments and the best inclusiveness, between other challenges.
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Le Point Afrique: The BpiFrance Inno Génération called BIG was organized in Paris in early October. It aims to be THE French meeting place for innovation. What challenges did you see in the specific context of its 2020 edition?
Cedric O: It is important to talk about innovation, especially at this time, since digital technology has helped us manage containment, for example. In other words, digital technology has never been so important in our everyday life. Digital and innovations are important elements of the package that we are putting in place to help society get through this crisis. Now is the time to step up, the time to invest more to help our economy, our society and our businesses to revive.
Through a large delegation, Kenya marked its presence. Why ?
Joseph Mucheru: For Kenya, it is a great opportunity to meet the international community in France, to be able to participate and to be actors in the global digital community. We have a lot of small businesses and are looking to be more open in the African and international market, and to continue the digital transformation. It is an opportunity to highlight our companies, to find investors, mentors, advisers or simply to identify collaborations. During this period of Covid-19, we must stand together and move forward as partners. Our president has met the French president, and we are very happy that our two countries are working together and improving their relations after this event.
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Kenya is positioning itself as a digital hub in the East African region. Twenty years after the adoption of the Kenya 2030 strategy, where is the country in its digital ambitions?
Joseph Mucheru: I was in the private sector when the Kenya 2030 project was launched. One of the pillars of this program is to transform Kenya’s economy into a digital knowledge-based economy. An economy that allows our young people to find jobs and to place our country in the category of middle-income country. Having worked both in the private sector and now in government, I have seen both sides of the action taken. First, with the policies which ensured the conditions for free competition on the market and which reassured investors. For our part, we have to make sure that we have the right infrastructure for Internet networks, quality data centers, for example. Together with France, we have succeeded in organizing digital “elections” and in registering all of our fellow citizens using a biometric system. We have built a digital city; in our schools, we are gradually going digital by providing the necessary equipment and by installing, for example, fiber … We are seeing the emergence of more and more innovators and start-ups who attest that we are in a good period. There is no doubt that this event, the BIG, will help us, push us to grow our ecosystem.
What are the existing connections and those to be established between French Tech and the Kenyan, then African technological ecosystem?
Cedric O: Africa in general and Kenya in particular are emerging in the digital world and the digital economy. It is therefore a field of opportunities for the French as well as for the Africans, and of course for the Kenyan start-ups. It is also an opportunity for African societies and economies because there have been delays in digitization, but today we see that they are making leaps. What we are seeing in terms of innovation in FinTech is very interesting across the continent, but also and especially in Kenya, which is one of the leaders in the field. A lot of win-win partnerships can be built between the two governments, but also between start-ups from both countries. Kenya can present opportunities for certain French start-ups, just as France can do the same for Kenyan start-ups wishing to settle on the European continent. There has already been a French Tech community in Nairobi since 2017. These are therefore things that we want to encourage in order to improve relations between the French and Kenyan digital worlds. There is also Digital Africa presented by President Macron himself. He thinks that the new relationships that we must build with Africa, with West Africa, but also with East Africa, go through the digital world, and this can be a real opportunity to create bridges .
Joseph Mucheru: I can only agree with what has just been said. We have great tech communities in Kenya, and when I worked at Google, we had relationships with France. I think we have a lot to learn from her, and in particular on how to build links in Europe. Just like her, we are at the heart of the Smart Africa initiative, so there is a possible marriage that would allow us to discover new markets. We need to think about how to direct the investments and how we can grow. Our start-ups are not only in the tech sector, but also in the creation of films, the arts, tourism. We need to inform and explain what is happening in our different countries, and there is a lot of cultural exchange between us, and not only in terms of experience, but also in the arts, gastronomy … We have a very good relationship with France for many years. French schools are present in Kenya, and this is an opportunity to see how we can grow. And the innovations that could emerge from these partnerships would be beneficial not only to France and Kenya, but also to the whole world. So, let’s see how we can achieve this goal! You know, it’s also the opportunity to meet, to share, that’s already a good reason.
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During the Covid-19 crisis, Africa revealed its capacity for resilience and innovation, especially young people who offered solutions to the problems faced by their community during the pandemic. What lessons for France? In return, are there recent actions or ideas to help French start-ups become more resilient?
Cedric O: What is very interesting for all of Europe is the capacity for resilience in the face of Covid-19. And the fact that innovation was a solution to deal with the crisis. I read, for example, that in Kenya some start-ups used 3D printing to produce healthcare equipment and make prototypes of respirators that the whole world was looking for. I think it is very important. We have seen in Africa a capacity to very quickly cooperate between all the actors, with more concrete reactions. It’s very interesting for us.
In France, we have been able to call on our start-ups for hydroalcoholic gel or masks, but I think that we have had trouble creating links between the laws around our health, the laws that govern production. health equipment, and our innovation system. On a strictly financial level, an initiative recently put in place is the French Tech Bridge, a bridge loan fund that enables young companies, with a business model considered to be solid and whose fundraising has been delayed due to the current state of the market, to strengthen their cash flow during the crisis. We are in the process, with the help of Digital Africa and Proparco, to move forward on a similar project, the Digital Africa Bridge Fund, dedicated to African start-ups.
What is interesting in France is the ability of different French governments over the past ten years to create an ecosystem from scratch. A few years ago, France was not on the map in terms of technologies, start-ups, and we are now the European leader in terms of the number of start-ups, of capital mobilized by start-ups, and it’s something that we are trying to promote around the world. I was recently with entrepreneurs from the African diaspora, and it was very interesting, since these people had come to France to do their engineering studies. They have been able to create start-ups that have an offer that may also be of interest to the French market. I think that being able to create this French Tech brand and attract people from all over the world who come to France is important, because we are not a giant, we are not the United States, we are not We’re not China, but we have this ability to accelerate innovation with the help of the biggest companies, and that needs to be recognized.
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Joseph Mucheru: Let me first say that in terms of innovations, we are doing very well! We saw it during this Covid-19 period. Innovations came from people who saw problems and worked to solve them. The traceability of infected people, the manufacture of ventilators… We have had many very good solutions. I created an advisory committee around Covid-19 and we received more than 700 innovative projects. We offer them mentoring, a little capital, methods to develop and understand the logic of the market, file patents, try to ensure that they are going in the right direction with their business plan, their recruitment… So, I would say that the type of support we want to put in place is first of all to better open up the market so that our fellow citizens can easily obtain such and such a product. We have some very good companies, like recently the French company Rubis, which works in energy and is looking for many digital solutions. Our goal is to see how we can offer our start-ups access to patent filings, legal advice, offer them all the mentoring they need, 4G, 5G, in order to use these services, communicate , train and ensure that our young people, once properly trained, can enter the labor market. This is what we are doing in Kenya and more broadly in Africa, a continent that will soon have more than 1.3 billion inhabitants. We cannot just look after Kenya and its 50 million people. We want to be part of this digital Africa.
How can we better support this innovation and ultimately respond to the challenges of inclusion that arise in Kenya, but also in France?
Cedric O: I think France and Europe have two problems. The first is economic: the state must create an environment. This is what we have been trying to build for the last ten years. There is the economic environment, the school environment, the legal framework that allows start-ups to emerge and grow. These are points on which we are quite optimistic. If it is complicated to make an ecosystem emerge, from the moment it is there, it grows. The ecosystem is now mature enough in Europe to grow, and I think we will see in the next two to three years more and more unicorns emerge, more and more large digital companies emerge in Europe. So here is the first problem to be solved, it is not for the State to create value, but for it to create an environment favorable to the emergence of start-ups. Moreover, and this is the second problem: I think there is a somewhat more delicate question in Western Europe. It concerns society. Digital is obviously necessary, but it is also part of the anger that is growing across Europe. There are questions about progress, about how the world is evolving. In France, a sixth of the population never uses a computer, a third does not have basic knowledge of digital technology. And if we do not manage to rally this part of the population, to reassure them about their participation in the transformations to come and the world that is happening, there will be more Brexit, more anger, more Yellow vests in France and more votes in favor of extremes. There is a balance to be found between these two trends, one which pushes us to accelerate, to invest in technology, and the other which represents a part of the population that we must take care of by supporting it in these big transformations.
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Concretely, how to better orient investments towards digital start-ups? What examples, lessons learned and good practices or ideas in France could possibly inspire African ecosystems and vice versa?
Cedric O: To be honest, I don’t think there is a silver bullet that turns an entire ecosystem overnight. Building an ecosystem, whether in Africa or in Europe, takes time. It took us ten years for French Tech to go from nothing to 5 billion euros of investment per year. It will take time for ecosystems to emerge in Africa, but it still works the same way. At the beginning, there is a sector of attractiveness; then it spreads to the whole country. Everyone needs to adapt their laws and their environment, but there are no quick fixes. In France, if we want to reach 20 billion, it will take time. Creating an ecosystem, and this is the main idea I want to share, takes time.
Joseph Mucheru: I agree that the most important thing we can do as a government is to create the ecosystem. But this ecosystem must be attractive to local companies, international companies and international investors. So regulations are important: you have to have laws that everyone understands, have the right language. Having that in place also means ensuring that investments are protected. We must also highlight companies which have been successful, which have had to present a product from scratch and which they have been able to achieve to a certain level, and which are still expanding their market. And we have to keep our promises as a country and make the financial system work so that the trust is there. Because, then, when someone comes up with a business plan, we can reassure investors. So the ecosystem is very important, but the success stories are also crucial. Many companies came to us, invested and were able to expand. Many companies have their headquarters in Nairobi: Microsoft, Google, Intel, companies from Silicon Valley… We can see that these companies create a form of climate of trust, which can encourage French companies to come and settle. As an example, I will cite Carrefour, among others.
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To conclude, can the digital economy be a way for Africa to better integrate into the global economy?
Joseph Mucheru: Digital economies are an essential part of Kenya’s strategy, and Africa’s. We came together five years ago to create a single digital market that would go beyond politics at the same time that, on the other side, we were negotiating for the establishment of the free trade area. The Smart Africa alliance, because that’s what it is, today brings together 750 million people. And with the free trade area, we now have a huge market and Africa is becoming very attractive. Having said that, if you want to unite Africa, you have to do it through technology so that when a business comes in it can reach everyone through mobile. For example, having phone numbers that work in all countries unites the continent. Our other asset is youth, the median age in Africa is 19 years old. This means that we are going to have 700 million people under the age of 19. The market is very big and this creates a lot of opportunities for digital jobs for the rest of the world. It is therefore a very good opportunity for the continent, for Kenya, for its partners like France, which can help us to create more important bridges with French-speaking West Africa. I look forward to seeing the next ten years for Africa and Kenya.
Likewise, by way of conclusion, and if, ultimately, it was through start-ups and the digital sector that this new long-awaited and necessary Europe-Africa partnership took place to face, together, the giants American and Asian digital?
Cedric O: We see that there are two leading models in the world, a very private American model and a Chinese, who does not have the same vision of democracy as us. What we want is to create our own model. And I think that’s an idea that many countries, like Kenya, share. We obviously want to create a digital power for economic reasons and for sovereignty. But we want to build our model taking into account our values, our vision of the world and of democracy. But to create this third way, we must build alliances, of course with European countries, but also with Asian and African countries. All together we can create a third way. This is true in the digital domain, but also around more sensitive technologies, such as artificial intelligence, which raise many questions about the balance between human rights and the economy, and which must be particularly monitored. And I think we can create that with Africa.
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