OoTheNigerian

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Xenophobia vs. Protectionism: How should local Nigerian startups compete with ‘foreigners’?

20 January 2014 by Oo Nwoye

 I read a post that would not be too out of place if it came with the byline of BNP’s Nick Griffin.

The crux of the post is that we should be afraid of the foreigners coming to Nigeria to take it all from the Nigerian tech scene and “forcing them back into the Lagoon” is the way forward.

I suggest you read it

Ideally, it would not have been worrisome but the fact that it was written by a poster boy for the Nigerian internet space and wholly endorsed by Sim Shagaya, CEO of Konga who called it “words of wisdom” makes it so

If people do not state early, their opposition to such xenophobic (irrational fear of foreigners) thinking, it could easily be misconstrued as a true representation of the view of Nigerian tech ecosystem.

This is coming on the heels of a Nigerian commentator/activist advocating that foreigners should not be allowed to run malls in Nigeria

Interestingly, Nigerians are particularly known for traveling far places to do business and are usually on the receiving end of “these foreigners are our problem” thinking.

Why the fear of Rocket Internet?

Rocket Internet is an Incubator funded by 3 German brothers, the Samwers. Their business model initially was copying businesses that had gained traction in USA but yet to enter Europe then sell these companies to the original US companies when they are ready to tackle Europe.

Version 2 of their current business model is aggressively building ecommerce verticals in Africa, Middle East and South East Asia.  They centralize and reuse technology in Germany and then hire a person to lead the operations execution in the country they are tackling. They sell and leave as quickly as possible

When they come into a market (it is rumored that operation leads on the ground, aka co-founders, are given $1million to check out the market) they move aggressively, hire and quickly spend lots of money (in the local ecosystem) in a very short time.

This of course causes a mini inflation in the local tech scene as they poach staff, cause an increase in the ad buying cost etc, mainly making things much more expensive. No local startup certainly likes it since it makes business unnecessarily more expensive to run

My views on Rocket Internet have evolved over time. Before, I thought they were a net negative to our ecosystem since they play the pure extraction short term game. Meaning, they build solely to sell and when they sell, they take the money out and move to the next area to extract from; leaving a wake of over stretched local startups and questionably self-sufficient businesses.

But that was one dimensional thinking on my part. Rocket internet is majorly responsible for the urgency we have in our local tech system especially in the ecommerce space. Alongside stretched startups, they leave in their wake human capacity trained on their dime a more developed market and of course a new investor holding the bag. I’m certain the local advertizing companies are also not complaining.

A negative remains though. In other successful tech ecosystems, local money is a major part of the tech scene so when there is an exit, the money is poured back to the local economy and it gets bigger. With the Rocket model, nothing like that happens.

How do you solve a problem like Rocket Internet? Protectionism or Xenophobia?

What is worrisome in Jason’s post is the fact that a legitimate problem (the Rocket extraction model is not the best for a fledgling ecosystem) is muddled with the xenophobic “stop the foreigners” solution.

What is bad for the Nigerian ecosystem is the extraction game irrespective of who plays it.

[Side note: Interestingly, Nigerian politicians and to a large extent ‘business men’ are guiltier in playing the extraction game. They take money from Nigeria (usually foreign loans) and go and develop Dubai. At least Rocket is bringing in money before planning to take out their spoils.]

I’m in favour of protectionism to an extent.

Protectionism are laws created to protect local companies from foreign (company) competition especially if the locals are operating at a disadvantage. The value in protecting home companies is based on the assumption that they will employ residents, pay tax and limit capital flight. They more they succeed, the more tax they will pay and more people they will be employed locally. Local companies could be run by New Zealanders for all anyone cares. i.e citizenship of local company owners does not matter.

Hypocritical words

Jason states:

“We are at the cusp of losing the key internet 1.0 verticals to non-indigenous players. This is something which would be dire for the ecosystem at large.”

 

“My simple thought. Our fathers lost the Telecoms, PayTV and other technologically driven industries to foreigners. Let’s not make the same mistake and lose our internet industry.”

So what exactly is he arguing are we losing?

If he is talking of returns, shouldn’t those who take risk be rewarded? When Konga and IROKO eventually successfully create a massive liquidity event, who would win?

Well, their approximately 100% foreign investors.

Is he talking about losing by building foreign capacity as against building local capacity?

Jason’s Co-founder, first angel investor and IROKO COO Bastian (who runs the company) is ironically, German (same with Rocket’s founders). DealDey (Sim’s previous company) is run by a foreigner. Konga and IROKO have foreigners in leadership positions.

There is no noticeable difference between the citizen structure i.e the citizen composition of the employees of either Sim/Jason’s company and an average Rocket Internet company e.g. EasyTaxi and Jumia (until recently) are Nigerian run.

I have previously written about why we are losing the investment game to foreigners.  In summary, there is less risk and turnaround time in investing in traditional tangible opportunities like real estate. Only those who have made money via software can see the internet opportunity. Sadly, they are not much around.

Competition:

The absence of international competition is the reason why Nigerian payments infrastructure has been way behind. Without competition in PayTV, we would have been at the mercy of HiTV that broadcasted premier league matches without sound or halftime commentary.  Without competition the customers will lose.

The world is flat and companies can no longer hope to be protected by artificial political borders. From day one, you should build like the biggest player in the world is going to launch in your market tomorrow.

The sole reason Silicon Valley is the outright leader in technology startups globally, is the combination of the concentration of talent brought by the high priority placed on competence irrespective of origin and a lot of money.

What is the way forward?

Asides the xenophobic card, how do local ‘underfunded’ companies compete against the foreigners especially those playing the extraction game?

Ironically, Jason answered  this in the beginning of his post referencing the Alibaba movie

“a great company culture, locally focused product development and a fierce belief in your local market can withstand and defeat a massive global competitor”

In addition to the above the government has a role in ensuring local capacity is built. Local businesses are encouraged to  operate/employ locally,  Yadda.. yadda  yadda..

 

First they came for Rocket Internet, but I did not speak up because I was not German..

Then they came for the Kenyans, but I did not speak up because I was not Kenyan..

 

PS:

  1. I do not for one second think either Jason or Sim are xenophobic one bit. Jason is even arguably British. But playing the xen? card for short term individual business advantage is VERY detrimental to the general ecosystem at large in the long term.
  2. Make no mistake, I am a very biased man all things equal, if a local company is executing at 70% of their foreign counterpert, I will go with a local. Same with friend vs. non –friend, family vs. non-family. Etc. However, I will not go attacking the other.
  3. Being pro x is cool, being anti y, had better be justified and being foreign is the worst of justifications.
  4. Triple irony is that Alibaba’s major investor was Yahoo! – a foreign company founded by a Chinese immigrant who would not have founded an American company if Silicon Valley was anti-foreigner (this is getting too meta for me).
  5. Oh. The Alibaba story was told by a foreigner.

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