During late 2014, something odd happened. A friend of mine was hired by Rocket Internet even before he attained his official diploma from Makerere University in Kampala (Uganda). It was the first time I witnessed such aggressive headhunting from a relatively, at the time, unfamiliar company.
It’d be an exciting and fast-paced role under Rocket Internet’s Africa Internet Group (AIG) — what would later be folded into JUMIA Group.
At the time, AIG (Jumia, Lamudi, HelloFood, EverJobs, etc.) was on a major expansion spree in specific African markets, although its close competitor, One Africa Media Group through its vertical classifieds (Cheki, BrighterMonday, etc.) was doubling down operations in several African markets too. OLX, now a Naspers company, was the newer kid on the block in most markets outside South Africa, and it so badly wanted a bigger piece of the e-commerce pie too.
Cloning Silicon Valley
Moving on, a couple of years down the road, my friend left his data analyst/machine learning role at Rocket Internet (AIG).
Was he laid off?
I do not know. However, he was sold on the idea of replicating successful Internet businesses from Silicon Valley in emerging markets. He was sold on Rocket Internet’s vision and top-notch execution. He was a Samwer convert.
In mid-2016, he asked me to compile a spreadsheet of e-commerce players in Uganda. I graciously did, but that stopped at that. I do not know whether he was discouraged by the 29 plus e-commerce startups operating across different verticals, given I had barely scratched the surface, or whether he noticed JUMIA’s consolidation in the 11 countries they operated in.
It was clear many startups were closing shop as fast as they had opened. Carey Eaton’s death in 2014 had seriously affected One Africa Media Group’s operations. Almost all major players were burning cash at a significant rate.
Or, as some say, life happened. My friend shelved his plans for an e-commerce onslaught back home and took another competitive job in another company in Europe.
Africa's e-commerce renaissance and labels
I tell this short story in order to give a snapshot of how JUMIA — and others — have led an e-commerce renaissance on a continent where there was virtually nothing. Broken retail, non-existent infrastructure, tepid customers, poor broadband, you name it.
Rightfully, JUMIA is Africa’s first technology startup unicorn to be listed on the much vaunted New York Stock Exchange (NYSE). On 12 April 2019, Jumia Technologies AG — incorporated in Germany with distributed centers of operation in Dubai, Portugal, and Paris — sounded the IPO bell at the NYSE under the ticker: $JMIA.
Having opened at $18.9, the stock closed at more than 75% on its first day of trading — but the temperatures regarding JUMIA’s roots and identity equally simmered on a high the following day. Led by TMS Ruge and Rebecca Enonchong, the debate took quick and ugly turns.
Olumide Olusanya, in a Medium post, took a fiery jab at pan-African social justice warriors, further entering a tangential cadenza in the worship of Oliver Samwer’s foresightedness and wits in synthesizing how the American e-commerce model could be replicated in markets all over the world, even at global margins. He exclaimed, in a typical religio-fanatical homily, that Oliver Samwer was his African hero!
Previously, Laolu Samuel-Biyi had authored an authoritative first-person account of his time at Kasuwa and Sabunta which would later be part of JUMIA Nigeria, pretty much sounded that, “it is already a success story; an African unicorn.”
Iyinoluwa Aboyeji, a two-time co-founder of Andela and Flutterwave, wrote on his new media platform what is by far the most balanced take on the issue at hand. He says that what matters at the end is, “JUMIA’s roots are proudly African and that’s all that matters.”
Capital has no nationality, but also capital is a coward. Savvy (African) founders have domiciled their companies in tax-and investor friendly locations such as Delaware, Dubai, and Mauritius. In fact, Andela, Flutterwave, Paystack among others are all incorporated in the U.S. and that does not strip them of their African heritage.
As has been argued, the main market a startup serves suitably qualifies it as African — that’s if labels matter anyway.
"Do we designate the 50% of Fortune 500 companies founded by American immigrants like Sergey Brin, Elon Musk and Peter Thiel as foreign companies?"Iyinoluwa Aboyeji
However, there’s a problematic line of thought seen in Iyin’s commentary above. America is a different country. It was founded by immigrants (and built under the perforce of imperialism and slavery). For the second or third generation of immigrants that built top tech companies, they were effectively woven into the American consciousness. They became American by association or by altogether denouncing their former citizenships.
Unlike, JUMIA’s French CEOs— Sacha Poignonnec and Jeremy Hodara — do not need to undergo such radical nationality changes. Times have changed.
Incorporating a company in major attractive foreign destinations is now as easy as a click of a button. All in all, JUMIA’s IPO is enormous for Africa. It might serve as a guardrail, but not as a paradigm. Capital will flow nonetheless, to those it is comfortable with.
Cover image credit: Man sitting on a boda boda in Kampala. Random Institute/Unsplash