How Africa’s Tech Boom & A Rising Pro Services Scene Power Each Other

By  |  January 27, 2023

In recent years, the tech startup ecosystem in Africa has been experiencing rapid growth. As more and more entrepreneurs launch new ventures and established companies expand their operations, the need for a wide range of professional services has grown as well. Among the most in-demand services are those related to public relations, legal, recruitment, as well as marketing and branding. Other areas such as consulting, accounting, and auditing are also seeing some latent demand.

Among the rising crop of startup-facing professional services firms in African tech, public relations (PR) agencies have become increasingly important for tech startups as they look to build their brand and gain visibility in the marketplace. A good PR agency can help a startup get coverage in the press, build relationships with publicity conduits, and create content that resonates with its target audience. This is especially important for startups that are trying to stand out in an increasingly crowded marketplace and attract the attention of investors and customers.

The growth of the tech startup ecosystem in Africa is driving the demand for a wide range of professional services, with PR services particularly thriving. These services, often making a difference behind the scenes in a manner sometimes likened to unsung heroes, are critical for startups as they look to build their brand, protect their intellectual property, attract and retain the best talent and reach their target audience.

As the tech startup ecosystem in Africa continues to expand, there would be greater demand for these services in the future, according to Jessica Hope, Founder of Wimbart, a prominent African tech-focused PR Agency based in London. Launched in 2015, Wimbart has worked on over 80 of the continent’s most exciting and well-funded brands and companies with a focus on Nigeria, Kenya, Ghana, South Africa and the MENA region. Wimbart clients include Andela, M-KOPA, Ventures Platform, 54gene, Piggyvest, IROKO and more.

Jessica, whose team has grown to more than two dozen PR professionals most of whom sit in the London office but have a connection to Africa, sat down for an extensive conversation with WT to explore the rise of professional services in the African tech startup ecosystem, and to gain insights into the unique challenges and opportunities that come with building a thriving business in this exciting and dynamic market.

How would you describe the role/importance of professional services in the African tech industry and its current impact on what has become of the ecosystem at present?

Jessica: PR marketing is all part of the storytelling. And I think it’s certainly helped to attract investment, not just from the continent, but also globally as well. So I think it is an important part of the ecosystem. I know people do fundraise without PR and maybe they already have brilliant networks, or they already have ins with VCs or PE firms as well.

I also think PRs helped a lot to help attract talent as well, which is really important. Professional services give the industry more professional ways of doing things. And it’s not just PR, it’s also legal consultancy, as well as recruitment, auditing and accounting services and more. Professional services have grown alongside the African tech ecosystem as well, Wimbart has grown from like one to 27 people, for instance, and we’re looking to hire more. 

In our field, it’s important to work really closely with not just the comms managers, but also CEOs to help them with their messaging, and help them see the power of PR in terms of their own growth trajectory, their hiring, their fundraising, all of those things.

Would you say PR specifically is a nice-to-have or need-to-have in African tech at the moment?

Jessica: You can definitely achieve relative success without PR, it’s a misconception to think that PR is going to lead the company. Your business strategy has to lead the company; your operations lead the company. PR is a kind of marketing discipline, and it should be wrapped around the business objectives as well.

If you’re, for instance, looking to raise money from some international VC firms, it helps if you have your own networks within those VC firms. But if you don’t,  how do you get in front of those VC networks, the global ones as well? That’s where PR comes in to help get your name out there, and it might be through WeeTracker or other media, for example, or through events and other things.

PR is important and as a business scales, there are several aspects required to make a business happen. In the early days, it’s usually just the founder and the founding team. But as you grow, and as you scale, you do need to get your name out there. The important thing is you need to be targeted, so it’s not just a spray-and-pray approach.

How much of a responsibility is it on PR firms to handpick or vet their clients so as not to whitewash bad actors?

Jessica: I’m not going to say a blanket “yes, they absolutely have to,” because there are also companies where there is a pressing need to, I guess, generate income, and I can’t dictate everyone’s moral compass.

At Wimbart though, we do try where possible to do our own due diligence. If, for example, it doesn’t quite feel right after doing our checks – and it has happened a couple of times before –  we turn down the work. But that’s just us. 

I believe it’s important as we do not want bitter drama further down the line, so we really consider our own reputation as well as building the reputation of our clients as well.

Why do you serve African startups, specifically, considering there are sentiments of a mismatch as you’re based in London?

Jessica: I don’t see a conflict. I guess it was just from my three years at iROKO; promoting the African tech space through iROKO and its founder, Jason Njoku, when no one else really was.

Back in November, I was with a VC who’s quite well-known now and he was trying to tell me that the African tech space really started in 2014, with Andela. And I was like, it didn’t, actually. Andela is huge and incredibly successful, but people were doing cool stuff before Andela. The African tech space has been growing for like a decade now and I guess I was one of the early ones working in that space with Jason, along with other tech founders as well.

I started out working in the African tech space. Yes, I’m based in London, but I spent a lot of time on the continent, and the vast majority of the people at Wimbart have a connection with Africa. It’s either they are maybe born in the UK but have Nigerian parents, or they’re born in Nigeria, and they’ve moved over here as well. So it’s sort of a crossover.

The PR sector in the UK is kind of very white, but we are different because we are probably 90-95 percent Black and minority ethnic. Ours is a very diverse team, with lots of senior women that work here as well. We’re different in lots of ways.

Can you give an overview of the services your firm offers to startups in Africa?

Jessica: At Wimbart, we do everything from campaign plans where we think about how we are going to promote your news stories, again, lots of fundraising announcements, but it could also be a product launch or a new hire.

So, we do press releases and media messaging, and we help our clients with media preparation, as well as how to engage with journalists. We also assist in curating blog posts and have started doing more social media as we’ve grown as well.

Last year, there were a lot of, I guess, more crisis communications, and that’s going to grow as the space matures. We have also started adding extra services and support services. So, sometimes it’s just consultancy in terms of looking at businesses or operations with a fresh pair of eyes. So, our forte is consultancy as well as content and communications.

What would you classify as some of the successes that you’re most proud of, even though they were somewhat challenging?

Jessica: I mean, there’s loads but I would say our long-term relationships as there are clients that we worked with for a really long time such as Andela, Kobo360, iROKO, and M-KOPA. I count those as successes.

Last year was our busiest year as we grew a lot, and we announced over USD 970 M worth of fundraising for African startups – so almost a billion dollars – as well as significant fund closes for key investors among which are Ventures Platform and TLcom Capital.

What are the principles or practices that have aided Wimbart’s progress thus far?

Jessica: It isn’t easy but there are a few areas that I think have been a game changer for us. Being consistent with the kind of quality of work that we’ve been doing is crucial. I care more about the quality of work than the margins. So, if a piece of work is not good enough, it won’t leave the agency. It has to be really good.

I think, secondly, we’ve been steady with growth, we’ve definitely grown a lot over the last two or three years. We’ve grown steadily, maybe slowly but surely. And that’s allowed us as we grow to be able to attract some incredible talents. The third thing is that we never ever take on work if we can’t do a good job. We started building a client waitlist, maybe two or three years ago, because we couldn’t find enough talent. We couldn’t grow fast enough to keep up with demand. So what we would say to people is really “sorry, we can’t take on this work at the moment,” because we’re not in a position to throw full “Wimbart energy” at it. And I honestly think that founders appreciate that transparency even though it has frustrated them in the past.

The other thing is that we have been lucky to have amazing clients, and we are even luckier that we have amazing clients who introduce us to new clients. And I think, consistently, except for during peak Covid. I’ve tried to be very present over the years in terms of going to events and meeting people, and have been fortunate to cultivate a network.

As an aside, Wimbart has played a part in putting a lot of companies out there and advancing their plans and fundraising goals. Has Wimbart itself raised funding?

Jessica: No, we’ve never raised any money. I think, seven years ago, my dad put in 3000 pounds when we started, which is not nothing, but it’s not that much money. We really just went from one client to the next, we bootstrapped, and have been careful with money – growing slowly in a sustainable manner.

We’ve had offers for people to invest, in fact, a number of times over the years, but I wanted us to be in a really good position before we even consider taking on investment and, you know, diluting my shares.

We might consider in the future but it would have to be a strategic investor who brings a lot to the table. Not just a lot of money, but a lot of strategy, or networks or access as well, it wouldn’t just be a money thing.

In terms of a potential acquisition, I would say all founders or business owners consider everything but it has to be right and has to be at the right time. But again, I’m kind of quite old-school in terms of wanting to make sure that my team is okay and that the Wimbart brand would hopefully remain quite as strong if an acquisition happens. Regardless, my main focus is always building and hitting consistent growth. And then let’s see how it goes. But it’s certainly not off the cards.

Can you speak to any challenges you’ve faced in working with tech startups in Africa? How have you been able to handle or overcome those challenges?

Jessica: Scaling has actually been difficult because we didn’t have the right talents for a long time, or we found it difficult to find the right talents. And so that was tricky.

On a few occasions, as is sometimes the case with professional services, we had clients that haven’t paid. So that’s been problematic for us as well. At times, there have been relationships with clients that proved somewhat difficult. 

One of the biggest companies in your clientele, Flutterwave, was mired in controversies last year. How did Wimbafrt handle that?

Jessica: I don’t know how much detail I can go into that. But I would say, in general, what we can only do is give our advice. It’s important that we give our advice, and take our clients on a journey. So, we don’t just say we think you should do this; we say we think you should do this, because of x, y, and z. And by taking you through the journey, we’re also going through all the different scenarios.

But, at the end of the day, we are still a professional services firm, and we are kind of external for the clients as well. We hope mostly the clients take our advice because we think we’re the experts when it comes to comms. But they don’t always do – quite often they do, sometimes they don’t.

However, our job is not just to be very black-and-white about things. It’s about explaining everything and going through, as I say, scenario planning. And sometimes you have to be quite creative with your thinking and your approaches as well. It’s also about building a reputation as partners, we have to build our reputation with the clients as well so they do trust our judgment.

What other services would you say constitute this segment of startup-facing professional services in African tech and what would living up to potential look like?

Jessica: Legal services are really important with all the deals being done, whether in consulting or advisory capacity. I think talent and recruitment firms, as well as marketing-as-a-service firms, are also becoming important for African startups as they scale.

How do you see the relationship between tech startups and professional services evolving over the next few years?

Jessica: I think tech startups will continue to realize how important professional services are. I think it’s early days, maybe they’re still not seen as a priority. But again, engaging legal services, or having a good recruitment provider, or a good PR company or a marketing company, is about understanding that people have their niches. And there’s a reason why you go to niche companies as well because they really do know what they’re doing. So I think it’s that sort of mutual understanding and mutual respect for each other’s skills.

Do you think the prevailing dynamic is more of the local tech scene hitting the next level because of professional services or professional services thriving because of Africa’s growing tech industry?

Jessica: Probably edging more towards startups are growing, so they need more professional services. It’s not like there were no professional services before recent years, they were just smaller. At Wimbart, we have grown alongside the African tech industry, so it’s collaborative – we kind of need each other and we’re fuelling each other as well.

But, at the same time, if for example, the startup sector contracts, then it’s likely that professional services will contract as well. But I think if professional services contracts, companies would still survive though they might leave themselves more open to legal troubles, regulatory mishaps, or other problems.

Speaking of PR and marketing, what’s the fundamental distinction in your view?

Jessica: I would say PR is a marketing discipline of sorts. But marketing is more adverts; it’s more paid-for and more controlled, whereas, in PR, you’re trying to sway or influence public opinion. And I would say that marketing is often more of a direct sales tool, it’s part of the funnel, whereas PR is probably a little bit more subtle. PR is a more long-term part of brand building as well, and it’s focused on shaping public opinion.

What advice would you give to startups who are thinking about PR or other professional services? What advice would you want them to consider?

Jessica: I would say they have to invest wisely. PR can be quite expensive, not just resource-heavy. And I’d say not just in terms of finance but in terms of time. You have to spend quite a lot of time with a PR agency to onboard the agency. So the agency can then faithfully represent you to the media. So it’s not just a case of, “oh, well read the website, and then you can do PR.” No, it’s not. It’s more personal than that. And it’s deeper than that as well. So PR takes time, that’s why it’s useful to have a long-term relationship.

Startups should really consider why they need that professional service. Do they like the people? Do they have a good reputation? And can they see it working long-term as well? And does that professional services company have their best interests at heart?

Can you speak to specific initiatives or programs that Wimbart has in place to support the growth of startups in Africa?

Jessica: Office Hours is like our most prolific one. Over three or four years, we’ve worked with over maybe 80 or 90 different startups. And it’s amazing when we see them get really good results. So that’s been our biggest one and it’s kind of time intensive as well in that we have webinars and keynotes with me and with our partners.

Senior members of the Wimbart team spend three days holding 30 to 40-minute sessions with startups, going through PR strategies and working with specific startups to ascertain their actual needs during that time. We also have keynote talks where it’s very much like: here’s an overview of everything, here’s a guide to PR, here’s a guide to wooing investors, here’s a guide to how the media works, etc.

And then we hold one-on-one sessions where we can drill down and speak specifically to those startups, figure out what they actually need at that moment in time as they often require different treatments, and explore how to execute.

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