Shifting the narrative on doing business in Africa
January 16, 2024
Adam Wakefield

Necessity is the mother of all invention. In an African context, the need for solutions to customer problems without the enabling infrastructure found elsewhere worldwide has led to the continent becoming a hotbed of innovation, especially within the fintech space (with agritech and healthtech not far behind).

It is in this context that Nicole Dunn seeks to make a significant impact. A believer in the power of entrepreneurship to drive sustainable growth in Africa, Nicole is passionate about unlocking unrealised potential and shifting the narrative about doing business in Africa.

“It’s naive to think that doing business in Africa isn’t hard. But the way that people talk about it is often overwhelmingly negative — as if to write off the continent as being a recipient of Western progress and advancement. I firmly believe that African startups are changing the tide of global innovation,” Nicole says.

“There is so much ingenuity on the continent, and the significant challenges that exist are a large part of the opportunity. I want to be a part of the movement to change how the world sees Africa — from a recipient to a pioneer and contributor.”

Nicole has been interested in entrepreneurship since high school. As the daughter of two doctors, she has always wanted to make the world a better place, but in a way that scales beyond her own time. That drew her to policy change — first imagining that she would become a lawyer — before realising she didn’t like being constrained by precedent.

“I’ve always been a bit contrarian. I don’t like being told, ‘that’s just the way it is’ — my mum jokes that ‘why’ was my favourite word growing up. I’m incredibly curious about how things work — from people to systems to businesses. I always hated the advice to ‘stay in your lane’ and ‘play the game’.”

In her first year of university, Nicole was accepted into the Allan Gray Orbis Foundation, a social enterprise that aims to increase the number of high-impact, socially responsible entrepreneurs in Southern Africa through nurturing young entrepreneurial potential. That exposed her to a community of like-minded individuals who shared her ambition to make a difference through building businesses. There, she met Hope Ditlhakanyane, who she would go on to work with at Founders Factory Africa (FFA).

During her time at the University of Cape Town, Nicole sought out opportunities to understand local entrepreneurs’ challenges and the support mechanisms available to them. She worked for an enterprise development (ED) consultancy, supporting micro-entrepreneurs in two of Cape Town’s largest townships. While the experience strengthened Nicole’s belief in entrepreneurship’s ability to drive socio-economic change, it exposed how numerous bad actors were taking advantage of the funding ecosystem, diverting needed capital from where it was needed most.

After the ED consultancy, Nicole served as programme manager for the accelerator programme #cocreatetoaccelerate, a unique trade mission led by the Dutch consulate, her first exposure to the tech startup accelerator model. Nicole discovered her passion for supporting early-stage technology companies but felt that her limited career experience constrained her impact.

That desire to broaden her career horizons led Nicole in 2018 to join London-based challenger consultancy, Elixirr, with the firm focused on helping clients disrupt their industry. Nicole quickly specialised in corporate innovation models and new venture design, helping African financial institutions partner with startups, setting up strategic investment capabilities, and rapidly taking new products to market.

During her three years at Elixirr, the company listed on the London Stock Exchange, whereafter Nicole moved into the Mergers & Acquisitions team, where she managed the group’s acquisition pipeline and led commercial due diligence on a strategic acquisition. By the time Nicole left Elixirr in 2021, the business had evolved from a private company of about 60 into a public company of over 200 people.

“It was an incredible time to be a part of the company. I couldn’t have asked for a better start to my career. Although a lot changed in those three years, the high quality bar and entrepreneurial spirit remained the same,” Nicole says.

“I learned a lot about how to create an ownership culture, and about myself. I work best when I have real skin in the game. It was unimaginable that I would leave, but when Founders Factory Africa approached me, I was too excited by the mission to say no.”

It was FFA’s Chief Venture Architect, Sam Sturm, who reached out to Nicole to gauge her interest in joining the team as its Venture Scale Lead. What led Nicole to return to South Africa, beyond FFA’s mission, was its uniquely diverse portfolio of businesses and founders, and FFA’s team of experts.

Nicole’s time at Founders Factory Africa

During her time at FFA, Nicole gained an in-depth understanding of the challenges African founders face, especially as they look to scale. African markets are relatively small and fragmented, and from Nicole’s perspective, the venture capital ecosystem is still nascent. Founders often feel isolated and do not have an established ecosystem that they can leverage to support their growth.

“Venture capital has only meaningfully emerged in Africa in the past five to eight years. The impact on founders is that there isn’t an established ecosystem to leverage — tech stacks must often be built from scratch, startups must solve for the whole value chain rather than a niche, and there aren’t third-generation founders that can act as early angel investors and advisers,” Nicole says.

FFA’s model is designed with these market constraints in mind. The company was founded on the premise that entrepreneurs need access to more than capital: They need access to the right skills and partners at the right time. To address this market need, FFA has built a team of 35+ in-house experts, who work alongside founders to get their product to market, test and iterate at pace, and de-risk growth.

“The experimentation mindset in Founders Factory Africa is something that I will be taking with me into my next chapter and all future roles. The reality is, even the best plans and strategies can be wrong or quickly become irrelevant with the pace of market change. Instead of overthinking and over-analysing, simply putting down a hypothesis and a plan to test assumptions can help you make better decisions based on real data.”

Nicole credits FFA as a platform to build long-lasting relationships and networks that are vital in building a business while equipping her with the skills, network, and courage to take the leap into entrepreneurship.

“It can be a lonely journey, and knowing I’m part of a community that is committed to enabling early-stage entrepreneurs gives me a great deal of comfort. I was also lucky to work with dozens of investors, founders, and ecosystem partners during my tenure — relationships that I will lean on in this next chapter.”

Some of the work that Nicole is most proud of at FFA is actively collaborating with more than 15 founders on their business and go-to-market strategies across multiple African markets, leading the design and delivery of FFA’s Scale programme, and identifying and driving multiple process improvements within FFA’s model.

From advisor to builder

Given how deeply Nicole involves herself in her work and the degree to which she worked with founders across different industry verticals, it is perhaps not surprising that she has embraced the challenges of a founder and business builder. It was the opportunity to build something of her own that led to Nicole join Revio, a startup that seeks to help businesses collect more revenue through better customer interactions.

The problem Revio is solving, as described by Nicole, is addressing a significant pain point in Africa, and emerging markets globally. Businesses lose billions of dollars in revenue each year due to poor payment interactions. When payments fail, companies have few options to collect the funds — and even fewer options to prevent payment failures before they happen. This results in lost revenue, an operational nightmare, and a bad customer experience.

“Joining as COO, I’m really excited to work with an experienced team who is passionate about solving this problem, and shifting the narrative about doing business in Africa. We’re an ambitious leadership team that are experienced enough to know the challenges, but bold enough to build this business anyway,” Nicole says.