Cote d’Ivoire Deep Dive Part IV: A regional hub for Francophone countries
March 15, 2024
Abderrahmane Chaoui

Welcome back to the final edition of our four-part Deep Dive into the Cote d’Ivoire tech ecosystem and the historical factors that shaped its current state. Where Part I and II covered Cote d’Ivoire’s socio-economic past, and Part III considered its more recent history and nascent tech beginning, Part IV will assess the current state of the ecosystem, its essential players, its role in the broader regional ecosystem, and its future growth prospects.

What stands out about Cote d’Ivoire’s ecosystem is that despite all the aforementioned structural challenges, it attracts the most startups and scaleups from its neighbouring Francophone countries.

Cote d’Ivoire counts as its advantages a specific availability of capital in diversified forms (DFIs, corporate, VC and PE, microfinance) and a network of corporates involved in stimulating the ecosystem while maintaining a sustained demand for tech/software products. Surprisingly, startup support organisations have been missing from the picture — certainly an Ivorian exception — but they are now stepping up, with many corporates launching set-ups in the country, such as CMA-CGM in the freight industry.

The most recent shop opening in the country is M-Studio, an ambitious venture studio led by serial entrepreneur Leslie Ossété, Cédric Mangeaud — co-founder of Saviu Ventures — and Clyde Fakhoury, general manager of PFO Africa, a PE fund focused on infrastructure. M-Studio’s thesis is simple: reproduce winning mobile-based business models from other regions or continents that target the informal economy. As of January 2024, M-Studio is expected to reach its target of creating 10 startups within its first year of activity. The venture studio is also engaging in ecosystem-building activities, hosting a large number of ecosystem events, taking part in many programs and training sessions and federating the ecosystem through different communities.

Among them is the VC-friendly community, a program that is free and accessible to all VCs interested in knowing more about the ecosystem in Cote d’Ivoire. M-Studio’s team offers a coworking space in their office and an updated list of ecosystem stakeholders they can facilitate meetings with.

The entrepreneurial sphere is clearly divided into two types of founder profiles. One is local founders. Part of the pipeline at the concept stage faces a glass ceiling, preventing most local founders from attaining the traction that would make them investable from pre-seed and above. A lot of capacity-building access to networks and markets is needed for founders at this stage, while universities currently have poor entrepreneurial curriculums. Moreover, the ratio of single sign-on (SSOs) per founder is meager, excluding them from the entrepreneurial culture they need to scale meaningfully. On the other hand, most (fast) growing startups that made it to market are led by expat founders — mostly from France — or members of the diaspora returning to Cote d’Ivoire with a deepened background (second-time founders or past experience in the industry). This last group logically attracts all VC funding in the country.

From an industry perspective, fintech is particularly dynamic and concentrates the majority of VC funding. From multi-channel aggregation platforms targeting both B2B or B2C (Julaya, Djamo) to online payment gateways (Cinetpay) and API infrastructure to support open-banking (Paystack, Hub2), the technology stack for fintech is becoming increasingly structured. This maturation is, enabling a more direct relationship with users and the further development of more advanced financial services for businesses and individuals.

Agritech is another particularly interesting industry due to the heavy weight of agriculture in the country’s GDP and employment. Its lack of sophistication and efficiency creates pockets of untapped value all along the value chain, which represents great opportunities for technology-enabled startups, from farming to processing and distribution. Among the most promising, Jool is using proprietary drone technology to allow for precision farming, while Cool Lion is extending the shelf-life of produce through easy-to-deploy and cost-effective cold storage solutions for farmers and distributors.

The size of the market and average GDP per capita in Cote d’Ivoire make it the preferred market in the Francophone region to test and kick-start retail/e-commerce businesses. Jumia has been educating the market and paving the logistics infrastructure for some years now, followed by Anka (ex-Afrikrea) in a specialised marketplace model that has evolved intelligently over the years.

A market for testing… and learning

Cote d’Ivoire offers many advantages for founders looking to expand their business and test it, with a favourable infrastructure and regulatory framework, existing demand from both corporate and consumer sides and a certain availability of risk capital. Its challenges, linked to its heterogeneous cultural environment and very localised context, make it a good laboratory for the challenges that founders and investors face on a continent-wide basis.

Relying on local partners is reportedly critical for investors assessing the region and enhance/process very local insights that are crucial to understanding the requirements to place on a business. On the same level, given the complexity surrounding the availability of human capital and technical support, it seems important to adopt a hands-on approach to investing and become a true partner for growth. This is especially true when assessing and supporting local founders who might not have all the codes that usually influence an investor’s perception.

For founders, it is required to adopt a frugal and bootstrap approach to expansion in the country. Cote d’Ivoire remains a challenging business environment, requiring resourcefulness and adaptability. Finding the right talent is also a key factor determining the success or failure of any type of business. Expansion means rebuilding the business almost from scratch and almost necessarily requires the active involvement of the founder and top management. Massive opportunities exist and often require the right connections and network rather than just a good value proposition, and having the right strategic partners around the table would most certainly help on this matter.

At a system level, finally, a strong effort must be placed on human capacity building in the market and the development of specific programs that can provide young local founders with adapted support to diversify and strengthen deal flow at the most early stages.

Thus concludes our four-part Deep Dive into the Cote d’Ivoire ecosystem. If you intend on doing work within the Cote d’Ivoire tech ecosystem, we hope you do so with a better understanding of the historical forces that shaped the ecosystem and its current state of play.

Abderrahmane Chaoui is an African ecosystem researcher, consultant, and writer.