African or not, it’s Jumia’s value not race that matters

First,I warmly congratulate RwandAir upon its maiden flight to DR Congo capital, Kinshasa, it is a signal of an opportunity-boom under new President Félix Tshisekedi. I also congratulate Jumia, upon it’s billion-dollar historic Initial Public Offering (IPO) on the New York Exchange.

I, however, want to rant, against the fact that an online section of Africans on Twitter took issue with the aspect of Jumia’s claim of being ‘African’ going as far as starting a hashtag #JumiaIsNotAfrican to which respected personalities contributed their time.

The voices under that hash-tag were harsh and some, rather unfortunate. At a time when almost every African country is running a national campaign to attract foreign direct investment to boost job creation efforts, Afrocentric attitude is simply counter-productive.

We Africans love to lament but it is not going to solve our problems; ranting is not going to finance the many brilliant African start-ups that fail to scale because there is no supportive African financing ecosystem to invest into ideas and start-ups with strong business cases.

The online hullabaloo regarding ‘Jumia’s race’ was a result of, in my view, CEO Sacha Poignonnec’s honest responses to questions asked by the CNBC panel of business journalists.

From a corporate public relations assessment, it was a risk for Jumia’s communication team not to pre-screen questions and answers, before an interview of such significance.

Alone on live TV where there is normally no time to reflect, Sacha gave innocently honest answers which Afrocentric Twitter users picked-on and their negativity nearly choking the otherwise positive story of Jumia’s historic success on its NYE bourse debut.

The CNBC journalist asked, ‘with headquarters in Germany and Dubai and engineering talent in Portugal, is it possible to get tactical talent from Africa so that you can completely be an African as opposed to being a European company?’

Sacha answered, “We (Jumia) operate exclusively in Africa with over 5000 employees.” He was not incorrect; in Rwanda, I have seen the delivery staff on errands around town.

I have witnessed them at work in other EAC cities. To them, it doesn’t matter that they’re not working as Jumia developers, they seem happy with the jobs they have, delivering client orders.

To African economies trying to create jobs for the millions of unemployed youths through investment, only Jumia’s contribution to that objective should matter...not its ‘African-ness.’

Actually, the fact regarding Jumia’s ‘nationality’ is that it was born in 2012, to European and African parents, namely, Jeremy Hodari, Sacha Poignonnec (both ex-McKinsey consultants with vast global experience), along with Africans Tunde Kehinde and Raphael Kofi Afaedor.

The cyber attack on Jumia’s race, was therefore a disguised racial attack on the individuals behind Jumia’s European paternity; that should be condemned by all global minded Africans.

Some questioned the absence of Jumia’s African parents in the success story of its IPO. A counter-thought would be, if Jumia was in the news for the wrong reasons, say, it was closing down, would its former associates equally demand for media visibility?

They left the company and there is no ongoing legal suit, which means it was a mutual separation and therefore shouldn’t distract us from the African lady, Juliet Anannah, CEO Jumia Nigeria, who shared the media limelight, standing between Sacha and Jeremy during the IPO.

Regarding Jumia’s engineering lab being in Portugal, Sacha’s honest response was again used against him when he said; ‘in Africa there’s not enough developers, that is the reality and we need to collectively address that, everything should be in Africa, this is what we want but it won’t happen overnight.’

Unless I missed it, no one has countered Sacha with alternative data, showing that Africa is overflowing with developers. The facts are on Sacha’s side though. For instance, ‘there are five open jobs for every software developer looking for a job in the U.S. alone.’

Scarcity of developer talent is Andela’s sole mission in Africa; ‘to bridge that gap, solving the global tech talent shortage while catalysing the growth of tech-ecosystems on the continent.’

It would be unrealistic of anyone, including Marieme Jamme, to think that Africa has more developers than a first world tech market like USA. Actually, Marieme tweeted under the same harsh hash-tag that ‘Jumia is stealing African start-ups identity.’

I found that a rather an unfair charge, if at all, it should be instead leveled against Africa’s failure to fund business cases of brilliant start-ups and help them scale-up.

This pushes African entrepreneurs to a point of frustration making them easy prey for those with money to buy them off. Indeed, as a business and growth strategy, Jumia has been buying off or merging with smaller start-ups in the e-commerce space, to reduce competition and build itself into an African e-commerce market leader.

With its successful IPO and all the money raised, Jumia will cement its market position. But there is something fundamental to celebrate.

The fact that MTN Group was an early corporate investor in Jumia says a lot about what established African brands can do, to promote African start-ups. We want to see more of that.

In Rwanda, let me praise Bank of Kigali, whose Urumuri Initiative is helping kick-start local start-ups with interest-free loans, annually.  Wealthy Africans can do the same. For instance, Tony Elumelu’s Foundation which is devoted to supporting entrepreneurs.


The views expressed in this article  are of the author.