Noel K. Tshiani is the founder of Congo Business Network, which has partnered with the Africa Fintech Summit (AFTS) since April 2019 to mobilise startups and government officials from the Democratic Republic of Congo to participate in various editions of the summit held in Washington, Addis Ababa, Cairo, and Cape Town. He discusses the evolution of the summit from its inception to the upcoming November edition in Lusaka, Zambia, with Andrew Barden, lead organiser, and Zekarias Amsalu, co-founder of the event.
Since its inception in 2017, the Africa Fintech Summit (AFTS) has grown into a key fintech event, not just in Africa, but globally. Can you share with me the initial vision behind the AFTS, and how it has evolved over the past editions, leading to the upcoming 10th edition in Lusaka, Zambia?
Andrew Barden: The original vision, which remains our vision today, is that Africa is uniquely positioned to be a global leader in the financial technology industry, that much work remains to be done, and that fintech can transform people’s lives and economies through the power of meaningful financial inclusion and enhanced sustainable development.
We take great care in organising each summit because we are uniquely positioned to be a catalyst for enabling investment, building balanced regulation, and facilitating collaboration across sectors and geographies. Over the years, AFTS has become the top stage for industry stakeholders to explore, debate, and connect around this shared vision for African fintech.
The AFTS has supported millions in capital raise efforts and has been instrumental in shaping policy guidelines and startup ecosystems. From your perspective, what are some of the most transformational impacts the summit has had, especially concerning the African fintech landscape?
AB: That is a spectacular question. Personally, I have always been fascinated by the entrepreneurial process. One of the programmes we have run since day one is our AlphaExpo Micro-Accelerator. This non-equity programme has enabled many startups across the continent to not only raise their public profile, but also to connect with potential investors and like-minded individuals.
Some people have told me, “Africa has too many fintechs.” I do not agree with that thinking. I believe that as a pan-African ecosystem, we need to do everything we can to remove the barriers to entry that prevent entrepreneurs from taking the step from idea to execution.
The summit is known for its cross-sectoral collaborations involving investors, entrepreneurs, and regulators. How do you manage to bring such diverse stakeholders under one roof, and what has been the secret sauce in fostering successful partnerships and new business ventures?
AB: The short answer is a lot of phone calls, emails, and letters. Getting the right decision makers in the room is the result of years of building relationships across industries and geographies. At AFTS, we pride ourselves on not being a “pay-to-play” event; it is important to us that this diverse and dynamic industry is well represented at each edition. The secret sauce for us is our thought-leadership-first approach and our focus on keeping the majority of our audience at the C-suite and director level. These two things work together to allow for the organic discovery and conversation necessary for efficient dealmaking and relationship building.
Given the variety of participants at the summit, from seasoned investors to budding fintech entrepreneurs, how do you ensure that there is a shared vision and synergy among attendees? What strategies have proven effective in aligning the interests of these diverse groups towards common goals?
AB: Of course, everyone will have their own opinions and insights, but when it comes to the macro vision of Africa’s fintech industry as a means to drive meaningful financial inclusion and sustainable economic development, I have not met many people in our industry who disagree with that vision. However, when it comes to the specifics of how that vision can be realised, that is where people start to disagree.
One of the benefits of being a sector-specific event is that AFTS attracts an audience that is already heavily focused on the fintech sector. With a wide net of different stakeholders attending AFTS, it is special to listen to many of the conversations on and off stage, because, while people may share a macro vision for African fintech, the different perspectives often help open people’s eyes to much more than their “focus area”. For me, it is less about aligning everyone’s vision and more about facilitating a conversation about a vision that is both geographically diverse and inclusive of different stakeholders.
Last year, in collaboration with Congo Business Network, AFTS organised a panel in French at the 8th edition in Cape Town, South Africa. This year, you have renewed this partnership for the panel titled: “Fintechs and the future of financial inclusion in francophone Africa”. Why is it essential to emphasise the French-speaking region in Africa, and what unique opportunities and challenges does francophone Africa present in the fintech business?
AB: There has been a divide that has cut off much of francophone Africa from participating in the conversations around financial technology in Africa. For me, it is important that we emphasise that Africa is not a monolith but rather a mosaic of cultures, languages, and more. I would say that not only is it important to highlight the francophone part of the continent, but it is also paramount that we facilitate the pan-African community to come together in a meaningful way. If you have ever been to an African Union meeting, there are many languages being spoken and translated at the same time. I see no reason why the private sector cannot do the same.
As we look towards the 10th edition of the AFTS in Lusaka, Zambia, what should attendees expect in terms of content, innovation showcases, and opportunities? Further, as a co-founder, can you share some insights on the future trajectory of AFTS, especially in light of the rapid developments in African fintech?
Zekarias Amsalu: We have a lot planned for the Lusaka edition and have been working closely with many spectacular stakeholders, including Zambia’s Ministry of Science and Technology as well as the Payments Association of Zambia. Planning for the Lusaka edition is on track to welcome over 700 delegates from over 60 countries around the world and will cover topics such as fintech’s involvement in artificial intelligence, cross-border trade, infrastructure development, climate adaptation, and much more. While in Lusaka, we will look forward to announcing next year’s summit, and we will actively be working to foster greater collaboration across industries and geographies.
As the co-founder of AFTS, can you recount the inspiration behind launching this platform, and how do you perceive its growth and evolution leading up to the upcoming 10th edition in Lusaka, Zambia?
ZA: Organically, since 2017, AFTS has grown to become a world-leading platform for Africa’s fintech stakeholders. When we started, fintech in Africa was a much smaller industry, but we recognized the need for collaboration between stakeholders and the encouragement of entrepreneurship. Over the years, we have had the pleasure of bringing several major investors and corporations to the continent for the first time.
The AFTS is not just a conference, but an ecosystem-building initiative. Could you delve into the importance of creating such an ecosystem in Africa, and how initiatives like workshops, pitch competitions, and ecosystem tours contribute to the growth and dynamism of the fintech sector?
ZA: “Ecosystem” is a word that is overused in the startup world, but we like to think of it as a community. How can we better strengthen the community of fintech professionals in Africa? Anyone can connect with anyone else, but if you do not take the time and effort to build meaningful connections, it becomes much harder to operate in the industry. Much of our industry is built on partnerships, and that cannot happen without community building. We see our initiatives, especially our ecosystem tour, as a way to strengthen this fintech community and propel it into the future.
The dual nature of AFTS, taking place in Washington, DC and rotating among African cities, seems strategic. How do you believe this bi-geographical approach has impacted the discourse on African fintech, especially when juxtaposed with global events like the spring meetings of the World Bank Group and the International Monetary Fund?
ZA: This bi-geographic approach and our model of choosing a new host city each November does not make our job any easier. While it would undoubtedly be simpler to replicate the summit in a fixed location each year, as is common with many other events, our team at AFTS is committed to constantly exploring new markets to broaden the impact of our message. Hosting the summit in Washington, DC during the spring meetings of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund has played an important role in not only bringing the diaspora to the table, but also in building credibility for Africa’s technology sector.
For example, a New York City-based investor who has never done business in Africa may not be willing to fly to the continent to learn and see for themselves, but if they see an event focused on African fintech just a short train ride away from Washington, that alone helps remove the barrier to entry. Several investors have come to the summit in Washington specifically to “explore” what is going on. After the summit, they emailed us asking when the next one was on the continent.
With an impressive track record of supporting millions in capital raise efforts and significantly aiding market entry and policy guideline creation, how do you envision the next phase of AFTS? Particularly, what do you believe are the emerging opportunities and challenges for African fintechs as we enter 2024?
ZA: Our team sees a lot of work to be done in the area of public education. One of the core values we hold at AFTS is the belief that financial inclusion is paramount, but financial inclusion is meaningless without the development of financial literacy. Over the next decade, I believe we will see more and more fintechs operating outside of the Big Four markets.
This is one of the reasons why we held our summit in Addis Ababa in the past and in Lusaka this year. In terms of challenges, the slowdown we are seeing in venture funding is strengthening the overall due diligence process that fintechs have to go through, and will help to add credibility to the fintech space for those companies that are able to raise funding at this time and those that are able to become cash flow positive.