The number of black-owned tech start-ups in South Africa may be on the rise, yet just four percent turn a profit currently, reveals a new survey. What then should be done about it?
In the survey - released on 22 November SA tech start-up publication Ventureburn - 50% of 260 tech startup founders reported that they were black founders (black African, coloured, Indian or Chinese South African). This is up from 26% in a 2015 survey of 197 founders by the publication.
Of the current survey, four percent opted not to reveal their race, while 46% listed themselves as white.
Yet, while 16% of start-ups founded by white entrepreneurs are turning a profit, a mere four percent of black-owned tech start-ups are doing the same. In addition 61% of black start-ups have yet to generate an income, compared to 30% of white start-ups.
Added to this white start-ups accounted for 59% of all those start-ups that reported having tapped angel funding.
The survey also reveals that white start-up founders are significantly older than black founders. Over a quarter of white founders are 40 years or older, compared to just 13% of black founders. Almost three quarters of black founders are aged 35 and younger.
This might explain why so few black start-ups are making a profit compared to white start-ups. Older founders are usually more experienced, better networked and have more capital than younger entrepreneurs.
Aligns with increase in black SMEs
The survey results suggesting the growing number of black tech start-ups, are in line with a study released earlier this year by Trade and Industrial Policy Strategies (TIPS) which revealed that the percentage of black-owned formal small businesses grew from 38% of such firms in 2002 to 49% in 2015 (see this post).
The figure however still lags behind the national population where black population make up 92% of South Africans.
A lack of black angel investors means the state has to get more involved. Earlier this year Matsi Modise (pictured above), head of start-up advocacy group Simodisa, said more black high-net-worth individuals would help to grow the angel investors pool.
But this alone won't be enough. A “black tax”, where black professionals are compelled to financially support relatives, also holds many back from investing in start-ups, she says.
State support still lacking
Perhaps then the state should intervene?
To some degree the state is already doing so - by offering incubation and seed funding and by using Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) legislation to compel large IT companies (including multinationals) to support and fund black entrepreneurs.
Yet there is much the state still needs to do. Just nine* of the 62 incubators under the government’s Small Enterprise Development Agency (Seda) support software or high-tech firms. The agency added three new incubators in 2016/17, two of which are incubators aimed at the high-tech sector (see this post). It needs to fund more such incubators.
A Pretoria-based incubator and science park - The Innovation Hub - has of late broadened its reach to innovative entrepreneurs, by adding township hubs (the eKasi Labs programme) and running Startupbootcamp and Startup Weekend events.
But its head McLean Sibanda admitted in May that it’s still difficult to find black entrepreneurs with unique ideas in the township. Too many township startups are pursuing “me-too ideas” over innovative ideas. More exposure to the networks of more affluent entrepreneurs might help and better schooling could help.
The introduction of seed grants in 2012 by the Technology Innovation Agency (TIA) could well help fund more black technology start-ups. The agency disburses grants of up to R600,000 through universities and selected small business support organisations.
In the last financial year the agency channelled R74.3m to 133 innovative projects - up from R66.5m in the 2015/16 year. Though the initiative isn't aimed exclusively at black innovators or entrepreneurs, a large number of those the agency supports are black.
Black tech start-ups have also to thank the country’s BEE legislation for increased support and funding.
Large IT companies such as telecoms provider Telkom (in which the state still retains about 50% ownership), as well multinational firms such as IBM and Microsoft have introduced support programmes in recent years.
For instance Telkom Futuremakers head Litha Kutta says three hubs that the telecoms provider backs support over 1,000 tech entrepreneurs involved in black-owned start-ups.
Among IT multinationals, IBM has provided support and funding to three black-owned IT companies and four aspiring black tech entrepreneurs in the last two years. It includes R1.2m in incubation support and about R2.5m in funding to two of these IT black firms.
But Bhavya Rama, who oversees IBM’s R700-million Equity Equivalence Investment Programme, says it’s not always easy to find black-owned IT firms, says Rama. “We’re finding that the market has challenges. Every startup claims that they have ICT capability, but when you look it’s only a few that have it.”
She also notes that many black tech startups getting support currently through incubation programmes are serial incubatees.
These are the kinds of challenges to be expected initially, when black startups are still struggling
But limit state's role
In the end the state's role should be limited - to support such as training and incubation and seed funding.
Helping to nurture a venture capital sector could help too, if the state were to launch a co-investment fund. Here an idea by Discovery Health CEO Adrian Gore might be worth testing - where fund managers could be enticed to invest in black startups in return for higher management fees (see this post).
In addition the state could tweak its venture capital tax incentive - which is growing in popularity (see this post) to allow for greater deductions for those that invest in black tech startups. This might help fuel the creation of black angel investors.
Ultimately the state should be wary of any measures that distort the market. Black tech startups after all want to pitch their solutions on an equal as possible footing as their white counterparts. Some support will help. Too much might render black firms uncompetitive.
*Seda's nine high-tech and software incubators are: Sofstart, Invotech, Smartxchange Durban, Smartxchange Ugu, SA French Tech Labs, Savant, Tuksnovation, Singatha ICT Incubator College and Seda Nelson Mandela Bay ICT Incubator.
Timm is a South African who writes on small business in emerging economies. He is also the editor of Ventureburn (which conducted the tech survey). Follow Small Business Insight on Twitter at @Smallbinsight and on Facebook.
Stephen Timm is a