Smart Valleys - Teaser
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Smart Valleys: a term which will inevitably make the reader think of another, better-known designation – Silicon Valley. The aim of this venture was very different, however: to spot disruptive innovations developed by the digital ecosystems in emerging countries far away from those in the West that the media talk so much about. This is the reason why Louis SchieberGuillaume Rouzé and Antoine Pichaud went off on an expedition to Africa and Clément RoussetCyprien Marcos and Arthur Garaud to South America. Explains Antoine: “We took up the challenge and went off to Africa and South America because we’d had enough of continually hearing about innovations coming out of San Francisco and the West in general. The Smart Valleys initiative is in fact a response to Silicon Valley. It’s a way of inviting people to look at today’s new entrepreneurial ecosystems alive and well in emerging countries.” L’Atelier BNP Paribas has been following the two teams’ adventures and will be bringing you the main highlights.

Out of Africa   


Louis, Antoine and Guillaume, who visited Morocco, Senegal, Côte d’Ivoire, Rwanda, Kenya and South Africa, discovered not one but two Africas, where how you go about being an entrepreneur depends to some extent on your colonial heritage. Louis underlines that “our aim was to visit countries where the entrepreneurial spirit was most active. We also wanted to see different Africas, the four corners of Africa, so as to get an overall picture”. The ‘two Africas’ that came into focus during their trip are French-speaking Africa and English-speaking Africa. In the former region, “the business world seems more closed off, or at least harder to get into, where management is more bureaucratic and officious, and hence often quite restrictive”. There appears to be a different mindset. “People there are most often looking for job security rather than trying to succeed on their own by launching their own company, mainly due to the way the economy is structured,” reports Guillaume. This contrasts clearly with English-speaking Africa, Kenya for instance, where “everyone wanted to set up their own business (...) and the actual environment is far more entrepreneur-friendly. We could really see a difference in mindset, probably due to the different cultures and to the particular colonial history of the anglophone countries”.

There are also entrepreneurs who thrive in the ‘grey economy’. They draw their inspiration from the smartphones they find in the street, they realise that they have a viable business and manage to find the right people at the right time so as to start building their own startups.

Louis Schieber

Louis tells us: “There are also entrepreneurs who thrive in the ‘grey economy’. They draw their inspiration from the smartphones they find in the street, they realise that they have a viable business and manage to find the right people at the right time so as to start building their own startups”. However, what the two Africas have in common is the use of mobile devices as a vehicle for innovation, plus also FinTech as a particularly creative sector. Louis points out: “Mobile devices haven’t yet penetrated everywhere but they’re steadily growing in importance. Smartphones have not yet reached all layers of the population but startups know that mobile technology is the prime channel for reaching out to consumers.”

14 %

OF mobile MONEY

in senegal 

Antoine takes up the story: “In some ways they’re ahead of us. ‘Mobile money’ in Senegal represents around 14% of all financial flows. In France, we’re nowhere near that.” Still, we should perhaps not overestimate this figure. Many new and expanding African companies are still today to be found in the flagship import-export sector. But alongside this overall dynamism, some sectors or basic needs all over the country are not being served as they ought to be. Guillaume makes no secret of this: “There are still a lot of gaps when it comes to infrastructure. This is very striking, especially in transportation, access to healthcare and telecommunications. Moreover, economic development in some areas hasn’t been able to put an end to the extreme poverty which still affects part of the population in Africa. There are towns where people make their living by collecting rubbish in order to resell it or simply use it to survive. Another worrying aspect is that the growth of towns and cities in Africa is sometimes not underpinned by any proper, consistent development plans organised by the State. Sometimes there’s no land register, or no street names. Many local officials and businesspeople are aware of these shortcomings, but it’ll take time to sort them out.”

There are towns where people make their living by collecting rubbish in order to resell it or simply use it to survive…

In South America

A continent inside a continent

"A continent inside a continent”. This is Clément Rousset’s description of Brazil. More generally, in the patchwork of countries the team visited – Brazil, Uruguay, Argentina, Chile, Peru and Colombia – they saw similarities with Africa’s emerging ecosystems.

In South America, the Fintech sector is also booming, but here so is the Agritech sector. As in Africa, “artificial intelligence and robotics are still quite a long way off for these ecosystems, which for the most part are still not mature.” Governments are investing in assistance for startups, as demonstrated by Startup Chile – a state-run startup accelerator established by the Chilean government – but bureaucratic issues are still a huge problem and the fiscal climate rarely favours entrepreneurs. Moreover, cities in South America are well-known for the yawning social divide between the favelas – informal, low income residential areas – and the city centres, and this divide often provides a focal point for startups on the ground.

Clément Rousset tells us: Fa.vela for example is a non-profit organisation set up by a group of entrepreneurs from Belo Horizonte. It offers training and makes its network available to those who wish to use it. It’s a sort of accelerator for favela startups.” He explains: “Cultures differ quite a lot from one country to another but entrepreneurs in these countries are often people who have become entrepreneurs through need. Poverty, inequality, crime and instability have given rise to a creative, stimulating need, which encourages many people to become entrepreneurs.” Western entrepreneurship could perhaps learn a thing or two from this spirit.

Travel: a crash-course in entrepreneurship and the philosophy of life

Quite apart from the facts, experiences and impressions that they brought back from their trips, the two teams demonstrated how travelling outside the West and going off to see how other ecosystems work could be a real plus for future entrepreneurs. The travelling experience tends to engender a philosophy of life characterised by the desire to discover and learn. Clément Rousset, a member of the team that went to South America, underlines: “We’ve learned a huge amount from all the interviews, these portraits of entrepreneurs, of business angels, university faculty and engineers, and through contact with the various cultures, some of which are very different from ours.” Antoine Pichaud from the Africa team felt the same: “We’ve learned to be more sensitive in our assessments. We really must stop talking about Africa and Africans as though the continent were a single uniform entity. We have a lot to learn from them. They’re always extremely positive and optimistic.”  Adds Guillaume Rouzé: “The people we met in these various countries, who live in what are sometimes very trying economic and social environments, really do stand out through their energy, their openness and their determination to find solutions. There’s a really positive mindset there which I’d say is contagious.”

So did the students’ trip arouse the desire to embark on a startup adventure of their own? Clément’s answer is a resounding Yes. “Before setting off I already wanted to set up my own business and this trip has confirmed that this is what I ought to be doing. The people we met were a real inspiration. When you see those entrepreneurs really thriving in their jobs despite the workload and the difficulties arising from the politico-economic situation there, that really makes you want to be an entrepreneur. Be your own boss, create something from scratch, overcome all sorts of problems, see your company grow on a daily basis, going from just one to a hundred employees. Or perhaps you’ll sink, that’s also possible. But yes, I’d like to have a go.” It will not however be easy, especially for anyone who comes to the task unprepared. “Meeting entrepreneurs on the ground makes you realise that creating a startup is like going to war. You need passion and amazing mental strength. The key word is energy; that’s essential for entrepreneurship,” underlines Louis Schieber.

From the countries of South America to those of Africa, travelling and entrepreneurship have quite a lot in common: they both require a taste for adventure and discovery, driven by passion.

For more information on the Smart Valleys project 
By Laura Frémy