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France’s Digital Africa outfit plans to create a strategic committee to end its governance crisis

By David Whitehouse
Posted on Monday, 18 October 2021 17:15

Digital Africa was created on the initiative of French President Emmanuel Macron. Ludovic Marin/Pool via Reuters

France’s Digital Africa association aims to draw a line under its crisis of governance with the appointment of a new strategic committee, executive director Stéphan-Eloïse Gras tells The Africa Report.

Disputes over accountability which led to the prospect of the association’s closure earlier this year are now “absolutely” in the past and fundamental issues over method have now been resolved, Gras says. A more transparent model of governance will avoid tensions resurfacing, she adds.

Digital Africa was created in 2018 on the initiative of France’s President Emmanuel Macron to support African start-ups. In 2020, it created the Bridge fund run by Proparco, a subsidiary of the AFD French development agency, to provide loans to digital-economy businesses to weather the economic fallout from Covid-19.

Cameroonian entrepreneur Rebecca Enonchong, a co-founder of the association, complained in February that the association’s African board members were not being consulted on key issues. Enonchong said the complaint prompted the French board members to call for the association’s dissolution.

Our sister publication Jeune Afrique reported in April that the AFD had indeed proposed closing down Digital Africa. The same month, Gras and other Digital Africa employees signed an open letter published in French daily La Tribune in which they said that their efforts were being blocked by those who should be supporting them, and that their activity had ground to a halt for the past three months.

  • The organisation suffered from a “misalignment” in terms of method, Gras says. “The first organisation that was put together was not optimal” in terms of capacity to execute investments, with the dispute leading to job losses, she says.
  • Expectations that everyone would be able to benefit from Digital Africa were part of the problem, she adds. “The rationale was not so clear for all the organisations around the table. We’ve learned something.”

Strategic committee

The personnel for the strategic committee, which will have between five and 10 members, have yet to be chosen, Gras says. Digital Africa is looking for candidates with experience of early-stage entrepreneurial problems in technology. “We want a proven track record,” Gras says. “We want people who know how to scale-up tech.”

  • The committee members will be African entrepreneurs and innovators as well as academics and policymakers, Gras says.
  • The process for appointments has yet to be defined, but Digital Africa, Proparco and the main funders are likely to be involved.
  • Gras expects that most of the appointments will be made by early 2022.
  • The advisory committee will publish its reports and recommendations, Gras says. “We want it to be open.”

Digital Africa says that it will work with Proparco to deploy 130m euros to support African digital start-ups between 2022 and 2025. The scope of its work will be expanded to include support from ideation through to Series A funding rounds, Gras says.

The organisation is becoming a fully owned subsidiary of Proparco, which Gras says will make it easier to attract more funding. She wants to encourage co-investment with private institutions to make the most of its resources and become a “unicorn studio” for Africa. “Co-investment is the key.”

Bottom line

Gras is confident that Digital Africa has overcome its governance crisis to move to a more transparent and effective model.

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