The Challenges and Opportunities of Startup Marketing in Africa

By Mbwana Alliy  |  March 16, 2013


This is a guest post by Agnes Sokol who spent a month assisting in putting together marketing plans for the 1st Savannah accelerator in Nairobi, Kenya:


Spending time with the startups of Savannah Fund proved to be a unique opportunity to think about marketing in a context quite different than my own. Coming from the tech space in San Francisco I wasn’t sure exactly what to expect while working with teams from Ghana, Uganda and Kenya but picked up quite a few insights and learned a lot along the way.

I saw that there is no one-size-fits-all solution in crafting an effective marketing plan, that each startup faces unique challenges in their home country, and that in areas of constraint, creative strategies can be used to reach an audience and effectively convey the message.

I also learned that although operating in vastly different environments, startups launching in San Francisco and their African counterparts face many of the same challenges in their initial stages. Here are some key insights on the challenges and opportunities of marketing startups in African markets.

Main Challenges

1.) Product education:
One challenge that all startups in the accelerator faced to some degree was educating the public about their services. In order to get people to use buy a tech item, or to play a mobile game or to book a travel experience through their platforms, they first had to sell them on the larger concept. Each startup tried to overcome this by making the product as easy as possible to use, visually appealing and as useful as possible to the user.

2.) Pioneering a new market:
In many parts of Africa, startups are not yet dealing with a crowded market, but have to pioneer new markets which can prove to be even more difficult. Instead of finding their niche and differentiating their product against the competition, oftentimes they are writing a new script altogether. This proves to be an interesting challenge as you now need to convince users to try the offering for the very first time. An example of this is the ecommerce company Ahonya, which is the only functioning ecommerce site in Ghana. Their challenge is not only to educate their users about the products they sell, but also to convince them to cross an ecommerce trust barrier when placing their orders.

3.) Limited Internet reach:
Although internet penetration is rapidly growing in many parts of the continent, many areas still have a fairly limited digital reach. This is an obvious challenge when it comes to digital marketing as your audience may not yet be online. I saw a direct example of this when planning email marketing strategy as launching campaigns can prove to be tricky if your users don’t regularly check email. A creative way to get around this hurtle is to find your users where they currently are and effectively move them to your site. This can be done by using some highly targeted offline marketing or using popular channels like SMS or social networking which are regularly used around the continent.

4.) Cultural Relevance:
Africa is not a country, but rather a diverse continent made up of 54 countries. Startups looking to expand their market outside of their home countries may be challenged by a lack of understanding of users outside of their own space. An interesting example of this was observed with Khola Studios, a gaming studio from Uganda. The team at Kola Studios is looking to expand a popular game, Matatu, outside of Uganda but may have to change the name to make it culturally relevant in other East African markets.

5.) Limited budgets:
Like startups anywhere else in the world, funding it limited and must be used intelligently to achieve maximum impact. With funding going in a million different directions, I saw that it can be difficult for founders to allocate a strong portion of their overall budget on marketing. It’s important to understand the importance of effective marketing in overall success and set aside a healthy portion of funding for sales and marketing. Once a budget was set, each startup was able to spread it over a variety of channels and prioritize which ones were most vital to their overall goals.


1.) Peer Influence:
Africa is known for a strong word-of-mouth culture. Since many potential users are not yet convinced of the services provided by the startups, using social proof is critical in convincing them of legitimacy of the service. The startups at Savannah Fund used personal testimonials, social media interactions and even customer interviews to show legitimacy of their product.

2.) Leveraging mobile to get out your message:
Africa has a staggering mobile penetration rate which can be used to market your product. Ahonya incorporated an integrated SMS campaign into their email marketing strategy to ensure that they could communicate their message with their users.

3.) Creative use of offline marketing:
As a digital marketer, I had to come to terms with the fact that a good percentage of users are not yet online and must be reached using other means. Each startup had an offline marketing component as part of their overall plan but we worked to ensure that offline marketing efforts were highly targeted and effectively planned.

4.) Authenticity:
Startups on the continent have a local perspective and a deep understanding of the market. This on the ground understanding allows them to tell a story which is genuine and authentic, as opposed to others trying to market their product in parts of Africa without true local knowledge. Being able to understand your marketing is critical in communicating your value proposition in a way that will resonate, and eventually convert users.

5.) The Right Timing:
As internet usage grows across the continent, startups have the opportunity to launch at the perfect time as their services become relevant and needed. Startups launching at a tipping point can find themselves at the right place and the right time.


Each startup at Savannah Fund is creating a much-needed service and each teams comes with energy, enthusiasm, and a clear passion for what they are creating. My time with them showed me that many of the challenges of marketing in emerging African markets can be turned into opportunities to think and execute in creative ways. Each startup is crafting their unique story and producing a product that has meaning and relevance to many on the continent.