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Djassi
Francisco Romão Pereira

Black entrepreneurs account for only 1% of Portuguese start-ups

They are young, ambitious and academically trained, but they are underrepresented in the innovation ecosystem. This is the conclusion of Djassi Africa, which carried out a study of Afro-entrepreneurs and their businesses in Portugal.

Raquel Dias da Silva
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Raquel Dias da Silva
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“The lack of diversity and equity is costing the Portuguese ecosystem profits, talent and innovation,” Fernando Cabral never tires of repeating. Living in London, the Guinean is a co-founder with his brother Rudolphe of Djassi Africa, but it is in Portugal – where they grew up and forged a significant part of their professional careers – that they chose to begin mobilising and empowering entrepreneurs from the African diaspora as part of the company's strategy: a venture builder focused on transforming the African continent by injecting resources to develop start-ups and prepare them for future investments. But when it came down to it, they faced a glaring lack of “black founders”, African and Afro-descendant entrepreneurs. That is why they decided to promote the Afropreneurs Report, an exploratory study that sought to map out and characterise these entrepreneurs and their businesses within the country, while also shedding light on the restrictions they face in accessing the networks and capital that are necessary for growth.

Catarina Foa e Fernando
Francisco Romão Pereira / Time Out

“Our focus is not on making reports. We are on the front line. But how can we work with ecosystems without references? How can we have conversations without numbers that guide and contextualise us? Last year we were venture partners with Google in the UK – we prepared 13 start-ups for the Black Founders Fund [a fund for start-ups led by Afro-entrepreneurs], of which three were successful [secured investment] – and they asked us where the Portuguese start-ups were. We didn't have any, so we started to think about it. If it’s about innovation, diversity is a development metric: more diverse ecosystems are more mature,” says Fernando during our Zoom meeting. Rudolphe was also present in a third “window”. This is the second time we have met. The first time was at UCCLA (Portuguese Speaking Capital Cities Union) in March, where they presented the findings of the research they had carried out between July and December 2022, in partnership with professor and researcher Caterina Foá and a team from the Sociology Studies and Research Centre (CIES) at Iscte – Instituto Universitário de Lisboa.

How many are there? Who are they? What are they doing? What difficulties do they face? How can we support them? After the first question, they admit they couldn't stop. However, the answers were neither immediate nor clear. They started by “researching in the old-fashioned way”, in an effort to understand how many entrepreneurs there are in the Portuguese ecosystem and how many of them are African or Afro-descendant. They arrived at a total of 1,059 entrepreneurs, of which only 0.8% are black. “The European average is 3% of black founders included in the [innovation] ecosystem. In the UK, which is the most developed ecosystem in Europe, the figure is 6%. So, right off the bat, we knew that Portugal should be somewhere between 1% and 3%, because it would never be above the European average. We just didn’t know the exact value, so the main message is: we know the gap exists, we’re going to acknowledge the gap, and we're going to work together to change the paradigm,” says Fernando.

According to Startup Portugal, there are more registered startups in the country: 2,151 to be exact, but there is no exact characterisation of the agents involved. “There are no official data in Portugal on the level of diversity within the ecosystem from either an ethnic or a gender perspective,” says Rudolphe, evoking Fernando’s comments in March, when he said: “In the absence of statistics, ours are valid.” The results are based on a sample of 200 black entrepreneurs who answered an online questionnaire (which was open between July and August 2022) disseminated via different channels and media, by such names as the musician Dino D'Santiago, who is responsible for the Lisboa Criola project, and Vanessa Sanches, the editorial coordinator of the digital magazine Bantumen.

Rudolphe & Fernando
Djassi Africa

“[The Afropreneurs Report] is the first of its kind in the country and in this specific sector. That's why it was designed and carried out by a specialised team, with all the necessary scientific rigour, methodological care and dedication,” says Caterina Foá, who emphasises the importance of the work she co-authored, especially “considering the absence of previous studies” and the “high adherence”. In addition to the online questionnaire, 40 individual and group interviews were carried out for a qualitative analysis “that enriches the granularity of the statistical results and directly represents the voices and experiences” of the various players, from entrepreneurs to investors. “It was important to have an objective baseline. We start working from now,” adds Fernando, who immediately calls for more research, including by government agencies and by organisations that support entrepreneurship. In fact, this is the first of the ten recommendations contained in the report. But we'll get to that later.

There is talent and experience to spare

Of the 200 “black founders” profiled, the majority are between the ages of 25 and 34 (48%), have a degree (76%), speak two or more languages (67%), are or are descended from PALOP immigrants (81%), live in Lisbon (84%) and are women (54%). According to the report, which considers and cites other international studies, the predominance of women contrasts with national and European statistics on female entrepreneurship, but is in line with the trend observed on the continent of Africa, where it is estimated that they represent 58% of the total self-employed population. “At this point, it is important to highlight the importance of having people from diverse backgrounds analysing the data. As we operate in Africa and are familiar with the phenomenon, which is historical, [we know] it is natural,” says Fernando. Rudolphe adds:

“There is really no shortage of women trying to innovate. There are other problems that prevent them from being visible [only 11% have access to incubators and acceleration programmes].”

That's why the Afropreneurs Report includes a section dedicated to highlighting their experience. Fun fact: they are more qualified than men, but are less confident in their ability to attract investment.

As for their motivations, both genders seem to agree on the top three reasons that led them to entrepreneurship, which are financial independence (98%), solving a problem in society or a specific community (89%) and pursuing an interest, passion or challenge (72%). However, whether they have only an idea (35%), a startup (40%) or a digital business (25%), only 39% are dedicated to the task full-time. The majority focus on media and creative industries, information technology, consulting and finance, and the companies were launched after the start of the pandemic, between 2020 and 2022. In startups, “we have, for example, some fintech [operating in the financial sector with innovative technological solutions], such as Vânia Fortes’ Jupiter app, and many e-commerce platforms, such as Liliana Rosário's Circular Closets,” says Fernando, adding the caveat:

“When we designed the questionnaire, the idea was to attract only startups, but from the responses we received we soon realised that we would have a low number – many of the businesses haven’t got there yet – which is why we also included digital businesses and business ideas, so that in future reports we can see the conversion of these businesses and ideas into true startups.”

The big question that arises is how can one be successful with little or no visibility? In addition to being underrepresented, Afro-entrepreneurs have faced several challenges, particularly in the access to investment. According to the report, only 30% of black entrepreneurs received funding, with 54% expecting it to be difficult to achieve the same in the next nine to 12 months. The lack of literacy in the field – which is “greater than would be expected in a country in which so much has been said about innovation and which is home to the Web Summit [at least until 2028]” – is just one of the factors that makes it difficult to access relevant programmes and support networks. The gap between entrepreneurs and investors is enormous – and is the greatest of all problems. “Incubation and acceleration programmes [that facilitate funding] are designed in such a way as to ensure ‘black founders’ do not recognise their value and are not chosen [to benefit from them], because none of the teams that manage them – the panels, the investors, the mentors – are diverse. That is why underrepresented group businesses are seen as high-risk.” According to the 2021 Atomic State of European Tech, most of the entrepreneurs who secured funding are white. Only $1.8 billion was allocated to ethnic minorities, compared to the $103.9 billion raised by exclusively white teams. In the UK, for example, according to data from a report published by Extend Ventures in 2020, only 0.24% of venture capital went to black entrepreneurs between 2009 and 2019. This means that in a decade, only 38 companies founded by black entrepreneurs were funded.

The situation is not encouraging, but there is room to reverse the trend in the medium term. This is where Djassi Africa's recommendations to develop strategies, programmes and incentives to support Afro-entrepreneurs come in. The goal is to ensure fair access to resources, networks and capital, contributing to a more inclusive ecosystem in which everyone can thrive. “Removing all forms of exclusion, whether active or unconscious, is not just the right thing to do, it's the only thing to do,” says “The Way Forward”, the last section of the Afropreneurs Report, which proposes 10 solutions to the main barriers impacting black entrepreneurship in Portugal. “All are important and complementary, but it is important to reinforce the importance of having more knowledge, therefore deepening the theme of representativeness in Portugal, and then I would say that it is urgent to create programmes dedicated to Afro-entrepreneurs so that we don't have just one startup in [existing programmes], but several dozen,” concludes Rudolphe.

Afropreneurs
Francisco Romão Pereira / Time Out

Afro-entrepreneur start-ups to keep an eye on

Bamble

Co-founded in 2021 by Ayodeji Daramela, who has a degree in public administration from the Obafemi Awolowoe University in Nigeria and a degree in management from NOVA SBE in Lisbon, this startup simplifies the hiring process by providing access to a community that specialises in digital, design and technology.

Jupiter app

Founded in 2022 by Vânia Fortes, a self-employed chartered accountant, this fintech allows self-employed workers to manage their own business through a single platform (€59.04/year, but it's possible to try it for free for one month).

Publicidade

SAFIOO Society

Founded in 2020 by Toby Thompkins, a consultant more than 30 years’ experience, this is a “platform for good governance” that helps companies, executives, entrepreneurs and investors generate a social impact that is more aligned with their philanthropic goals.

LAURENTINO COSTA

Do to Give/handapp

The son of immigrants from Guinea-Bissau, 30-year-old Laurentino Costa was born in Lisbon, grew up in Catujal and now lives in Cacém. Like many other kids, he also dreamed of becoming a football player, but it was in the area of technological innovation and entrepreneurship that he found his passion. “In secondary school I attended an Information Systems Programming course and had the chance to work as an intern at Mega 8 [as an IT technician]. But when my father gave me the choice between continuing to work or going to college and giving up that job, I decided to invest more in myself and get a degree in Management Information Systems at Universidade Lusófona,” reveals the entrepreneur and CEO of Do to Give/handapp, a socially responsible crowdfunding through cashback app that is still in the MVP (minimum viable product) implementation phase. 

The idea – to create an app that consumers can use to shop with exclusive benefits while donating some money to their favourite cause – arose during the pandemic, a period when many families, including his own, experienced some difficulties. “When I started this journey, I joined an incubator,” he tells us, before revealing that this first experience was also the first time he confronted the lack of black representation in the Portuguese startup ecosystem. “I was the only black person, yet I never felt a lack of support, although I would have felt more comfortable – to present, to fail – if I had also been surrounded by my community.” Fortunately, he felt he could always count on his mentor, the co-founder and CEO of Start-up Sintra, João Cabral, as well as on Djassi Africa and its founders, whom he met during the process and then in person at the 2021 Web Summit. The fruits were not long in coming. In 2022, Do to Give (now renamed handapp) was selected for Rise for Impact, an acceleration programme by Casa do Impacto, and for Road 2 Web Summit, a programme organised by Startup Portugal to support the participation of the most promising Portuguese startups and ensure they represent the country well at the world’s largest technology event. 

That being said, the journey has not been easy. Laurentino mentions the setbacks he has encountered while developing his product, which are also related to the challenge of not having enough funds to focus on it 100%. “I work part-time at IKEA in the early morning, and then for the rest of the day I try to spend around eight hours working on my project. During the week, I sleep a maximum of four hours. It has been difficult to manage, especially because I have three children.”

If everything goes to plan, Laurentino hopes to launch the first version by September. He is now developing the software needed for the first two potential participating companies to try out. “We want to have three or four brands signed up before launching the app,” he says. “I really want to impress the people who doubted and told me to give up. By achieving this goal, I think I can change some of the stigmas that exist in our society, especially in our community, [that perpetuate the idea that] it is impossible to create something because I did not come from an affluent background.”

LILIANA ROSÁRIO

Circular Closets

Daughter of various cultures and experiences. This is how 33-year-old Liliana Rosário describes herself. She was born in Portugal, but has Cape Verdean and Angolan roots, and lived most of her adult life in the Netherlands, where she ventured into entrepreneurship for the first time as co-founder of Defyner, a media platform that later gave rise to Trippur, a travel community and marketplace that is now suspended. “I learned a lot about open-mindedness [in Amsterdam]. It was very enriching in terms of coming into contact with such a diverse range of professionals and businesses, and of course I made a lot of mistakes, but it's all part of the process,” says Liliana, who has a degree in biomedical engineering and computer engineering. “When I returned to Lisbon it was to resume my master's degree in information systems management, but with the pandemic the world stopped travelling. Even so, it was incredible, because that experience served as the launch pad for a project that is very dear to me.”

Founded in 2020, Circular Closets is an e-commerce startup with a mission to connect women through circular fashion, empowering them, prolonging the lifecycle of textile products and contributing to more sustainable production and consumption. “I’ve always had this tradition of passing down unique pieces from generation to generation, from my grandmother to my mother to me, and then I really love art and being surrounded by different forms of expression,” she says enthusiastically. “We started by curating friends’ closets, then we contacted influencers [like Laura Ferreira, a digital content creator, and Evódia Graça, a female leadership coach], who were aligned with our values, then recently we decided to also work with professionals, from conscious designers to boutique owners with premium pieces [like Samissone, owned by Teresa Samissone, and Kapable, owned by Mélissa Ablé Baptista].”

Implementing the MVP wouldn’t have been as easy if Liliana didn’t have qualifications in technology, but she emphasises that she’s had the support of her sister Raquel, several collaborators and a large community. However, Liliana doesn't deny there have been other challenges, especially being a mother and “the bureaucracies that exist in Portugal, which are frankly bigger than those in the Netherlands and, of course, the legal policies and fees.”

On the other hand, Liliana is still bootstrapping, which means she still depends on her personal finances and operational revenues to grow the business. “I have never sought external funding, but it’s something I'm considering at this stage, after participating in acceleration and mentoring programmes and better understanding the positioning that adds more value to the market and aligns with our purpose,” she says, revealing her plans to “internationalise”. “I was recently selected for another international programme [The Break Fellowship], with funding from the European Union, which will take place in Spain. I have very high expectations.”

SHAROLYN WYNTER

Xpat

38-year-old African-American Sharolyn Wynter is committed to improving social mobility and well-being in the black community through her start-up, Xpat, a platform and app for black expats. “I was born and raised in Detroit, but both my parents are from Jamaica, so from a pretty young age I had exposure to the concept of life abroad and living outside of your home country, and the challenges of being a foreigner,” says Shar (as she introduces herself) before revealing that she received a NASA scholarship for “Women in Science and Engineering”, which enabled her to study mathematics at Spelman College. “My introduction into all this tech space was through that programme, because we would do internships and that led me to grad school to study Operations Research and industrial and systems engineering. I got those two degrees and then went straight into work. My first job was with Deloitte, primarily on their technology side. It was a very sharp learning curve for me, but it was an amazing experience overall, because I realised I had a passion for tech, digital platforms and the use of data to help make businesses, processes and life better.” 

Deloitte was also the reason she became a travel enthusiast – and, without realising it, following the path to also become an entrepreneur. “I love travelling, but I didn’t have the money at the time, so once I got that job it become pretty frequent, and I even applied to work overseas. I chose London because I thought you had to speak the language in order to live abroad, but now, having moved to a country like Portugal where I didn’t know the language prior to moving, I know that is not necessarily true. Anyway, it was awesome. The beginning was rough, but then I met the expat community, and that was the game changer for me.” 

Shar eventually returned to the United States but, when her father died, it became clear it was time to move again and reclaim the sense of freedom. “Losing a parent puts things in perspective for you. I started saving aggressively to be able to commit to the new life I desired, one where I prioritised my physical and mental health, and my financial well being.”

After much-needed soul-searching and taking online courses during quarantine, Shar chose Portugal as the place to live the life she had dreamed of. “I had visited the country back in 2017, and the sense of belonging is surreal, and I kept bragging about it to my mum,” she admits, laughing. The main reason is safety. “Before making the decision, I researched about how the black experience abroad [in different countries] is, but not as a traveller, because living is very different from being there just for two weeks. And then I stuck to my desire to relocate to Portugal.” But the difficulty she faced in finding organised information inspired her to interview people and create an app to share these testimonies in one place.

Available for Android and iPhone, Xpat now has representation from more than 130 countries and territories worldwide. It wasn’t always blue skies, of course. Still, Shar chooses to see the glass as half full. “The biggest challenge was having to accelerate the process in a way I did not plan, but you know, if you are overly rigid with your plans you don’t leave any room for life to happen.”

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