- On Friday, April 12, 2019, Jumia, an e-commerce company with operations in 14 African countries, went public on the New York Stock Exchange. Jumia has been operating in different countries on the continent since 2012 and it is the largest e-commerce business in Africa.
- Although it operates in Africa, Jumia is incorporated in Germany, has its headquarters in Dubai, and has its technology centre in Portugal.
- So, the debate about whether or not Jumia is an African company arises from the fact that, though it operates in Africa and is built in Africa by Africans, it has its headquarters and corporate base (management and tech centre) outside the continent.
Lionel Tarumbwa of The African Exponent says that "The story of JUMIA being an African start-up is obviously the work of a million-dollar public relations firm from Wall Street. It has given the company great leverage and a great story to tell. It is sad, however, that it distorts the true picture of the challenges that the continent’s start-ups face. Its Eurocentric background gives the company access to corridors of power. JUMIA is not African in ownership or management, it is only the market that gives it access to the term ‘African start-up’.”
However, Iyin Aboyeji, serial entrepreneur and co-founder of Andela and Flutterwave, believes that Africans should be celebrating Jumia’s successful IPO and “taking credit for our role in making that feat happen” instead of getting into a "meaningless and primordial debate about what an African company is in a world without borders."
He adds that "At the end of the day, today’s companies are defined by who they serve and in a digital economy where Africa struggles to be served by global tech giants, there is something to be said for this company's roots. Jumia’s roots are proudly African and that’s all that matters.”
Does it matter if Jumia calls itself an African company or not?
All things considered, should we be having this argument? Does it really matter if Jumia calls itself an African company or not? Maybe.
It’s an argument of narratives and should be considered only in that light. Identity is important and it matters how it is portrayed. On one side is the general feeling that Jumia is masquerading itself. On the other side runs a spectrum that this assessment is either wrong or irrelevant, that it doesn't matter if Jumia's co-founders aren't African or that its headquarters aren't on the continent.
The fact is that Jumia has foreign investors and some members of its management team are not Africans. But it also has some CEOs in the countries where it operates who are locals. It also employs Africans in countries in which it operates, and this is beyond warehouses, thus contributing to the continent’s labour force.
What’s more, Jumia has helped contribute to the development of business talent within several ecosystems. Take for example Nigeria where many of the early Jumia employees have gone on to build their own startups and occupy key positions within tech companies. (See this spreadsheet for reference.)
In the grand scheme of things, the argument about whether or not Jumia is an African company is irrelevant. Does it contribute positively to the growth of the e-commerce ecosystem and beyond? Will its IPO listing on the New York Stock Exchange open up more opportunities for African tech startups and companies? Is its IPO listing good PR for the continent? These are the questions we should be asking, the questions that truly matter.