August 16, 2022

An African Design Agency - Chat #1: What makes a company an African Company ?

Hey guys! In this new series of articles, we wanted to share with you some of the questions that currently tickle our minds at YUX. As you may know, we started from Senegal in 2016 building a community around UX Research and Product design and we are today a company of 45 full-time designers and researchers, all but one based in Africa. We already shared quite a few learnings from our successes (meeh) and failures (hum interesting!) last year and I believe it’s now time to dig into what goes through a team’s mind when you’re building a company without many models or benchmarks from a similar context. So we’ll be talking about building a UX design Agency (that can actually speak to many web or digital agency owners too), a SaaS platform (LOOKA) and a training center (YUX Academy) across several countries in Africa. The format is a bit different from the usual founders posts as we will instead share the perspective from our team members collected through our weekly vision brainstorms.


So, what can we call an African Company ?

I feel it's a useless debate sometimes and a multi-angle question - but I just wanted to share the diversified vision of our team on this topic following our brainstorm this morning. It's important for us to discuss it internally because part of our mission is to make UX Research and UX design accessible to African startups with the YUX Design Academy or our market research platform LOOKA, but also by cutting our prices for them... but we need to set some precise criteria then? Or shouldn't we? I'd love to hear your thoughts on how a design group like us can better support the meaningful companies on the continent alongside our current clients from the USA or UK like Google, Wikipedia, Meta, Square, Médecins sans Frontières or GSMA. Here are some of the elements we found were important to us:


Who are the users the product or service serve?

One of the criteria that came back the most is the purpose and target of the product. Does it service African customers? Are the solutions and user experience adapted to the African context and their needs? Are they actually solving a real problem? One team member said that even if the company actually does not operate in Africa, it could be considered as African if it shares positive values and the African culture (think about an African restaurant in NY for instance…)


Where are your team members located and from?

Darwin, our designer from Gabon says that 95% of the staff should be African… Others like Oluchi, UX Researcher from Nigeria, think that what matters is that the staff is mostly based in Africa. What could still be argued here is the definition of “African”, for instance would someone from African descent based in the US qualify for that criteria, or even someone from the diaspora? We agreed that what is important at the end of the day is to have team members who 1) understand in details the contexts they are building for and 2) Have empathy for the African users.


People, culture and mindset towards Africa

Several team members expressed that what matters to them is to work with companies that have good HR and people policies with regards to Africa like: a diverse representation of African cultures and nations, are agile in the way they manage their team and value well their employees (especially Africans) in terms of salary, perks and growth. Our UX Researcher Sasha from Ghana added something more deep about the fact that the good companies are the ones that actually care about Africa’s progress, and not only see it as “the next big thing” or the “fastest growing market”. Our CTO Moussa from Senegal added an African company is the one that says and assumes the fact that it is African. Hum… food for thoughts


Location of the Headquarters and top management

For Elizabeth, our UX Lead based in Nigeria, it really matters that the company has its HQ in an African country, no matter which one! I agree with her and I would also add that wherever is the top management originally from (ideally it should be African, but in specific fields like the one of design for instance, you do not have many senior managers that are from Africa) you should make sure that the people who are taking important decisions share the same context as their team members and users. For me it’s like you can not really claim the joys or success from a place if you’re not ready to endure its pains and day- to-day struggle at a professional and personal level.


Location of the holding company & Value creation

So interestingly, only my cofounder and UX-UI Designer Daniel from Congo, our Academy Program Manager Gloria from Benin and I came up with this one. And I believe this is one of the most important. How can we hope to build self-sustaining tech ecosystems and independant economies if most of the profits and value generated by our startups goes back to the US, Singapore, Dubai or France at best and the Bahamas, Cyprus or whichever tax haven at worst? We need to make sure that holding companies stay on the continent as long as they can and for that we need to create better business environments and protections for entrepreneurs and their investors. It’s not even about tax, it’s just about making sure that one day your government does not wake it and freezes everything you have claiming a strange law or article you’ve never heard of. 


To be transparent with you we struggle with this dilemma today as we are still only incorporated in Senegal and paying all of our tax there (we paid around 150,000 dollars of tax last year just to give you an idea) but in terms of operations it’s a nightmare: 

  • our banks are crap and transfers to Nigeria, Ghana or Rwanda take days if not weeks
  • almost no accounting or legal firm has experience working in Anglophone Africa (where in Q1 and Q2 2022, we did 80% of our revenue)
  • US Based investors do not understand the environment and if you were to get investment from them that would require thousands of dollars of lawyer fees
  • The type of work contract we have in Francophone Africa (CDI, CDD, Stage) does not really match or have equivalents in the English speaking part, and that’s always difficult to explain to your new recruits.

So naturally it would make things much easier for us if we had a legal entity in the US, France or Dubai. We’ll probably try this out and share our learnings afterwards, but what will always be important to us is that our HQ stays in Africa and that we reinvest our gains (company and personal ones) in our mission to design digital products adapted to African people identity and needs.

Alright, I hope our questions were also useful to you. Feel free to share your thoughts and engage with us on social media! We’ll come back soon with another episode of An African Design Agency… To be continued ;-)