Beyond Project Funding: How Grants Empower African Startups to Defy the Odds

February 15, 2024
min read

Many promising African startups fail in their first years of operation. High startup failure rates plague African countries like Kenya (24%), South Africa (42%), and Nigeria (33%), [Statista, 2020]. Reasons range from financial constraints to competition, team issues, regulations, acquisition troubles, and more.

A lot of startup founders perceive grant funding solely as a means for project execution. However, grants provide critical support beyond just funding specific projects. This allows startups to tackle limitations that commonly lead to failure on the continent.

This blog post explores five key areas where grants empower startups to unlock transformative growth and sustainability.

But first, why do African Startups fail?

Before diving into how grants can help, let's look at some of the major reasons behind the high startup failure rates across Africa:

  • Financial Constraints: Lack of funding for operations, expansion, and managing cash flow
  • Infrastructure Limitations: Such as poor or lack of reliable internet, power & logistics
  • Competition: Existing players dominate markets
  • Team Issues: Co-founder disputes, skill gaps
  • Regulations and Legal Issues: Complex regulatory frameworks across Africa
  • Customer Acquisition Troubles: Difficulty reaching target segments
  • Poor Product-Market Fit: Offerings don't match real market needs
  • Support and Mentorship Gaps: Lack of local support systems

Five Areas Where Grants Empower Startups to Unlock Growth 

Here are five crucial areas where grants support African startups beyond traditional project execution funding:

1. Addressing Infrastructure Limitations

Many fledgling and existing African startups lack adequate infrastructure. For example, in Nigeria, startups targeting remote and underserved areas face a stiff infrastructural deficit with internet penetration and a lack of reliable electricity. This severely hinders startups' operations and growth, leading to inefficiencies and failure over time. With grant funding, startups can proactively invest in building a strong infrastructure conducive to sustainable business operations.

Some funders, aside from money, offer valuable non-financial support that helps startups acquire essential infrastructure such as reliable internet connectivity, renewable power sources, logistics networks, and more. GSMA in particular offers assistance with mobile technology and internet connectivity. This addresses the core infrastructural limitations, significantly enhances operational efficiency, and contributes to long-term viability.

2. Bridging Market Fragmentation

For startups with well-built infrastructure, market fragmentation poses a substantial growth challenge across Africa. Fragmented markets limit startups' ability to reach a critical mass of customers across different segments and regions. With such dispersed and limited access to customers, many startups’ growth gets severely stunted and success remains elusive, thus making failure extremely likely.

Grant funding equips startups with the much-needed resources to conduct comprehensive market opportunity analysis, develop targeted segmentation and marketing strategies, and create unified platforms to serve fragmented markets profitably. Grant capital helps bridge gaps in access to fragmented customer groups. Accelerator funding opportunities like 100X Impact Accelerator provide market development support to facilitate market penetration, foster customer acquisition, and position beneficiary startups for sustainable success across diverse market segments.

3. Overcoming Regulatory Hurdles

Africa is a region burdened with highly complex regulatory environments and political instability. This poses significant operational, legal, and continuity challenges for growth-stage startups. For example, Efritin, an ecommerce startup in Nigeria, cited “challenging economic conditions” triggered by unpredictable regulatory changes as one of the major reasons for abruptly folding up in 2020. Similarly, mobility startups like ORide and Gokada were dealt serious blows by the commercial motorcycle regulations imposed by the Lagos state government, directly impacting their core business models.

Grant funding can be strategically allocated by startups for legal and regulatory compliance measures including counsel, licensing, taxes, and developing crisis contingency plans. Such regulatory support helps startups effectively navigate complex bureaucratic hurdles and minimize legal risks to ensure sustained operations even in uncertain regulatory regimes. Institutional funders like USAID, aside from providing capital, offer strong emphasis and bespoke support towards helping African startups deeply understand and adhere to evolving regulatory requirements across their markets. Such grant funding opportunities enable startups to swiftly navigate regulatory challenges and continuity threats, preventing premature shutdowns.

4. Bridging the Talent Shortage

Most early-stage startups, especially in Africa, are severely short-staffed with the founding team wearing multiple hats. This talent crunch is caused, not just by the lack of financial resources to hire professionals but also the absence of enough skilled professionals available to be hired in key domains. This shortage impedes a startup's product development velocity, innovation, competitive differentiation, and ultimately growth viability. The existence of startups like SkillPaddy (Nigeria) offering technical training is an indication that the talent shortage challenge cuts deep.

Startups can strategically utilize grant funding to invest in targeted talent acquisition efforts, technical and domain training programs, and building appealing work culture as well as skills development partnerships. Funders like Google, IBM, and Cisco readily fund startups in technical training. The more individuals trained, the more skilled individuals are available for hiring. With this change, startups can significantly bolster their core workforce capabilities over time, enhance product or service quality and differentiation, and gain a competitive edge.  

5. Building Local Support Systems

Startups often struggle when they lack supportive communities in their local area. For example, if local businesses import goods or hire foreign companies for services that local startups provide, those startups lose potential revenue.

Additionally, many startups fail because they do not have access to mentorship, strategies for acquiring first-time customers, shared legal and technical infrastructure, and opportunities to partner with local organizations. This isolation means startups make avoidable mistakes.

While grant funding alone rarely provides startups these kinds of supportive communities, accelerators and incubators can expose startups to mentorship, knowledge-sharing, technical assistance, and partnerships. For example, the Tony Elumelu Foundation created an alumni network to connect startups. This builds a localized support system that strengthens startups against the negative impacts of isolation.


Grant funding offers more than just project support. It provides African startups with the resources to grow despite infrastructure challenges, regulatory hurdles, and talent shortages. This funding is key for startups seeking long-term success and the ability to make a positive economic impact. African startups should actively explore grant opportunities to fuel their growth and transformation.

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