A white Nairobi-based startup founder is facing backlash in Kenya, in a drama that is highlighting longstanding concerns about who wields power in Africa’s tech scene.
Robin Reecht’s interview with Techcrunch could easily have gone down into the annals of obscurity, if it weren’t for some unfortunate comments about something Kenyans are deeply passionate about: local cuisine.
“After three days of coming into Kenya, I asked where I can get great food at a cheap price, and everybody tell me (sic) it’s impossible,” Reecht, who is French, told Techcrunch in a June 17 interview. “It’s impossible because either you go to the street and you eat street food, which is really cheap but with not-so-good quality, or you order on Uber Eats, Glovo or Jumia, where you get quality but you have to pay at least $10.”
Reecht said this experience led him to found Kune in Nairobi six months ago. The startup produces ready-to-eat meals at affordable prices and distributes them to individuals and companies.
Kune revealed in the interview that it has already managed to raise $1 million in pre-seed funding, a fact that further aggrieved some.
Kenyans took to Twitter to share their frustrations on what they perceive as a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist, and the belief that Reecht’s white privilege is what got him funded so quickly, even when the business isn’t yet operational.
In a statement to Quartz, Reecht apologized for his comments, expressing regrets about how his message came out, and enthusiasm for Kune and the funding it had received. “This is an industry that is very operations heavy and labor intensive,” Reecht said. “We will use funding to build an entire factory, hire 30 people in production, 100 delivery drivers, 10-15 marketers, 10-15 user experience people, among others.”
#KenyansonTwitter, or KOT, as concerned citizens on the platform are often called, are a formidable force. In the past, their trending tweets have led to an apology from a senior CNN official for describing Kenya as “a hotbed of terror,” and a successful online campaign against Proctor & Gamble for “the burning pads saga,” among other wins.
White privilege in the African startup scene
To understand why this particular story struck a nerve with Kenyans—beyond sensitivities about food—one has only to look at the numbers. Last year, only 6% of Kenyan startups that received more than $1 million were led by locals, according to an analysis by Kenyan firm Viktoria Ventures. Even though startup funding to the continent has been on the rise, those with white founders are still attracting a chunk of the funding.
“I completely understand where the backlash is coming from,” Reecht told Quartz. “When I look at African startups that get huge amounts of funding, I see more white founders than black founders. I don’t want my comments to jeopardize the work of the rest of the team. Our Kenyan team worked very hard for us to secure this funding and one of our largest investors is Nigerian,” he said.
The drama also inspired some humor. A Nairobi-based German national created a satirical website on the occasion, where he offers his services as a Mzungu—white person—for hire by local startups who need to attract funding. The website, Hire a Mzungu, states, “Africa is not very widely recognized as an investment opportunity…until another white nose comes into the picture. The minute an ‘African’ startup is founded, or at least co-founded by a Mzungu, money pours in.
Sometimes Often Normally even without proper due diligence.”
It is unlikely that this dust up will permanently harm either Reecht or Kune. But the discussion of power and privilege in the African startup scene is unlikely to go away soon.
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