Interview with StartITCongo founder Jonathan Kiloso: fostering tech start-ups in the DRC despite conflict

The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is lagging behind from a tech and start-up point of view. Difficulties in bringing about bankable business models and capturing investment due to instability and ongoing conflicts are some of the root causes. These issues have confined digital entrepreneurship in the DRC to the very background of its economic landscape. This is set to change, writes Afrinection’s East Africa Ambassador Daniel Muraga. Tech startup accelerator StartITCongo, founded by 24-year old Jonathan Kiloso, is bringing together Congolese startups, innovators, and other stakeholders, locally and in the Diaspora, to transform the DRC once and for all. 

“We started in August 2016 with the objective of conveying the ambition and confidence to bring together the DRC's digital actors as well as the Congolese youth entrepreneurship, at home and in the Diaspora,” Jonathan Kiloso, founder and CEO, tells Afrinection. “Our philosophy is clear: to foster unity and value of entrepreneurship.”

Helping tech start-ups succeed

With a little more than six months of existence, StartITCongo has gained the interest from Congolese entrepreneurs across the country and around the world. It is currently mainly focusing on developing necessary tech and business skills among entrepreneurs whilst strengthening the country’s economic fabric and connecting key role players. The platform is also dedicated to organising events where entrepreneurs and start-ups are invited to talk about and share their ideas with other entrepreneurs, 24-year old Kiloso says.

“We want to strengthen the DRC's economic fabric by helping entrepreneurs with investment, setting up the right partnerships for them, and structuring their business. By doing so, we are bringing together technicians, IT specialists, developers, marketers, graphic designers and other professionals a startup needs to get started. We are also in regular contact with other organisations, entrepreneurs and investor networks around the world that make startups succeed.”

Despite its short existence, Kiloso is confident that StartITCongo is moving in the right direction. “Some of our entrepreneurs have since become partners in our mission. We have some consulting firms and creative agencies working with us as well as lawyers and engineers who are ready to train people,” he says.

DRC more than conflict

These days, most news headlines from the DRC focus on the various conflicts that have bedevilled the country for the last three decades. Despite having almost all types of minerals, the country is rated lowest on UN’s Human Development Index, with millions dying from bullets, hunger, torture, and diseases. As a result, the Congo is often called "a country cursed by its natural wealth.” Is this true?

“Many [of these] things are true. Of course, our country is full of natural resources and that can be wetting some investment appetite,” Kiloso says, noting that another huge problem facing the DRC is the lack of economic diversification.

“People still prefer to import products and services than buying or manufacturing locally. The tech scene is another victim of this system. Congolese [people] need to understand that our more valuable resources are not in material form but lie within ourselves,” he continues. “We should change the way we look at ourselves and start thinking about the position we can hold in tomorrow’s world. Through our actions, we will do the best together, with other initiatives in order to gain impact and influence the system.”

Things are however changing for the better, Kiloso notes. “People are slowly starting to understand that we have to add value to what we have - our talents, our culture, our companies, and our entrepreneurs.”

Accelerating partnerships

Kiloso realises that fostering change in the DRC can’t be done alone. That is why StartITCongo is open to anyone and everyone who wants to be a part of the country’s on-going transformation. He prefers to see the various other accelerators have been launched over time, including Lumumba Lab and Imani Hub, as partners. The same counts for Bantuhub by Verone Mankou, the founder of VMK (which launched Africa’s first tablet and smartphone a few years ago). 

“We are all committed to working together. LLAB does a wonderful job, and the same thing counts for Imani Hub which is into promoting the world of New Technologies of Information and Communication,” he explains. “Our goal is to build something great and we can’t do it alone. I believe we must work together to catch up quickly.”

How it all started

Kiloso’s idea for StartITCongo dates back to 2015 when he was running a digital agency in Paris focusing on the European market, with some activities in Africa.

“I was making one or two trips per month to Kinshasa. What I observed was that there were many small local initiatives with no references. No one was able to give me the names of five start-ups or successful entrepreneurs. That made me wonder how a city like Kinshasa full of businesses opportunities had no inspiring model of entrepreneurship, no leading start-ups and the existing hubs weren’t backed by institutions or private partners,” he remembers.

“Two months later, after another short trip, I started sourcing startups around Kinshasa. Then I met Filip [LLab founder] and some of the other IT entrepreneurship leaders,” Kiloso recalls. The rest was history.

The best part of StartITCongo so far has been its ability to bring together Congolese people from around the world. he says. “That is my best award. The first email I received was from a Congolese student in India, the first phone call was from an entrepreneur living in Canada. Global collaboration is key. We are in talks with actors in Nigeria, South Africa and Tanzania to create synergies between those markets and the DRC. At this level, there is nothing concrete yet. I really believe that luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity. Therefore, if anyone who is part of Afrinection’s audience wants to reach us with an idea, offer or whatever, we are open to that.”


About the author: Daniel Muraga from Nairobi, Kenya, is Afrinection's East Africa Ambassador. He is an experienced writer and avid social media buff with a passion for Africa, entrepreneurship, IT innovation, and driving the continent forward.