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Is it right to describe JUMIA as an African Company?

Yaounde (National Times) –  On Wednesday, the internet break lose when news broke out that JUMIA, an E-commerce start-up will likely be the first “African” company to register in the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE). The news raised important questions about the identity of the company seen as Africa’s biggest success child.

Jumia, is an online marketplace in Africa for electronics, and fashion among others. It operates in six African countries. Its CEO Juliet Anannah is a Nigerian. The company was founded in 2012 by Jérémy Hodaraand Sacha Poignonnec two French nationals and ex McKinsey consultants as  Africa Internet Holding along with Nigerian Tunde Kehinde and Ghanaian Raphael Kofi Afaedor, who both left in 2014, leaving Hodara and Poignonnec at the head of African Internet Holding.

Media description of JUMIA as an African start-up has provoked missed feelings among leading African entrepreneurs. While some see it as a vestige of Africa’s success, opportunities and booming market, which can lead to the influx of foreign capital into the region. As well as the challenges faced by companies in the region. For example an article on Quartz reads “Jumia IPO filing offer African ecommerce insight”.

Others think the fact that JUMIA’s key operations, headquarters and managers are not based in Africa, raises questions over its  corporate identity or its corporate image- that is the way its presents itself to the public as an African company.

Top African Entrepreneur and social critic Rebecca Enonchang for example asked “African? HQ and legal registration: Germany – Tech center: Portugal – Top Management located: Dubai”. She goes further to raise another important point, telling her readers to differentiate between a “Startup in Africa vs.  African startup…?” To be fair JUMIA has presented itself  in different light based on what the company is after.

But what makes a company African and what is behind the outrage? Should the identity of the company be similar to the race and identity of the owners? Is it about the top management and operational team? Is it about its physical location, its vision or mission? Or is it all of the above?

The question over what qualifies a company as African is not as easy as we may expect, but it is an important one. There are three ways you can describe the nationality or race of a company, for example, based on ownership and power. In this case, the race or nationality of the majority owner or that have the majority say in the company automatically translates into the race or nationality of the company.

But there are companies owned by another group and yet cannot be described as having the same identity with its owner. Take for example, New York Times owned by Calos Slim, a Mexican, we can’t say its Mexican American company. It is an American company. In this case, we can talk about the identity of the company based on its culture, history, and its headquarters. Even if New York Times were to relocate to Dubai under the ownership of Carlos Slim, it will still be seen, norminally, at least as an American company.

Or Tesla, which was founded and majority owned by South African Canadian entrepreneur Elon Musk, but we can’t say that Tesla is a South African company or Canadian company, it is American. Maybe where its key tech teams and management are located qualifies for the identity of the company, but what if as in the case of JUMIA, the founders, top management, teach team, are of different nationalities, and the head office is in different country? In the third case, where the company was founded, rather than who owns the company is very important.

The third case is companies can be seen as units within a system. In this case, the region or country whose politics, economics, culture and history may have most likely contributed to the company or is most likely to affect the company can define its identity. But again a company’s past may be defined by one history, and its future about another system.

The point is a company’s image or identity is shaped by many factors such as nationality, race, ethnic group, physical location, culture, talents, interests, language, and history. In fact, it is quite difficult to say what defines the identity of any company. In the case of JUMIA, it is not too easy to tell whether it is an African company or not.

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