While the startup ecosystem in Africa has expanded exponentially in recent years, African entrepreneurs continue to face a number of roadblocks, especially in terms of securing funding and finding access to business education. However, another major obstacle has not received as much attention: the relative lack of connection and coordination between nations throughout Africa. Entrepreneurs seeking to expand their operations or simply travel to other countries to make business connections often face a wide range of hardships.
The Difficulties of Securing Visas
The creation of business incubators and accelerators throughout Africa has put a spotlight on the issues involved with obtaining visas to travel between African nations. When entrepreneurial programs open their doors to people around the continent, many begin to see the difficulties. While traveling within a country or a region with specific travel agreements, such as the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) is less difficult, obtaining visas to enter these regions from other countries can prove challenging and expensive.
The situation becomes even worse when one considers that not all African nations have embassies from other African countries. For example, no Nigerian embassy exists in Madagascar. Recently, three Malagasy entrepreneurs trying to enter Nigeria were forced to obtain visas on arrival, which come with extremely high processing fees, after the Nigerian embassy in Johannesburg, South Africa, was unable to offer assistance.
The visa situation in Africa makes it extremely difficult to develop trade agreements and other bilateral relations, and it hampers attempts at developing tourism. For the entrepreneurial ecosystem to continue developing, the gates between countries should be open. Often, visa fees vary wildly from country to country, which creates artificial lines of cooperation. Entrepreneurs face a number of other challenges when obtaining visas, including weeks of waiting even after approval, high processing fees, and limited information on immigration, so the process is often pursued blindly. In addition, application centers often keep inconsistent hours.
At present, many African nations offer visas on arrival, allowing visitors to obtain a visa when they arrive at the airport, rather than requiring them to apply for and receive a visa before their trip. This is a less restrictive policy, but visas on arrival are often accompanied by high fees. These and other visa restrictions have led to a curious situation in which travelers from Europe or the United States typically have an easier time entering African countries than Africans do. For example, South African citizens have visa-free or visa-on-arrival access to 95 countries, but only 17 of these are in Africa. European Union and American citizens can enter many African countries with relative ease, while Africans face high fees and major restrictions.
Inhibited Travel throughout the African Continent
Residents of other continents often have an easier time getting to African countries than Africans do for another reason: underdeveloped travel infrastructure. Intra-African flights can cost up to $1,000, because there are relatively few direct flights, and fuel taxes and other government-imposed fees can be high. A citizen of an African country may be able to fly to Europe for less expense than flying to a city in a neighboring country, because the latter flight often involves a transfer in a far-off destination. The high cost of intra-African travel can stifle innovation and collaboration by making it economically impossible to move between key locations. As a result, knowledge transfer and skill development is hindered.
To move forward, Africa needs more investment in low-cost airlines that serve the entire continent, like Europe’s Ryanair or EasyJet. Tanzania’s Fastjet is one of the few budget carriers fulfilling this role. The airline offers direct flights connecting Tanzania’s capital of Dar es Salaam to a handful of cities in other African countries, including Entebbe, Uganda; Harare, Zimbabwe; and Johannesburg, South Africa. The airline also commenced service to Nairobi, Kenya, in January 2016.
Travel is inhibited not just for people, but also for goods. Without the ability to move goods cheaply, trade cannot develop. Export and import restrictions restrain growth by making it difficult to purchase raw materials and to move finished products. With seamless borders, the volume of transactions between African nations would increase exponentially and drive economic development. This sort of collaboration can only occur when African governments begin working together for the benefit of all Africans, not just the citizens of their respective countries.
Looking Toward the Future
Greater economic empowerment can occur if the African Union places more importance on trade and free movement within Africa. The union has done much good by promoting democracy, sustainable development, security, and peace. But more work is necessary to keep business growing throughout the continent. Certain European Union (EU) policies may provide good examples for the African Union to follow. For instance, the EU enacts key trade policies that encourage the movement of people, goods, and services within member countries. In 22 out of the 28 EU member states, a section known as the Schengen Area, passport and border controls do not exist. Similar policies in Africa could drive economic development and encourage unprecedented collaboration and knowledge-sharing among African innovators.