Photos © Aix-Marseille-Provence Metropole and La Tribune Events

Provence Africa Connect: Building a bridge for innovation

The need to strengthen collaboration between European and African cities is driven by trends such as urbanisation, migration, economic development, and the demand for sustainable solutions to common challenges.

The Aix-Marseille-Provence metropolitan area is uniquely positioned to make the most of these connections thanks to its geographic proximity and trade, travel and cultural links with Africa. Aix-Marseille-Provence Metropole’s Provence Africa Connect initiative is demonstrating the power of partnership between the continents.

The approach has been recognised internationally and is shortlisted in the Eurocities Awards, which will be held during the Eurocities Annual Conference in Cluj-Napoca later this month.

Arnaud Mercier, Mayor of Venelles and Deputy Councillor for Innovation at Aix-Marseille-Provence Metropole, noted the strong physical connections that the region has with Africa, from the harbour and airport to subsea cables, but stressed that: “The main idea for Provence Africa Connect was to cultivate the human resources, not just the infrastructure, but to also take advantage of the people, the entrepreneurs, students, businessmen and women who go from our territory to Africa and from Africa to our territory.”

It’s important to show the success stories of African entrepreneurs.
— Vincent Languille, Mayor of Le Tholonet and Deputy Councillor for International Relations at Aix-Marseille-Provence Metropole

Launched in February 2021, Provence Africa Connect positions the Aix-Marseille-Provence region as an innovation hub bridging Europe and Africa. The goal is to foster innovation – particularly digital solutions – attract talent and promote economic development.

“In Africa, innovation is growing,” said Vincent Languille, Mayor of Le Tholonet and Deputy Councillor for International Relations at Aix-Marseille-Provence Metropole. “One of our main objectives is to benefit from the growing innovation ecosystem in Africa.”

“We do have strong African diasporas,” he added. “And for the population, it’s important to show the success stories of African entrepreneurs.”

Soft landing service

To achieve all this, the metropole has employed several strategies, bringing together stakeholders including local government agencies, universities, businesses and trade associations.

Crucially, Provence Africa Connect was designed with the input of African entrepreneurs and local partners through mechanisms such as workshops, to ensure the programme meets shared goals.

One important measure is the soft landing service to help African entrepreneurs establish and grow their businesses in the region. The services offered include business development support; help with finding business premises; access to legal, financial and accounting expertise; and assistance with permits and other administrative issues.

In addition, Provence Africa Connect has supported initiatives such as the Invest in Provence programme of Provence Promotion, which now also targets African investors alongside those in Paris, the US, the UK and India.

It has also supported the Emerging Valley annual tech summit which launched in 2017 and has since attracted over 10,000 delegates, including 150 investors and 730 startups from 93 countries.

We have more than 100 African startups coming each year to the territory.
— Samir Abdelkrim, Founder of Emerging Valley

Samir Abdelkrim, Founder of Emerging Valley, said: “We have more than 100 African startups coming each year to the territory for Emerging Valley and this makes it much easier to understand the needs of African startups and what they are looking for when they want to scale in Europe and vice versa.

“It also makes it easier to understand what local incubators and the local ecosystem are expecting from African startups.”

The Europe Afrique Forum event in May 2023. © Aix-Marseille-Provence Metropole & La Tribune Events
Since 2017, the Emerging Valley annual tech summit has attracted over 730 startups from 93 countries. © Emerging Valley

The event attracts startups in areas that align with Aix-Marseille-Provence’s strengths, challenges and goals, such as fintech, healthcare, agritech, and green energy. Aix-en-Provence is home to one of the world’s best-known clean technology parks, Technopole de l’Arbois, for instance.

“There are a lot of sectors that are booming in Africa that are of strategic interest for the local tech ecosystem,” said Abdelkrim, adding that the event regularly draws interest and attendance from national leaders in other European countries and from the European Commission.

To further boost collaboration, the metropole is the main founder of the Africalink entrepreneur network and also contributes to the financing of the Anima Investment Network, which connects economic development agencies between Europe, Africa and the Middle East.

Spotlighting innovation

The Provence Africa Connect awards, created in 2021, reward entrepreneurs from the metropolitan area that have developed innovative projects and partnerships with Africa. Previous winners include Messibat International, a specialist in eco-construction; TAMBA Labs, which uses biotechnologies for health and wellbeing products; ICIA Technologies, which develops mobility software; and Preapharm, which provides medicines from France to people in French-speaking countries, particularly in Africa.

Messina Guikoume, CEO and Founder of Messibat International, said: “As a French black woman in the construction industry, I faced challenges such as securing funding and overcoming industry biases. However, my determination and commitment to sustainability helped me to establish a reputable business in Africa – but in Marseille it’s still very difficult because people are not used to seeing a black woman owner of a green building company.

“Being the first winner of the Provence Africa Connect Award in 2021 helped me to gain new visibility for my startup in Marseille and expand my network by joining the Africalink association based in Marseille.”

Being the first winner of the Provence Africa Connect Award in 2021 helped me to gain new visibility for my startup.
— Messina Guikoume, CEO and Founder of Messibat International

One of TAMBA Labs’ latest products is REPTIK which is an insect repellent derived from African medicinal plants.

Doudou Tamba, CEO of Tamba Labs, said: “The recognition and resources provided by the Provence Africa Connect Award have been pivotal for REPTIK’s advancement. This prestigious accolade facilitated vital connections with market stakeholders, enabling TAMBA Labs to scale operations and overcome obstacles. Moreover, the award’s network and partnerships have extended REPTIK’s reach and impact across Africa.”

He added: “Programmes like the Provence Africa Connect Award are indispensable for nurturing innovative initiatives tackling global challenges.”

Attracting talent and investment

The Provence Africa Connect initiative has faced some challenges, from visa difficulties to political tensions and instability in certain African countries, as well as the complexities of managing over 30 partners. “It’s hard work to coordinate all our collective of actors, incubators and accelerators,” said Paul Bichat, Head of the International Department at Aix-Marseille-Provence Metropole. “It’s difficult but important.”

However, the team is confident that they are on the right track. The number of African startups applying for support and coaching in the region has increased to more than 800 since 2020. Further, 155 business location projects for African startups have been supported by Provence Promotion and 35 African startups have set up a subsidiary and operations in the Aix-Marseille-Provence region. These include Purpi, Cynoïa and Ingenio in the field of digital services and Smartbox Industry which focuses on the circular economy.

Investments from Africa also increased, influenced by strategic decisions from large and mid-scale businesses such as outsourcing specialist Intelcia, Moroccan payments technology firm HPS, and Ethiopian Airlines.

We would be enthusiastic to share our experience with other European cities
— Alexandre Bisquerra, Innovation Project Manager for Aix-Marseille-Provence Metropole

“We have a growing flow of Tunisian entrepreneurs and startups exploring our ecosystem for coaching services, fundraising and finally business settlements,” said Alexandre Bisquerra, Innovation Project Manager for Aix-Marseille-Provence Metropole. “In 2022, Tunisia, which scores among the top 10 startup ecosystems in Africa, ranked sixth place for foreign investors in terms of numbers of projects and jobs created in Provence and even became the second-largest foreign investor at the regional level.”

Moreover, the region reports that the number of African professionals and students in Aix-Marseille-Provence has doubled from 5,000 to nearly 10,000.

On the next steps, Bisquerra said: “We believe that this challenge to build stronger ties with the innovation ecosystem in Africa is also a common challenge for other European cities and we would be enthusiastic to share our experience with them.”

Sarah Wray Eurocities writer