At the time of its listing on the Zimbabwe Stock Exchange, Cassava Smarttech had Zimbabweans arguing about whether or not it qualified as a unicorn. A unicorn is a privately held startup company that achieves a valuation of US$1 billion. Named after the mythical creature to symbolise its statistical rarity. Though short-lived and hardly a startup, Cassava fit the criteria. However, there’s a type of company that is perhaps more important to the Zimbabwean startup ecosystem, the Zebra.

Zebra companies are so described because they represent both black (profitable) and white (a good cause) in their very DNA. They are not necessarily disruptors but rather just real businesses doing good business and furthering a cause. Solving a social, environmental or medical challenge that people are facing. In Zimbabwe and looking across Africa it is abundantly clear that the Zebra is the organisation that finds success the most in the startup arena.

Examples of Zebras

Once upon a time, many years ago Econet would have qualified for a Zebra and so too would its subsidiary that later left the stable with Cassava unbundling, Ecocash. In both the profit motive was clear. The cause was also clear though perhaps understated. Econet pushed prepaid, a then unpopular technology as it sought to bring mobile communication within the reach of the public. This is evidenced by the fact that in Shona, the recognised term for mobile phone is still runhare mbozha which translates to a rich person’s phone. Ecocash, years before any cash selling allegations sought to provide easier ways to send and transact with money for Zimbabweans following in the footsteps of Kenya’s M-Pesa.

But it’s hard to associate Econet and Ecocash with being Zebras now. Currently, there are quite a few Zebras making strides in Zimbabwe. Fresh in a Box is a really good example of this. They have not disrupted the vegetable market but have simply brought much-needed convenience to it. We also featured Bulawayo based Greenslabs which makes building material from plastic waste. Again it’s clear here that the organisation hasn’t sought out to disrupt an industry but rather bring together two areas to solve the problems we are facing socially. They take this a step further by supporting visually impaired people. There are plenty more,  Southern Africa Start-Up Awards nominee YouFarm is another business that fits the criteria as they bring together farmers requiring finance with individuals looking for investment opportunities in a precarious economy.

Why do Zebras work so well in Zimbabwe?

Zimbabwe is riddled with challenges that just seem too much for those in the upper echelons of power to effectively deal with. To be fair authorities are struggling with the most basic of problems and attending to “luxury” issues is far from their minds. There is profitability in solving peoples’ problems, this is the whole idea of business. Solve a problem and receive compensation for your solution. So the Zebra is not a new idea, far from it, it may be the oldest type of business there is. Zebras also tend to thrive among disadvantaged or otherwise discriminated communities such as women, Black people and other minorities who have trouble getting funding in spite of proven profitability.

We should also not underestimate the effect of the millennial mindset (those born between 1980 and 1996) on this. Zebras also work well because the millennial has an affinity for ideas that take care of multiple problems. More so than the generation before them. Maybe not as much as generation Z. However, the millennial constitutes the majority of the purchasing power in the economy and represent financial mobility.

Zebras are not cash grabs or overnight success affairs. They are about doing good sustainable business. Today’s Zebras may be the behemoths of 20 years from now. It’s about doing business in a manner that provides double or multiple bottom lines. They are not charitable organisations but further good causes. Do you know any Zimbabwean startups that qualify as Zebras?