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The African style of entrepreneurship

January 09, 2019

How Europeans can best start a partnership

What is special about African-style entrepreneurship? What makes entrepreneurs in East Africa tick? How is innovation promoted? A short while ago, two experts from Kenya, Maryanne Akoth, Incubation Manager at TechBridge Invest, and Amollo Ambole, Strategy Lead at the University of Nairobi's Living Lab, participated in an event at the WU Executive Academy. These two experts were available for an exclusive interview.

Picture of the Africa Breakfast
Maryanne Akoth and Amollo Ambole giving insights at the WU Executive Academy.

They are mushrooming not only in this part of the world but also in African metropolises: innovation hubs, coworking spaces, collaboration labs. Catalysts for innovation and creativity, for solution-oriented thinking and entrepreneurial initiative. As digitization is spreading in Africa, the continent is fostering innovation at an incredible speed. Maryanne Akoth holds the position of Incubation Manager at TechBridge Invest. She scouts startups and talent for the incubator and collaborates with universities as well as student networks in both Mombasa and Nairobi. Amollo Ambole is the Strategy Lead at the University of Nairobi's Living Lab, which brings researchers and businesspeople together with the goal of solving societal problems. In cooperation with ecotec Austria and identifire, the Living Lab offers learning journeys to “Silicon Savannah” for investors and businesses from Austria.

Portrait Maryanne Akoth

Ms. Akoth, whom do you support at TechBridge Invest?

Akoth: Mostly young founders and startups. They have fantastic products but do not yet know how to sell them and present them in the right markets. We focus on students and more and more frequently we also support other founders.

What mentors do you get on board for the founders?

Akoth: Seasoned entrepreneurs and managing directors from Kenya but also from other countries such as Norway. Our CEO is based in Norway and has a lot of experience with business development, the formation of businesses and exits. He understands business on a global level.

In Europe, corporates are increasingly interested in collaborating with startups. What is the situation like in Kenya?

Akoth: Among other things, I am responsible for fundraising. Frequently, we are contacted by corporates that seek to support startups but do not want to back them financially. Rather, they are interested in providing long-term support and in transferring know-how. I am currently working on an innovative approach to these partnerships with corporates; this is something relatively new in our ecosystem in Kenya. The aim is to find out how both sides can mutually support their businesses. For example: When it comes to product development, there is a gap between the skills of university graduates on the one hand and the needs and requirements of the labor market on the other. Many corporates have specialist knowledge, e.g. in the field of software solutions; they train the young and, in doing so, help them advance their businesses. This is an intervention of lasting value. This is not just about throwing money at the problem and hoping it will go away. Incidentally, we are also looking for corporates from Europe as partners.

Portrait Amollo Ambole

Ms. Ambole, the Living Lab offers learning journeys to “Silicon Savannah” for Austrian businesses and investors. What insights have you gained in this context?

Ambole: Our task is to research exciting startups and innovation projects in Nairobi. This has provided us with a wonderful opportunity to develop our local network, giving me plenty of insight into the entrepreneurship community on the ground. At the Living Lab, there are just two university-based researchers; the other six team members come from different industries and the field of entrepreneurship. Our approach is very practical in nature. Some members of our team also work on bigger energy-related projects dealing with air pollution and the access to energy. At the Living Lab, people run their individual as well as joint projects in an agile and flexible manner. We have also organized co-creation workshops for the German Robert Bosch Group.

What is your take on digitization in Africa? In how far does it help the continent's economic development?

Ambole: We have the fastest mobile Internet in Nairobi; it's even faster than that in New York, which is based on fiber-optic technology. Digitization enables people to close gaps. Kenyans are perfectly aware of what is going on in the world. Sometimes, we focus too much on what is happening in the world and too little on our society and our traditions.

Is there also a gap between those who belong to the emerging digital elite and those who are more traditional? After all, change is happening incredibly fast.

Ambole: For many, change is indeed happening too fast. Many of those who live in the cities originate from rural areas. The mindset of people who, like I, were born in a city is very intercultural. Those born in cities in the 1990s are digital natives. We also have strong Western influences in urban areas. This results in a new culture that is influenced by both sides.

So far, Europe has hardly regarded Africa as an equal partner; now, it is discovering the continent as a business opportunity. How can a new kind of imperialist divide be prevented from emerging in European-African business relations?

Ambole: Money makes the world go round. If you want to invest in Africa and make money there, you will need someone who understands the cultural, societal and business contexts. You have to invest in people, join forces with the locals and develop solutions together. Investors must be willing to learn.

Two people shaking hands
European investors must be open to working with local experts and creating solutions together. Photo © CC0 Licence

Undoubtedly, overgeneralization occurs when one attempts to compare Africa and Europe. Ms. Akoth, you have studied and lived in Stockholm. What differences are there between East African countries and, say, Scandinavia as far as entrepreneurship is concerned?

Akoth: Yes, Africa is diverse. I used to work in telecommunications - Ericsson, Nokia, Siemens, Huawei and Alcatel made huge investments in Africa. As part of my job, I traveled to some 13 countries, including South Africa, Ghana, Congo, Tanzania, Rwanda, Mozambique and Sierra Leone. I gained first-hand experience of change through technology.

Photomontage as symbolic representation of leap frogging
Leap frogging is not new in Africa. Stages of development are being skipped, and entrepreneuership is taken to a new level. Foto © CC0 Licence

Akoth: And this is where leap frogging comes in: Stages of development have been skipped. The new technologies have taken entrepreneurship to a new level. As for a comparison of Kenya and Scandinavia: In Scandinavia, you have the traditional expert approach: The young study and become subject-matter experts. This is a luxury we do not have in Kenya. People in Kenya try out different things; their approach is interdisciplinary in nature. We certainly put greater emphasis on collaboration—you don't have to do everything by yourself. Of course, this is not something we have invented. We are looking to create value. More and more innovation hubs are emerging in Kenya, and the government is supporting innovation initiatives. Our services are in enormous demand. We all share a vision: If each and every individual is thriving, all of us are thriving.

Ambole: People expect to have very personal relationships, also with investors. They want to get to know them. Personal meetings are very important. Frequently, the person you know, the person who belongs to your tribe gets the job - your cousin, brother, aunt. Personal relationships and connections matter a lot in Kenya. We think in terms of tribes. As far as the new culture is concerned, we also need to create new kind of tribes where problems are solved - in collaboration with international partners and colleagues.

What methods do you use when it comes to fostering innovation? Are they similar to the European ones?

Akoth: Yes, we highlight what the market wants by means of lean methods, business model canvas and human-centered design thinking. Moreover, we use big data for growth hacking. Basically, our methods are the same as yours in Europe, but not every method works for every problem.

Ambole: We use design thinking a lot for our co-creation processes and brainstorming workshops.

What about the mindset as far as change is concerned? In Austria, the passion for change is not so much part of people's mentality, and in the context of dealing with change in corporate settings, you often have to overcome resistance. What is the situation like in Mombasa?

Akoth: I think many people do not actually know what to change - not least because the societal and ecological problems facing us are huge and numerous. Also, what many fail to realize is that change at the individual level can lead to change at the societal level. We have a strong political class in Kenya in which you should always be anchored. But we also have institutions that should be strengthened.

Ambole: In Africa, people feel the effects of global problems very much at the individual level. Climate change and global warming are everyday realities for them - they have no water, and there are droughts. Climate change will affect Africa far more than the rest of the world. People are already seeing it, and they simply have to do something about it. Therefore, you can much more quickly make them take action.

Picture of a dried out area
Climate change will hit Africa harder than the rest of the world. That's why people are already acting. Photo © CC0 Licence

Akoth: At TechBridge, we have a very successful startup called “Sunami”. Placing great emphasis on sustainability, it offers solar solutions for households in rural regions - solar pumps to help farmers and generate electricity. Hence, farmers can achieve higher yield and, what is more, they can do so in an environmentally-friendly manner. We have more sunshine than we need. Such examples also encourage the young to put their business ideas into practice.

So, are these problems a catalyst for entrepreneurship?

Ambolle: We have no choice. We must start businesses because there are simply no jobs. Hence, people need to create them. The education system in Kenya used to prepare the young for working in the knowledge sector - that is changing. Nowadays, it fosters entrepreneurial thinking and the ability to find solutions to society's problems. Entrepreneurship has come to play a key role in our thinking. We have to become more innovative. I think this is also what European businesses want. We all need to change and learn from one another.

You can read more on what the two experts have to say about entrepreneurship in East Africa here.

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