Training Africa’s Tech Entrepreneurs: MEST Reflections, 10 Years On

This post was written by Thea Sokolowski, Director of Marketing at MEST.

MEST @ 10

In 2018, MEST is celebrating 10 years training, supporting and investing in software entrepreneurs in Africa. Since launching in Ghana in 2008, we’ve seen just about everything and have come away with a strong understanding of what’s required to launch tech companies in Africa, to invest in them and to help them scale.

In fact, MEST itself has become truly Pan-African over the last few years, with a footprint in 5 countries and ambitions to reach much farther. As we look ahead to the next decade, we’re taking time to reflect on the learnings we’ve come away with since our early days in East Legon.

Trending theme: think global, start local.

At MEST, the phrase “globally successful software entrepreneurs” has been uttered more times than we can count. From day one, the idea of launching software companies with a global or Pan-African reach has been the goal.

Leading by example, MEST launched as a diverse, global organization itself. Through their exposure to one another, to our global fellows and staff, and to the slew of successful guest lecturers brought into MEST, our entrepreneurs have had no choice but to think globally as well.

For many, this completely changes the way they approach their businesses, as well as their own relationships. It often blows their initial visions and goals for themselves wide open, and allows their aspirations to evolve over the course of their year or years at MEST. Upon graduating, they have the will, the confidence and the skillset to not only disrupt their own markets but to literally set the world aflame.

But that doesn’t mean the problems they’re solving are only global in nature. Particularly in recent years, MEST entrepreneurs have focused on tackling issues that affect their local environments on the continent, and solutions that leverage their understanding of the way African industries work. They need to begin with the markets they know well and build a solid foundation before looking to expand.

They are encouraged, however, to think about what those problems will look like on a bigger scale — and to never limit their ambitions to short term solutions. They look to discover the root problem, and to create a solution that has room to grow. Going in with an international mindset makes a massive difference in the way they think about their vision, and the way they plan out their next steps. They’re encouraged to think bigger, but to incorporate localized insights every step of the way.

MEST Africa’s approach

Beyond our entrepreneurs themselves, there are 3 things that have always made MEST unique:

  • We invest in individuals — pre-idea, pre-team — and focus strongly on capacity building from the start
  • We provide access to seed funding and significant mentorship and support starting at the idea stage
  • Thanks to founder Jorn Lyseggen, parent company Meltwater, and our growing community of alumni, we offer one of the strongest networks of entrepreneurs, investors and mentors across the continent and all over the world

MEST Impact

Since its inception in 2008, MEST has trained nearly 300 entrepreneurs, brought in 80+ international fellows and mentors, invested in over 50 early stage startups, had 3 exits, and through our companies created more than 400 highly skilled jobs. And we’re only just getting started.

For Africans, by Africans

At MEST, we believe that solutions with the capacity to reach the next billion people not only can come from the continent but need to. We, alongside our entrepreneurs, are building a future where African innovators no longer look outside the continent to solve local problems, but rather are empowered to be the solution.

It takes a deep understanding of the problems and challenges faced by these markets, of the reason why these industries function the way they do, and of the right timing to bring technology forward as a solution. And at MEST we also understand that patient capital is the only way those solutions are able to grow the way they need to.

MEST entrepreneurs have the capacity to see where technology makes sense, where it can be implemented and how likely it is to be adopted. They understand the nuances of appropriate timing, education that might be necessary on the part of the customer, and the right industries that are most ripe for innovation.

MEST company Qisimah is finally bringing the radio and music industry in West Africa into the 21st century, while Asoriba is enabling financial inclusion and a greater sense of community among the continent’s millions of Christians, offering a CRM for 2.6M churches. Online real estate marketplace meQasa overtook the competition by a long shot, acquiring Jumia House Ghana in 2017, to solidify its place as the industry leader in Ghana.

From Amplify Pay’s fintech solution in Nigeria, to TroTroTractor, Complete Farmer, and Anitrack’s agritech companies in Ghana, to innovations all along the construction supply chain with Bidiibuild’s construction project management solution, and Joluud’s building management system, our entrepreneurs are enhancing the industries they know well, armed with technology and business acumen.

Africa rising: tech is the narrative

In a recent Tedx talk at Berkeley, Chanzo Capital’s Eric Osiakwan told us why Africa is poised for a tech takeoff. Citing a study that shows annualized returns in the tech sector average 19% — more than 3x higher than oil and gas - he said:

There’s no way you can tell me that the Africa Rising story is a resource narrative. It has to be a tech narrative.”

This is just the tip of the iceberg. Africa’s population will reach 1.3 billion by 2050. Africa will be an important marketplace in the 21st century, and we agree that technology will be vital in helping it succeed.

The 5 countries leading the digital economy across Africa, according to Osiakwan, are considered the “KINGS countries”: Kenya, Ivory Coast, Nigeria, Ghana, South Africa. These are precisely the regions in which MEST has a presence.

With MEST entrepreneurs as role models for their peers and successors, we envision a future wave of change that includes a shift in mindset across the continent — one that is driven by technological innovation, imbued with confidence and grounded in action. We see no shortage of talent, determination and leadership abilities. With sufficient capacity building, access to funding and resources, and a network of mentorship, those looking to build their own solutions to the problems they face are quite literally unstoppable.

The next 10 years: Pan-African vision

MEST began in Ghana, proved concept and took away substantial learnings, which we’ll share over the coming months. Last year, we expanded our footprint with incubators in Lagos and Cape Town. Next we look to Nairobi, Abidjan, and beyond, with more to follow. Our areas of growth will be determined by those markets in which our companies are looking to take next steps, as well as those markets where there is an abundance of tech talent and interest, that MEST can take to the next level.

We truly believe the next few years will see a surge in African scaleups, and some Kudus to boot. The time has come for those companies who have seen success to move beyond the startup stage and take their solutions to new markets. We’ve seen proof with recent successes, from Andela to Flutterwave, mPesa, mPharma and our own Asoriba.

At MEST we aim to provide a home for companies beyond the startup stage, allowing them to seamlessly spread their wings into new regions. We’ll offer a deep understanding of those individual markets, their nuances and their challenges, and a network of support, mentorship and resources that are so essential during this turning point in a company’s life cycle.

This year for the first time, our doors are also open to companies in the local ecosystem who have not received funding from MEST to apply for space in one of our incubators and join what is quickly becoming the most significant Pan-African community of tech entrepreneurs.

Are you ready to join us?

Watch this space for more learnings from MEST, our take on doing business in different regions of Africa and information around local celebrations for our 10th anniversary. This year we’ll release a mini-documentary highlighting our journey. In the meantime, applications for the Class of 2019 at MEST have now opened. Apply now to become part of our growing Pan-African community.

The largest Africa-wide technology entrepreneur training program, internal seed fund, and network of hubs offering incubation for startups: www.meltwater.org