The Cradle of Disruption – Startup Bootcamp
The site, currently occupying 47 000 hectares (180 m²) is one of two key sites.
That Africa is the cradle of humankind is up for little debate, the precise location in Africa is the real question. It is now more imperative than ever before to have solid businesses that can take the African continent forward. These businesses have to start from somewhere, which is why Africa has seen a massive spike in tech-enabled startups and SME Businesses geared for the digital era.
Startupbootcamp AfriTech’s ASIP Accelerator Program was launched in 2017 as the first multi corporate backed pan-African startup accelerator and has worked with some of the most innovative multinational corporates on the continent. The flagship program is a three-month accelerator program for 10 high-growth tech startups that have been scouted across the continent. SBC provides the startups with access to their network of mentors and corporates as well as investors. During their scouting phase, they typically receive more than 1 500 applications and meet 1:1 with more than 250 founders per year, giving SBC and its corporate partners the most accurate and in-depth insight possible into the African innovation ecosystem.
“That Africa is the cradle of humankind is up for little debate, the precise location in Africa is the real question. ”
PHILIP KIRACOFE CEO and co-founder of Startupbootcamp AfriTech
Philip Kiracofe has two decades of direct operational and venture financing experience spanning a diverse range of industries across three continents. He has cofounded, led, advised and invested in disruptive companies including a pioneer online grocery service company, two venture capital funds, the first large-scale social networking site, and a property development firm. He helped bring world-class accelerators to Africa, and is the CEO and co-founder of Startupbootcamp AfriTech. His investment portfolio – including funds and direct investments, has grown to more than 50 African startups since 2013.
“In 1994, I landed in New York City, which at the time was referred to as the Silicon Alley because it was basically the first ‘emerging’ market outside of Silicon Valley. In 1996, I co-founded one of the first online grocery businesses, and although we made a valiant effort in the dial-up modem era, it ultimately failed. I then joined Sixdegrees.com, which pioneered the social networking industry – nearly a decade before Facebook was launched. In fact, the company even had a patent on the concept. I left to help launch the incubator division for Rare Medium Ventures, one of the most forward-thinking VC funds of the era. Incubation was an entirely new idea at the time, and ultimately was the precursor for today’s accelerators. We made 21 investments in our first year, six of which were housed in our incubator lab. In April 2000, the Internet bubble burst and needless to say, that was kind of the end of the party.”
After taking a sabbatical, Kiracofe noticed the Internet tech opportunities rising in India and co-founded an early-stage fund called Horizen Ventures. In 2006, they joined the Softbank Bodhi fund which was focused on the emerging markets of India and Asia. As they approached the end of the five-year investment period for the fund, they started looking for new markets.
In 2011, he travelled to South Africa to run the Comrades Ultra Marathon, and stumbled on a nascent tech scene. He started exploring venture funding opportunities while offering mentoring to African founders. Kiracofe soon realised that the startups on the continent needed a very different type of support in order to become more visible and fundable, and that the ecosystem could benefit from aligning stakeholders through an accelerator.
“In 2015, my co-founder Zach and I created Barclays Tech Lab Africa, the first corporate-backed accelerator on the continent. In 2016, we ran another accelerator for Alan Gray Orbis Foundation, a CSR arm for one of the largest investment firms in Africa. During that time, we had met the founders of Startupbootcamp, a global network of accelerators running industry-specific programs in key locations all around the world. They had never successfully gotten a program off the ground in Africa, so we joined forces and from 2017 onwards, we have been running the SBC AfriTech accelerator program.”
Kiracofe’s inspiration for accelerating innovation on the African continent is based on the historic relevance and significance.
“Africa is where humanity began. In geological terms, if you go all the way back to the start” -he continues as his eyes brightly light up-, “not too far from where our campus is located in South Africa, is the Cradle of Humanity. When you go there, you can see all the early disruptive tools that our ancestors developed – stone tools, cutting tools and the emergence of fire that fundamentally changed the course of human history. For the first couple million years of our history, all the big innovations were invented in Africa,” he explains.
“Fast forward to the rise of Greek and Roman empires and the Industrial Revolution and the epicentre of ideas and innovation migrated out of Africa into Europe and then eventually across to the US. But even today, when you go to Silicon Valley, you find most of those founders building great startups are not from the US originally. They leave their home countries all around the world and come to Silicon Valley because the ecosystem is unrivalled. There is an incredible network of angel investors, early and later stage investors, venture funds, legal, accounting and finance, tons of tech talent and all the pieces that you need to establish a viable enterprise. However, nearly every startup that is built there is focused on solving first world problems.”
Kiracofe argues that the explosive population growth and the age demographics in Africa create a unique advantage for the continent that is ripe for unrivalled economic expansion. “After living in Africa and being aware of some of the challenges, it’s clear that the challenges that are arising in Africa are not problems that are typically solvable from Silicon Valley, or even from Europe, or China, for that matter. The population growth that’s happening in Africa is leading to a level of growth that’s truly unprecedented in human history. This means new and different problems, and as a result, you cannot simply cut and paste solutions that have worked elsewhere. We need African solutions for African challenges,” he explains.
Accelerating the digital economy “In order to support entrepreneurs that are solving those problems, we need to develop local ecosystems comprised of resources that fully understand the context and constraints. SBC’s approach is to bring the same acceleration capabilities that are available to startups in Silicon Valley (and other places around the world), to Africa. We overlay the methodology on geographic locations where there are natural gravity wells of talent and industry expertise,” he argues.
“Our organisation now refers to Africa as the cradle of disruption. Because this is where most of the most significant disruptive changes on the planet are going to happen moving forward.”
The Internet economy is predicted to reach over 5% of GDP by 2025, contributing over $180 billion to the African economy. But that is really just the tip of the iceberg, as tech-enabled services will disrupt every aspect of our lives. This in essence, makes the focus on startup and SME growth, and scalability in Africa a top priority. To understand the full scope of the potential impact, Kiracofe shares the history of how mobile money was invented in Africa.
“The cell-phone was invented in the US, but the adoption was initially quite slow. However, in Africa, the killer feature was the text messaging, because that was an asynchronous form of communication. You could send a message and trust that the other party would eventually receive it whenever they were in range of a cell tower and had airtime, at which point they could reply. This was far more reliable than trying a voice-call, and as a result mobile telecommunications proliferated across Africa. In many first world countries, there are huge networks of legacy infrastructure and hundreds of millions of miles of ‘land line’ cables. In Africa, we simply leap-frogged directly to mobile networks, skipping the entire land-line era,” he says. The equaliser and enabler While technology is an enabler, context is key. African disruptors and innovators are bending technology to their will by ensuring it fits the context on the continent.
“To really understand what the challenges are on the continent, you have got to be in it, you must breathe, eat, sleep and live in that reality EVERY day. That is the only way you can truly understand the pain points and create relevant solutions for the customers you are trying to serve. The people on the continent. You cannot be separated from the reality on the ground and expect to come up with long-term solutions. And that’s why we believe that African founders and innovators are building the future for humanity.”
Group Telecel Global is the founder of the ASIP Accelerator powered by SBC Afritech. Kiracofe feels this is an invaluable partnership as SBC continues to secure additional corporate organisations and launch the first cohort of startups.
“Mobile devices and connectivity are fundamental to nearly all of the tech solutions now. The devices are cheap, portable and incredibly powerful computing devices, and the network infrastructure enables nearly ubiquitous reach and access. For startups looking to scale, an innovative mobile operator offers an incredible strategic value to the accelerator. For SBC, securing an up and coming and very innovative mobile operator was a critical goal and Telecel ticked all the boxes. It’s a perfect partnership for us,” he explains with emphasis.
“What they bring is connectivity, access and customers among other key aspects. But like any big corporate, they are not nearly as lean and nimble as startups can be. But thankfully, they recognise that about themselves and they keenly understand that through this accelerator, they can find disruptive startups that are solving some of these really key problems, and can help those startups to scale. Telecel can provide expert guidance and market access to millions of customers across Africa.”
To this end he feels that it is exciting for them to work with a corporate that has both a CSR and a profit motive, as that opens up the opportunities for a wide range of startups solving various topical challenges.
On corporate partners
There are an increasing number of African corporations that are embracing the startup space because they recognise what it means for the future, not only for their own organisations, but ultimately, for the continent as a whole. “SBC and the Telecel Group ASIP Accelerator are actively seeking to partner with forwardthinking organisations and can demonstrate concrete results from Corporate Startup Collaboration based on our previous programs.”
“We are looking for corporate organisations that are truly committed to innovation. Unfortunately a lot of corporates pay lip service to the goals or are still in the exploration stages. But there are also corporations that understand that innovation is core to their future success and longterm viability. Today, as a result of the difficult past year with Covid-19, a lot more organisations fall into that category. Before the pandemic shattered the economy, many of these companies were content with 5 – 10% annual growth. In the last year, entire industries have been wiped away and the landscape has significantly changed,” he explains.
“Today, nearly every company is scrambling to find new customers, find an extension on existing products and services, or pivot into entirely new lines of business. Innovation is no longer a nice-to have, it’s an existential reality. Therefore, we are looking for companies that are truly committed to finding solutions to their challenges with enough organisational commitment, from the board to the leadership team and key business units. We have had tremendous success in the past de-risking this journey and are excited to welcome a couple of new Founding Partners to the consortium,” Kiracofe says.
Africa is vast and entrepreneurship is seeing explosive growth. Identifying the right startups is no easy task.
“At a high level, what we are looking for startups that are solving a problem that is not just local or confined, but can rather be scaled across regions or even the continent at large. Most of the companies that join our programs start out based in small regions, but it is quite clear that their solutions can be applied to multiple areas, which is very important,” he reiterates.
“We also look for startups with multiple founders, typically a technical co-founder plus a sales person plus the CEO. They must have full-time dedicated people working on the project, and have validated the solution through revenue or signed customers. We are agnostic whether they’re B2B or B2C as the industry sectors for the ASIP Accelerator are quite broad. We are looking for solutions in fintech, digital health,e-commerce, blockchain, agritech, logistics, etc. These are challenge areas that have tremendous opportunity and will continue to be massive growth areas for the foreseeable future. So when we find disruptive startups that are truly solving problems in unique ways, then those are the companies that we want to get into our program…”
The first three cohorts of startups in the AfriTech accelerator program have done very well with some already soaring to unprecedented heights. “From a numbers perspective, out of the 29 companies that have completed the program, only four have failed or are dormant. This means that 87% of our alumni are still operating, and of those, more than half of them have continued to operate without needing any funding post our program. They have been able to build viable businesses which are scaling on the back of their own revenue, and we’re incredibly proud of those founders. Twelve alumni companies have sought to raise funding. One hundred percent of them have succeeded in closing at least a part of their round, which is a powerful testament to the calibre of the startups. In terms of valuations, the average increase for the startups that have raised capital is 10x over where they were when they first joined,” he exclaims.
“From a validation perspective, we’re doing exceptionally well, but that obviously sets a very high bar for the next program. We are under our own internal pressure to show that we can not only do it again, but do it even better. The startups coming into the ASIP program will benefit from the legacy of really impressive teams for the first cohort, and they have a lot to live up to. They will be standing on the shoulders of giants.”
One of the most important components contributing to the success of the accelerator model is the long list of global partners that have signed on to provide discounts, credits, and free services to the 10 startups selected for the program. Each startup receives a package valued at more than $750 000 from more than 200 partners. Some of the most notable include AWS, Google Cloud, IBM, Microsoft, Xero, HubSpot, Trello, GitHub, and Slack. The ASIP Accelerator wants the founders to be focusing 100% on execution and scale, and these partners remove a huge burden in terms of admin, operations, and platforms.
“We ensure that every aspect of a startup tool set, and all of the resources that you need to run your companies are available the day you get accepted into the program.”
So what we can expect from the class of 2021? “Given that the continent is still in the grips of the pandemic, the program itself has evolved. In the past we would physically travel to 13 or more African countries every year conducting our scouting. Currently, we are doing that via digital scouting trips. SBC has also launched the Accelerator Squared platform which is a fully digital platform through which the founders are provided the full curriculum in a customisable format. There is also an invite-only community of founders, mentors, and investors who provide support throughout the program and beyond. We are really excited to offer a worldclass online accelerator program for this year, and moving forward, we plan to roll that into hybrid programs, so that we have the resumption of in person demo days,” Kiracofe says.
“Our mission stays the same – Accelerating the next generation of African Innovators. We are inspired to find the diamonds in the rough, and we believe that we have built a machine that will continue to amplify the success stories of those extraordinary founders that are currently flying under the radar,” he explains.
“Ultimately any corporates that are out there, that are struggling to develop a coherent strategy and execute on that strategy, an innovation strategy for how they are going to succeed and prosper in the new reality. We would love to chat with you, and then of course, for any startups that are trying to connect with those corporates. We are a fantastic channel, so we look forward to meeting you as well,” he concludes.
Executive Deputy Telecel Group Board of Directors and the Africa Startup Initiative Program Director Eleanor Azar is a senior executive with 25 years’ experience, mainly in the Telecom industry. Azar spearheaded several MNO commercial launches and operations in highly competitive markets throughout the Middle East and Africa as well as MVNO operations in the Gulf and Levant. She is a result-driven, target oriented individual and a team player. In addition to her duties with Telecel Group, Eleanor directs the Africa Startup Initiative, a CSR Program by Telecel Group. Eleanor is a USA graduate holder of degrees in Marketing and Business Management.
“I joined the telecom business back in 2000 during what was the hype of telecom at the time and it was the place to be and the thing to do.We were changing the world. I was part of several big companies in the telecom business. I worked in countries like Yemen, Algeria, Iraq, the Maldives, Ivory Coast, Liberia, Gambia and Sierra Leone. We launched telecom companies at a time where people didn’t even have fixed lines as a means of communication in most regions in Africa.
I had invaluable opportunities working with African individuals on the continent and I believe this is where I developed my affinity to Africa and Africans. I spent a good part of my life travelling the continent, learning and developing different opportunities,” Azar explains.
“The telecom business, of course, underwent a lot of changes especially in the last 10 years or so. The industry is in a constant change. What is now a hype can become obsolete in a few months. It is a challenge to keep up with the trends and keep educating yourself on what the market requires,” she explains.
“I have been very fortunate to be part of the telecom business which triggered a lot of changes in many different countries. When you give people a way to connect, it changes everything. It makes them flourish more in business and their personal lives and everything that they do,” she adds.
Different locations and rules
Having worked in different countries and some highly charged locations, Azar feels that experience has been richly rewarding though quite challenging.
“I have managed a lot of different political landscapes and I feel like I have succeeded in most of them. Mostly because of understanding context and putting myself in the next person’s shoes,” she explains.
Rising through the ranks
Azar has rose through the ranks at the Telecel Group due to her diverse and extensive experience in the Telecoms business. “I work closely with the group CEO and have a role with the board which allows me to attract the attention of the key decision makers to the ASIP program and its benefits.”
The future of business in Africa
Azar feels the future of business on the continent is bright in this digital era.
“We have in excess of 140 million active users of mobile financial services on the continent. The exponential increase in smartphone connections in Africa is impressive. The mobile data traffic is going up continuously, it’s increasing, and people are welcoming the innovations and the change. It’s really exciting to see this, not to mention how young the population is and how in the next 30 – 40 years, Africa will have the youngest people in the world, and with the young mentality comes the innovation and the disruption of everything that we were used to before,” she explains.
“Africans understand their problems and they are the only ones who can find solutions for them. They just need the right tools. Given the right tools of support, whether it be from their governments, private organisations or programs like the one we are running, they will flourish through these ideas. Most of these solutions are applicable to so many other locations on the continent, provided they are given the access to markets and resources to scale,” she adds.
This support and accelerated framework is the backbone of the Telecel Group ASIP Accelerator Program powered by Startupbootcamp Afritech, which connects startups with leading corporate partners that provide market access for scale. The synergy between Telecel’s thinking and the aims of Startupbootcamp Afritech ensured this was a strong match geared for results.
“We met Startupbootcamp Afritech when we were participating in the Africacom event in November 2019. We were sponsoring a big chunk of the event – all of the startups, because when we started running this program, it was like a CSR activity that we wanted to push forward. We first launched the program at the Mobile World Congress (MWC) in Barcelona in 2019. The panel included people from the United Nations, ministers from African countries, ICT ministers from Africa and at the time we sponsored about 15 startups – we created a big booth at MWC and we brought these startups to showcase their ideas and their products. After that, we had other events in different countries which were really impressive,” she says.
“After our participation we felt we needed to do more. During the Africacom event, we met Startupbootcamp Afritech, sat with them and understood what they do and their programs of accelerating these startups and supporting them. Their history and track record and synergy with our thinking ensured we could move forward. We therefore felt it was the right time to increase our efforts in supporting SMEs,” she explains.
Support and giving back are constant themes in my discussion with Azar. “As a business in Africa we feel it is very important to give back to the communities we conduct business in. It’s very important for the shareholders and the owners of the company and the board of directors to actually run a program that will give lasting benefits not just window dressing for the sake of it. This program allows us to support the communities where we work and to improve these communities not just for today, but also in the long run,” she explains.
“There are a lot of talented entrepreneurs in Africa that need support and we are quite sure that they will flourish if they are given support. So, we are developing a program for the long term, for the long run. We are here to stay, we love Africa. All the shareholders have an affinity for Africa, we believe that it is the future of business, it’s the oldest continent, but with the youngest population, with the youngest ideas, with the most disruptive ideas, we believe in the future of Africa and we want to be part of it while supporting the young Africans who are going to get us there,” Azar explains.
Women in business
Women empowerment is high on the agenda in African business. Azar is a shining beacon and example of the possibilities in business and corporate for women. She has broken the much talked about corporate glass ceiling and puts it down to perseverance, logic and hard-work.
“Perseverance is key. As a woman in business you will face different situations. Many times I found myself as the only woman on the executive team, which was not easy but I develop a strong personality, highly dependent on logic. When you get your point across logically, people understand it. Women are always looked at as emotional beings, so I recommend to women in business to use logic, rather than anything else, because this is how you will flourish and shine in the business world.”
The big opportunity
In closing, Azar feels the program offers a major opportunity for African startups while corporate organisations have an opportunity to make a big difference on the continent.
“I say to all the startups that are reading this, please apply to the Telecel Group ASIP Accelerator Program powered by Startupbootcamp AfriTech! To all the corporates and executives reading this, it would be a great opportunity to work with you, and we invite you to come on board the consortium and sponsor some of these activities,” she says.
“Corporates have a duty to encourage these young people, to help these young people and I think they should play a part in this. It’s a great program that is going to have a lot of coverage and I believe will have a lot of success. I truly believe in this. So, I encourage all the corporates to join us,” she concludes.
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