Unsung heroes are not superheroes: the life of an incubator

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Running a tech incubator in Africa comes with a mixture of benefits and challenges, writes Abdoul Aziz, project manager at Senegalese incubator CTIC Dakar.

Working in an incubator is a special experience everywhere. By virtue of the difficulties, pressures and ideas to which one is exposed daily in interaction with entrepreneurs, these places provide a unique experience and a window to a world of opportunities that is also, often, a world of pain and disappointment.

It hasn’t been a world of pain and disappointment here though, not at CTIC Dakar anyway, and that is a remarkable thing. People, even from within our community, wonder what we’re all about, what we have done. I’ll say we’ve woken folks up, while keeping the dream alive.

Our shortcomings

We do not give money to our entrepreneurs. We would love to. Forget what the rhetoric says, money is important, at times it is vital. Is it a shortcoming of our system? Probably. And we’re working hard to make funding available. Does it mean that we don’t provide anything? Only to people who would not have succeeded with money anyway.

We don’t provide thousands of business opportunities. Is it a shortcoming? Certainly. But unless we can create a few hundred million clones in laboratories, or replace the governments and unite West Africa, the reality is what we have to deal with: the Senegalese market is small. Does that mean we provide nothing? It could mean that, one day. Firms will get clients, they have to. Either we help them, or we watch the best of them rise before our eyes while we become irrelevant.

We don’t have an army of business developers, technicians, consultants and project managers to provide expert opinion. Is it a shortcoming? Not sure. A big team would’ve been diluted in skills and energy, and it could have done the job of the entrepreneurs in their place (a mistake). Finding quality human resources for this kind of job, people you can rely on to share your vision and work hard, is not easy. We know what we’re doing and we want to help the people we work with. We have. Does that mean we don’t provide anything? Only to people looking for wizards and witches.

So what do we provide?

That is the real question. We provide the most important thing: a foundation. We provide the workplace, cheap buildings in downtown Dakar. Some of the best startups and tech enterprises were there at the start, some of them miss it. We provide support to the new recruits. Young people who come in needing plenty of help with different things.

We’ve helped the employees of our firms with time management, commercial approaches, cultural differences. We give our advice. We have different types of expertise. Some of us make use of their reasoning skills, others of their imagination and creativity, some of us use our experience. We don’t have fancy diplomas. Well, we do, but we don’t sell these. We sell what’s tangible, what helps.

And our advice helps. Our best firm still consults us before making major decisions, and, most importantly, still needs to. Its employees have found a mentor in our business developer. What the latter has brought them, they will take with them forever. The business developer likes to use one word to describe her goal: “structure”. By the time we are done working with our firms, we want them to be ready: in terms of processes, in terms of understanding of the market, and in terms of having a backbone that is going to sustain them through the bad times and make the right decisions in the good ones.

We don’t take entrepreneurs to the top, only they can do that for themselves. We help them build the foundation of the house, and are behind them as they take the stairs, to make sure they don’t fall. And sure enough, thus far, nobody has fallen.

At times, we’ve almost worked as if we were part of the firms. We’ve done things for them that their employees were supposed to do, the ones they’ve got, and the ones they can’t afford.  And we’ve enjoyed it. We would gladly do it again. But that is not our role. Our role is to advise and go along, getting the entrepreneurs back on track when we feel they’re taking the wrong road, encouraging them to stick with it when we feel they’re about to give up.

The psychological support we provide is huge. Entrepreneurs shouldn’t be lonely, their work is hard enough. And in this country, no one can do it on his or her own.  We bring support. If you think you’ve got the idea of the century, that you can implement it and that all you need is money, you don’t need us. You need an investor. If you need someone to host you, be your travel companion, suffer with you and help you figure it out, we’re your team.

What do we get?

Tangibly, not much. If you become a millionaire, we’ll make some money, but we’ll still be a not-for profit organisation, the money of which does not go into our pockets. If you make billions in three years, the odds are we’ll still be earning the same money. We don’t spend the working year in fancy hotels attending important meetings and administering huge budgets. What we get is satisfaction. Satisfaction with an event well done, or with the progress of an entrepreneur.

We learn too, and that is huge. We meet any project bearer who wants to talk with us. Try finding another place which actually lives by an open door policy, which answers the requests of anyone who asks, which holds a meeting with anyone who comes to their front door looking for advice.

We’re hustlers, just like our entrepreneurs, and we take pride in the simplicity of our job. We’re here to serve. We don’t fully understand it ourselves, we’d be lying if we said it’s not a frustrating job. But in business, and in development, your own success seldom comes without serving. True customer service in Senegal is not even a notion, it is alien behaviour. To provide better service with minimal means and minimal rewards, that is the vision we have to embrace.

So it’s not a problem if the entrepreneurs have their eyes closed when it comes to our work. Our job is to keep their dreams alive. To do this, we have to keep their eyes open on everything else, and they don’t always like it.

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Key players from Africa's startup and investment ecosystem post on issues close to their heart for Disrupt Africa.

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