MEST Africa: Lessons learned from 10 years supporting tech entrepreneurs on the continent

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In 2018, MEST is celebrating 10 years of training, supporting and investing in software entrepreneurs in Africa.  In this guest post written for the GSMA Ecosystem Accelerator, Thea Sokolowski, director of marketing of The Meltwater Entrepreneurial School of Technology (MEST) Africa, reflects on the lessons learnt during those 10 years of running MEST’s incubation and Entrepreneurs-in-Training (EITs) programmes in Africa. 

MEST first launched in Ghana in 2008, at a time when few programmes like this were available, before expanding into more mainstream markets like Nigeria, Kenya and South Africa. At the beginning of 2015, we opened our doors to Entrepreneurs-in-Training (EITs) outside of Ghana, first accepting Nigerian EITs thanks to our partner Interswitch, and later EITs from Kenya, South Africa, and this year, Francophone EITs from the Ivory Coast. In 2017, we launched incubators in Lagos, Nigeria and Cape Town, South Africa, with Nairobi and Abidjan to follow.

Since we began, MEST has trained nearly 300 entrepreneurs, brought in over 80 international fellows and mentors, invested in over 50 early stage startups, and created more than 400 highly skilled jobs at companies in our portfolio. We’re only just getting started.

Lessons along the way

At MEST, we’ve always focused on supporting “globally successful software entrepreneurs”. Our entrepreneurs are encouraged to think pan-African, even global, but to incorporate localised insights every step of the way.

MEST began as a two-year training programme. Over time, as we took away learnings and our entrepreneurs became increasingly competitive, we cut the programme down to one year, reducing classroom time in favour of practical exposure and enabling them to start building their businesses sooner.

One of our key learnings was that entrepreneurs often attempt to tackle massive, complicated problems that prove too large for a single startup to effectively solve alone. Today, we’re looking at our portfolio as a whole to determine how and where we can create value chains. Our goal is to create a pan-African community of tech innovators that can continue to build off one another and work together to solve some of the most pressing issues facing the continent.

As with other initiatives of our kind – the GSMA counts the current number of tech hubs operating in Africa at 442, in its landscaping research on tech hubs in Africa – as MEST continues to grow, so too do the costs of operation. Perhaps the most significant learning has been ways of monetising and generating revenue so we can keep the programme running.

When we launched our incubators in Lagos and Cape Town, we also began accepting startups from the community to join the space as co-working members. We’re proud of the carefully curated pan-African tech and investor community we’ve created, and as a result our incubators have become hubs for tech-focused events, initiatives and expert conversations that all members get to enjoy. Also, in addition to our parent Meltwater, MEST is proud to partner with some of the leading corporate innovation teams globally who are looking to become involved in the African tech space – from Merck to Liquid Telecom to Facebook – on initiatives that both contribute to our mission and larger community but also help us continue to grow as an organisation.

MEST Africa’s approach

At MEST, we invest in individuals — pre-idea, pre-team even — and focus strongly on capacity building from the start. Each year, we recruit 60 EITs from among the most promising talent on the continent. They come to Ghana for one-year, intensive training in business, technology and communications.

Our entrepreneurs increasingly hail from more diverse markets across Africa. We hold physical recruitment in major cities in Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa and Ivory Coast, and this year have an EIT from Zimbabwe. However, we have begun receiving applications from entrepreneurs across Africa, including Tunisia, Somalia, Sierra Leone, Tanzania and more, in addition to our core markets. For the 2018 class, we received nearly 1,000 completed applications for 60 spots, and this has more than doubled for the upcoming 2019 class. We currently have 30 per cent women in our programme and are actively working to increase the number of female applicants through partnerships, through women in tech focused events and with the help of programmes like STEM Bees, which was founded by our female alumni.

During their time at MEST, EITs have the ability to learn and to fail in a safe environment, multiple times. They’re encouraged to try different teams, different products and industries, even different roles, before settling on the idea they wish to pursue. Every step of the way, they receive insights and feedback, and are able to self-reflect.

Mentorship is key to the programme’s success. Every cohort of EITs is led by a team of specialised global teaching fellows and an experienced senior faculty, and specialised fellows work with portfolio companies. Expert guest lecturers – which this year will include the GSMA Ecosystem Accelerator team – regularly visit from across Africa, Silicon Valley and Europe to share their experiences and expertise, advice for our entrepreneurs and feedback. Leveraging this network, each year, MEST holds a flagship conference, the MEST Africa Summit, which brings leading investors, entrepreneurs and executives together to discuss learnings, trends, challenges and leading players on the continent.

At the end of the training programme, EITs pitch their final idea to the whole community. Graduates who successfully convince a board of investors receive seed equity-funding of US$50,000 to US$250,000 to launch their businesses in the incubator of their choice, along with mentorship and support starting at the idea stage.

MEST portfolio companies range in sector, but all are software-based. One of our most successful companies is meQasa, currently Ghana’s largest online real estate marketplace. The team raised US$800,000 from Frontier Digital in 2015 and acquired Jumia House, their largest competitor, in 2017.

MEST has had four exits, and had more than 15 companies go on to receive additional funding and participate in international accelerator programmes, from Y Combinator to 500 Startups and Techstars.

Support for the first pan-African incubator

MEST Africa’s success would not have been possible without the support of key partners along the way. Notably, we have strong relationships with several of the continent’s leading mobile operators and ISPs, who help with connectivity, mentorship and support.

A great example is Vodafone Ghana, who has been a strong supporter of MEST since 2013. While originally coming onboard as an internet provider for our facilities in Ghana, we have developed a long-standing partnership and are working toward a shared mission of supporting tech innovation in Ghana. MEST has hosted Vodafone Hackathons, spoken at Vodafone events, and soon will be working with Vodafone and Huawei on developing an ICT hub for high school students in Accra.

With the aim to further support the collaboration between MEST startups and mobile operators, the GSMA Ecosystem Accelerator programme will be running a two-day module at MEST Ghana on 25 – 26 June 2018. The module aims to help MEST’s incubated startups better structure and articulate their value proposition to mobile operators.

In Nigeria, we have partnered with MainOne who provides internet access at our Lagos incubator. This year we’re proud to bring on MTN as a key sponsor for our upcoming MEST Africa Summit in Cape Town this June.

From our partners, to our staff and volunteers, to our guests and mentors, our co-working members, and most importantly our entrepreneurs, MEST is fuelled by our community. That network, and the co-learning opportunities it provides, is the most powerful thing anyone looking to build a program like MEST can have. As our startups turn to scale-ups and continue to grow, the goal for MEST is also to evolve our training and incubation model over the coming years, and to establish a presence in even more markets to ensure they remain supported.

 

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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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