Accelerator programmes in Africa are increasingly going niche, building specific programmes targeted at startups in spaces such as fintech and health, instead of following the more traditional 500 Startups, Y Combinator, or, in Africa, 88mph models.
But why are niche programmes suddenly so in vogue on the continent? Has the landscape changed since 88mph departed the scene after programmes in Kenya, South Africa and Nigeria that had mixed success? Do we yet know the real ingredients for a successful African accelerator?
Adedana Ashebir is regional manager for Africa at Village Capital, which has run a host of focused accelerators across the continent, most recently a fintech programme with PayPal. She said niche accelerators allow entrepreneurs to share best practices and lessons learned in a more meaningful way.
“There is a real value add to bringing founders that are working on different aspects of a similar problem,” she said. “As an entrepreneur, it helps to have others in the room who understand your challenges with product-market fit or regulation for example. Additionally, corporates play a role in driving this trend as they are looking for potential customers and products.”
Ahmed Umar agrees. He is chief operations officer at Nigeria’s Wennovation Hub, which recently launched a dedicated accelerator for agri-tech startups. He said niche accelerators offer a great way to focus, both for the entrepreneurs and for the accelerator itself.
“For instance, the agri-tech accelerator at the Wennovation Hub has staff members, educated and experienced along the line of agriculture and innovation, dedicated to offering agri-tech specific programmes to throughout the year,” he said.
“They are able to use sector-specific case studies in their training, and attract a rich set of sector experts and investors. Entrepreneurs in these niche accelerators are also able to share useful learnings through peer-mentoring.”
Traditional, more general accelerators should not be discounted as worthless, however. Umar said they play their part within the ecosystem.
“A general accelerator focused on many sectors could encourage diversity and cross-collaboration between entrepreneurs in various sectors,” he said. “For example, a useful blend of agri-tech, e-commerce and fintech could be fostered by a multi-sector accelerator.”
That said, the pervading trend is of accelerators choosing to narrow their focus onto one, or at most two, sectors. Umar said this is also more resource-friendly.
“Across Africa, accelerators are choosing their battles with respect to the kind of ventures to support with their very limited resources,” he said.
There is room for both niche and general programmes within the African startup accelerator space, according to Camilla Swart, ecosystem manager at the Cape Town-based Rise, where Barclays holds its programmes.
“I think there is room for both approaches, it depends on the entrepreneur needs,” she said.
Yet Rise has experienced the benefits of focusing on fintech.
“What is great for us at Rise is that in our co-working community there is a glue that holds people together,” said Swart. “They have a common language in “fintech”, they can be a sounding board for each other, share ideas and resources, and you see the traction of collaboration quite tangibly.”
She points to mergers that have occurred within the startup community at Rise, as well as the fact some of the more mature startups have invest in early-stage businesses.
The benefits are there for the accelerators themselves, too.
“Rise benefits when the tech ecosystem is strong – a strong ecosystem means that there is rigour to solutions, there is more pipeline of quality startups, valuations are fair, and talent emerges,” Swart said.
“To achieve a strong ecosystem there needs to be diversity and various players should have equal access to opportunities.”
Umar said Wennovation Hub measures its gains it terms of impact created, and believes it can have a bigger impact by focusing on certain sectors.
“The number of youths we are able take off the streets and get into jobs created through their ideas that we supported is a key metric for us,” he said. “By so doing, we are able to develop commercially viable solutions to Africa’s most pressing problems.”