A famous quote by Saint Augustine of Hippo reads: “The world is like a book, and those who do not travel read only one page”. And for the longest time I had enjoyed reading just that one page. I was quite comfortable living that reality. My position was, if the purpose for travelling does not directly contribute to the achievement of a personal or business objective, then it is valuable man hours spent wastefully on unproductive activity.
Yes, I know. I am not your typical “Millennial” as my boss would always say, often times with a look of frustration that clearly says, “I give up on you Francis”.
But now I am beginning to change my mind…
Itanna had been invited by MEST to a two-day Guest Lecture and Investor Retreat in Accra that took place from 15th – 17th of June . Tomi was invited as one of the Guest Lecturers and I was convinced to go along on the trip (rather, I was forced, actually!)
These are some of my highlights and lessons learned.
THE QUALITY OF STARTUPS I ENCOUNTERED
The MEST Investor Retreat was an all-weekend event. Starting with dinner on Friday night at the Venue Restaurant, to the Guest Lecture and Demo atMEST Africa’s Campus on Saturday; the trip was rounded off with a tour of the Accra Arts Center on Sunday. I must say, I every bit of the experience. I commend their team for the quality of planning that went into making the retreat a success that it was.
For me, the best moment was the Guest Lecture and Demo sessions.
With speakers like; Jason Spindler (CEO of I-Dev International Fund), Funke Opeke (CEO of Mainone) and Tomi Otudeko (Head, Innovation and Sustainability, Honeywell Group / Director of Itanna ) sharing with the plenary what is, in my opinion, some of the most valuable lessons every young entrepreneur should know. They are self-explanatory, so I would summarize them into four key points:
- If you aren’t really excited about what you are doing, you have to prepare yourself for a hard battle. Passion helps you get through.
- Your passion must also be something that aligns with market demand and opportunity. Have a unique value proposition that you bring.
- You begin with hard work to make up for lack of experience. Let your hard work give you courage.
- Knowing your market is key. Understanding government policies and potential changes to policies is another important step.
Afterwards, I sat through what I consider to be one of the best pitch sessions I have experienced to-date. There were about 17 startups, all solving problems in different sectors of the economy. The quality of their pitches was very compelling and engaging. Interestingly, these were startups that have only been in operation for less than a year, and they already had an MVP, shown considerable traction, and some had already gone through one or two pivots in their business models.
LESSON #1: Having the right enabling Environment for Growth
It was obvious that these startup founders had the right enabling environment and the right mentors (“Fellows” as they are called in MEST terminology) to build and scale truly innovative businesses across Africa. Africa needs even more collaborative environments like this to support the Entrepreneurial ecosystem.
THE ENERGY WITHIN THE MEST ECOSYSTEM
The second thing I found interesting about the experience was the consistent high energy within the MEST Ecosystem. In just one day of interacting with the Fellows and Entrepreneurs In Training [EITs], I could not help but feel like a part of a community. The energy and drive within the ecosystem was infectious.
LESSON #2: Maintaining Organizational Culture
This experience got me thinking about the importance of cultivating a culture of openness and creativity needed to drive innovation very early in the life cycle of a business. It is no secret that maintaining a culture of collaboration and openness needed to drive innovation and creativity within the modern workplace is very difficult to manage and maintain. Many organizations do not get this right from the beginning, and struggle with maintaining staff morale for a long period, which is evidenced in their high staff turnover rate. Organizations that face this problem ultimately spend so much recruiting and filling open positions that very little time is spent on actual productive or innovative activities. MEST clearly has the blueprint on how to maintain an innovative ecosystem. (If we asked nicely, maybe they would be willing to share!!)
In conclusion, I’d like to visit Accra one more time. The Accra Arts market to be specific. I would love to experience the country and its people in a non-work related atmosphere… I guess it’s time to see what’s in another page of the book
Secondly, beyond just the online buzz and excitement that the African tech ecosystem attracts, it has always given me so much satisfaction to experience and be a part of the actual growth within the African startup community.