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Time to celebrate African success stories!

What better way to support SME development in the African space than by celebrating the entrepreneurs who have already achieved remarkable success. This is exactly what the Africa Awards program is doing and VC4Africa is pleased to partner and support this effort again this year. Recently I had the chance to connect with Hamish Banks, one of the key champions behind the program, and ask him a few questions about this year’s competition.

Why was the AfricaAwards program created?

The Africa Awards for Entrepreneurship program was created to promote the value of entrepreneurship; as we are all aware, SMEs and the entrepreneurs who lead them are the lifeblood of any economy and major contributors to any nation’s prosperity. In sub-Saharan Africa, over 90% of business operations are conducted through SMEs and they contribute around 50% of GDP.

Simply put, the more we can encourage entrepreneurship, the better off we all are. By focusing attention on the amazing stories of these entrepreneurial leaders and creating a platform to tell their stories we want to set them up as role models for aspiring entrepreneurs; these leaders demonstrate the level of business excellence that helps to negate the more negative stereotypes of business in Africa. When we showcase these leaders and the fact that their businesses are the match of any around the world, we create a picture of Africa as a continent of opportunity and an attractive destination for investment capital.

Furthermore, there is a lesson here for policymakers: it is their responsibility to legislate wise policies that make it easy to establish a new business and to ensure a level playing field for all business that encourages growth, free from bureaucracy and corruption.

Lastly, the Awards will support networks of business people that will benefit from improved collaboration, the sharing of best practice and the realization of fresh opportunities – and while every winner has told us that the prize money of $350,000 is attractive, of course, they also tell us that the networking, connections and prestige from being a winner is even more important to their future business growth.

Can you reflect on last year’s event?

Last year was our third year of the competition and by far the most successful to date: we attracted more than 2,700 entries from all of the 15 participating countries, with our first finalist from Ethiopia. We received entries from 18 different industry sectors with a high number from infrastructure development areas – mechanical and electrical engineering, and construction, for example – reflecting the rapid growth in infrastructure projects across the continent. But we also had strong representation for ICT companies (two of which were winners) and an increasing number of entries from business and professional services. We were disappointed not to see more women-owned businesses among the finalists and this year we are making a concerted effort to reach those groups more effectively. The Gala Awards Banquet in Nairobi was a bigger affair than ever before; hosted by Komla Dumor of the BBC’s Africa Business Report and with a keynote speech by legendary Kenyan entrepreneur Manu Chandaria, we brought together entrepreneurs, business people and policymakers in an inspiring showcase of business talent.

What can you tell us about last year’s winner Craft Silicon?

The Africa Awards is about more than just the numbers and last year’s winner, Kamal Budhabhatti of Craft Silicon is a perfect example. In choosing a winner, we look for business excellence – overall profitability, ROI, innovative strategies for growth and flawless execution – but we also place great emphasis on personal leadership, culture and value. Kamal brings all of that together: within Craft Silicon’s core business of customised software solutions for the financial sector, the company’s management is always thinking ahead and has developed innovative solutions in microfinance and Islamic banking, for example, that are fuelling the company’s global expansion.

Craft Silicon is a model of employee engagement both in outreach to university students and in a wide range of benefits to existing employees – such as flexible working hours – and in pushing staff to higher levels of responsibility than they might expect elsewhere. Kamal and his team also demonstrate a deep understanding of the responsibility they share for supporting the communities they serve – from providing free software to microfinance institutions to the computer – equipped Craft Silicon Foundation Bus which travels to Nairobi’s slums and conducts practical training for young people.

It is this complete package that made Kamal and Craft Silicon stand out: a great business run by great people.

This year you take a pan African approach, why was the scope expanded?

It was always our intention to expand across the continent – we just got there a little sooner than we expected, having started with just five countries in 2007 and fifteen last year. The reality is that entrepreneurs are essentially the same everywhere – not just in Africa – and it doesn’t matter the size of your country or the sector in which you compete, entrepreneurs share a DNA that’s hard-wired into their brains. It’s not unusual to hear of a history of start-up, failure, start-up and success and in a sense this defines many of the entrepreneurs we meet: not only are they inspired and inspiring, but they have a resilience about them. And you’ll find that resilience everywhere from Sierra Leone to South Africa to Sudan.

Once we thought about it, not only was there no reason not to expand to the whole of Africa, it is critically important that we did – we want to make the point that Africa is alive with entrepreneurs everywhere, not just in the more developed places you might expect.

How does a program like this help support entrepreneurship development on the continent?

The Africa Awards is built upon teaching by example. One of the reasons we target businesses which fall outside what would be traditionally regarded as being “small” or “medium-sized” is because the leaders of these bigger businesses (with more than $1MM in revenues) have a track record and personal stories that can serve as a practical example and an inspiration. Our first task is to inform and inspire – we will show what homegrown African entrepreneurs have, and can, achieve. On another level we can provide real practical support by brokering connections between the entrepreneur community and the sources of funding which are so critical (and challenging) for them. For example, this year we will organize a one-day conference on entrepreneurship: CONVERGENCE: AFRICA is the platform that brings together the entrepreneurs, investors, policy-makers and businesspeople who will continue to fuel the continent’s burgeoning growth. This one-day conference is designed to be informative, practical, and above all actionable. In addition to headline speakers who are themselves role models of entrepreneurship, the heart of the conference is a series of six Master Classes, conducted by experts in their fields, covering the topics that matter most to entrepreneurs and investors.

The conference will conclude in an exclusive session designed to match enlightened investors and a selection of the brightest entrepreneurs in a series of rapid-fire presentations – what we call Investor Speed Dating – in which we will invite 15 VC and Private Equity firms from across Africa and overseas to hear back-to-back pitches from pre-qualified potential investee companies.

How do you see VC4Africa and its role in the space?

We share the same goals, of course, and see VC4Africa as an energetic and practical resource for entrepreneurs and investors which complements what we’re doing. There’s always a need for a platform for sharing best practice and a space where entrepreneurs can congregate. Like the Africa Awards, such programs are most successful when they become self-sustaining – which happens when members take ownership and see real value in participating. With over 4,000 members, I think VC4Africa is there already- I would just encourage the members to continue to engage in productive discussion and sharing good ideas and experiences as much as possible: this is a great platform for learning.

A final message for all of those entrepreneurs out there?

There’s not much I can say that hasn’t been said much better by the entrepreneurs themselves, so I’ll just encourage them to check the website at www.AfricaAwards.com and submit an entry. Someone asked me the other day why so many Kenyan firms had been finalists and winners in the past, and the answer is pretty simple – they submitted a lot of entries. We want to see applications from every country in Africa – we know there’s a potential winner in every one of them.

Anything else you feel is important to add?

We’ll have a couple of big announcements about the Awards during the course of the next three months, so watch this space. And we’re always open to suggestions and comments as to how to improve the Awards – please let us know.

Great Hamish….. I look forward to seeing this year’s selection come together and to celebrating Africa’s great success stories!

Morning chat with Cameroon’s serial entrepreneur Fritz Ekwoge Ekwoge

Fritz Ekwoge Ekwoge and his father Chief Ekwoge John Ekeme

This morning in Buea is cool after an early morning rain. Clouds still hang on Mount Cameroon as I sit down to talk to a local legend and one of the first entrepreneurs to graduate from ActivSpaces. They call him ‘Fee.’ He hails from the Southwest Province and ‘doesn’t shut up about his products or the potential for SMS.’ His favorite quote from the 2001 movie Antitrust, ‘this business is binary. You are a one or a zero. Alive or dead.’

When he was five years old his dad would send him to the store to buy groceries, but he had a hard time following orders and would often buy something like sweets instead. His dad told him he could never be a doctor because he would forget the scissors in his patient’s stomach and told him he should be a computer analyst instead. Fritz explains, ‘I had no idea what he meant, but I knew I wasn’t going to be doctor. When I grew up there was no computer around me. But later at boarding school one of my friends had a TI82 programming calculator.’ Fritz would borrow the manual and learned about concepts like loops, conditional statements and assignments. With those basic instructions he was able to clone games like snake, minesweeper and even built a mathematical equation solver. He continues, ‘One night I took a Son Goku image and pixel by pixel I replicated it on the calculator. I used to fool my friends that I had built a scanner that could lift images from a book. Most people in high school knew me for tricks like this.’ Needless to say in school Fritz became an invaluable resource for students struggling to pass their exams :)

The famous TI82 :)

Getting excited Fritz continues, ‘I realized I was spending more time with my calculator than my studies. I knew this was my future. After highschool I went to the Polytechnique and got great results. There I continued programming but still I had no idea about the web or the Internet. Everything was PC programming. One project we did was to build a 3D model of the school in C++. In 2005 I created my first Yahoo account in a local cyber cafe for 5000 CFA (about 10 USD).

Asked how he made the jump to becoming an entrepreneur he describes one of the defining moments of his life, ‘One day I was so broke I didn’t have any money for food and went home to chew on raw onions. I knew I wanted out of this situation and could see that the Internet was a better way for me to deploy my software. At the same time people were willing to pay me to develop websites. Becoming successful it wasn’t long before Price Waterhouse Coopers (PWC) came to the campus and offered me a job. It wasn’t 100% technology but I decided to enter the financial world and it was good to get some business background. I think its the combination of the technical, financial and corporate experience that makes for a good founder.’ With this experience and background Fritz didn’t wait long to start out on his own.

Kerawa, his first independent project, was started in 2007. When Fritz moved to Douala he had a really hard time finding a place to stay and he knew there had to be a better way. Kerawa is an online classifieds service similar to Craigslist and maintains 200.000 listings. By the third year they passed a 1.000.000 page views a month and Fritz is proud to confirm that the project makes a profit. Asked how, he explains that the most significant revenue source is from AdSense and now increasingly from the ‘VIP ads’ service.

Asked about his enthusiasm for SMS he says, ‘My passion for SMS started at school. We were supposed to come out with an Operating System project in 2006. I set up a team and I wanted to go beyond computers and leverage the mobile phone. There is so much power with SMS.’ He created a unique shell that allowed him to command his PC (and all the PCs in the school network) via SMS. He says, ‘Any command on my phone could be executed on the PC. If I wanted to shut it down I could type in ‘Shut Down’ and send it to the machine. The application was originally called VeSMS but is now known as COMPP.’ See one of his academic papers.

Realizing he had the skills to do something interesting Fritz explains, ‘I was telling myself I have to do something with SMS one of these days. I thought there should be a simple way to find contact details for people via their phone. In Africa we grew up with mobile phones but we don’t have a yellow pages or white pages. In Cameroon we have 100.000 fixed line users compared to 9 million mobile phone users. But where is the directory? How are we going to translate the idea of a directory for our needs here in Cameroon?’ On February 2009 he he launched the iYam.mobi beta.

He set up the company with one laptop (which acted like a server) and two phones that served as SMS gateways – one for MTN Cameroon and the other for Orange. He put up a 1 page website to explain how it worked and immediately he saw people testing it from the African countries and the US.

It was a matter of time before the project was discovered by people like Bill Zimmerman who could coach him and help promote him as an entrepreneur. Fritz says, ‘With help and mentorship I was able to secure the funding I needed to grow the iYam.mobi business.’ Now he processes 30.000 SMS a month and recently added an appstore and group SMS functionality.

Asked about the future Fritz pauses, ‘One of the biggest challenges for entrepreneurs here is getting paid for their services. Many people are not comfortable paying online and so we need to develop the sales force that can develop our offline channels. This offline approach is one of our key efforts moving forward.’ Indeed, taking concepts into the market is a real challenge. Not only for Fritz but for starting tech entrepreneurs in countries like Kenya, Uganda, Ghana, Nigeria, etc. His offline efforts are commendable and I think offer a needed focus.

Asked about ActivSpaces he responds, ‘Places like ActivSpaces are so important. I got to meet experienced people and received the support I needed to develop my ideas and build my business. It helped transform me from a local geek to a local star.’ It’s great to meet Fritz and to see first hand some of the progress he is making here in Cameroon. Even more exciting, I can see he is not alone and is surrounded by techies with great projects making similar strides.

And this is only the beginning Fritz explains, ‘We are still in a starting phase here in Cameroon but we are developing models now and I can see things changing. People are abandoning their jobs, not giving into the frustrations and are taking their destiny into their own hands.’ Being at the VC4Africa meetup last night with Buea techies @mambenanje @ekwogefee @nyvacol2005 @didiblaise @camvista & @mohamed_felata I couldn’t agree more.

A video pitch on Njorku.com, making job search in Africa possible

Today Churchill Nanje Mambe, the founder of Njorku.com, uploaded one of the first video pitches from Cameroon. Njorku is a job search engine for Africans world wide, otherwise a platform that aggregates and provides search and browse functionality for jobs from across the continent. In the short term there is a focus on Nigeria, Cameroon and South Africa.

Loy Okezie recently writes on TechLoy, ‘One of the key highlights of the 9ideas Conference held over the weekend in Douala, Cameroon was the demoing of the ‘Elephant project.’ He goes on to explain, ‘Njorku is a jobs search engine that crawls the web (especially job sites) to find jobs based on keyword searches in any African country and makes them available to users.’

This video pitch is great because it gives a personal introduction into Churchill as an entrepreneur and a nice background on his project. While we are in Cameroon we will be working to film more pitches like this and integrate them into the venture profiles on VC4Africa.biz. We hope that entrepreneurs in Buea and Douala will inspire entrepreneurs from across the VC4A network to do the same. When the distance between people is sometimes countries or even oceans video pitches like this can go a long way in breaking the ice.

Unlocking social capital in Europe

Unlocking social capital in Europe

From my experience at Africa Interactive I know how hard it is to build a business with a social mission. In Dutch law you are either a business or a non-profit organization. There have been discussions but still we wait for an alternative legal form that starts to bridge the gap between the two i.e. a social venture that seeks to better the world but still meet its bottom line. Given increasing cuts in govt. spending across European countries and a shift in mindset that demands sustainability across financial and social metrics, laying new foundations seems imperative.

In the end Africa Interactive found the right investors and has built its foundation as a business. What doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger:) That said, it probably took us twice as long and required twice the effort to make it happen. In the interest to promote the emergence of new efforts, a culture around social venturing, its critical we start to look at ways to foster a community and support its development. On one side its about improving access to social capital and on the other hand its about learning from a combined experience, improving access to the supporting service, knowledge and network needed to make it happen.

This spring we will witness the first SOCAP/Europe here in Amsterdam. This is a perfect location for this event as the Netherlands, and Amsterdam in particular, is really a hotbed for this stuff. Just a top of the head list includes remarkable organizations like the 1%Club, Akvo, Text to Change, Butterfly Works, GhettoRadio and our own beloved Africa Interactive. At Sanaga Ventures we also promote ActivSpaces, VC4Africa and Afrilabs.

I believe this is a milestone for our efforts here in Europe and an important platform for outlining plans of action for the coming years. As SOCAP champions, ‘the event will be a place to discover and discuss the latest in European social enterprise and beyond, meet like-minded attendees from around the globe, pitch your ideas, find and provide funding and more.’

Here are some of their latest announcements and I look forward to coming together around this event.

Social entrepreneur scholarship deadline

If you’re a social entrepreneur putting your passion, money and time to scale solutions for a better world, then we invite you to apply by the end of this weekend! If you don’t fit the social entreprenuer description, but still have value to contribute and gain at SOCAP/Europe, then we invite you to apply as a volunteer by our April 15th deadline.

More SOCAP/Europe speakers announced

In addition to the pioneering names announced in our first two waves, we are happy to now confirm the participation of these speakers. See a full list of SOCAP/Europe speakers here.

Pieter Oostlander – Noaber (Netherlands)
Natarajan Ishwaran – Unesco (France)
Tris Lumley – New Philanthropy Capital (United Kingdom)
Lisa Hehenberger – EVPA (Belgium)
Nigel Kershaw – Big Issue Invest (United Kingdom)
Maria Cavalcanti – AVINA (Panamá)
Brian Walsh – Liquidnet (United States)
Dirk Elsen – SNV (Netherlands)
Felix Oldenburg – Ashoka (Germany)
Ajaita Shah – Frontier Markets (United States)
Gerhard Pries – Sarona Asset Management (Canada)
David Bonbright – Keystone (United Kingdom)
Tamzin Ratcliffe – Nexii (South Africa)
Antony Ross – Bridges Ventures (United Kingdom)
Tim Radjy – Alphamundi (Switzerland)
Tim Draimin – Social Innovation Generation (Canada)
Martin Rich – Social Finance (United Kingdom)
Stephen Dawson– Jacana (Ghana)

African ventures to watch in 2011

VC4Africa.biz now has 91 ventures registered from more than 20 African countries and a surprising number of sectors. It is a nice representation of the sheer diversity in opportunities currently found across the continent.

Many of these projects are positioned for serious progress this coming year. For example I am interested to see what happens next with Uganda Medicinal Plants Growers, a venture posted by Teddy Ruge. UMPG is a commercial farming initiative based in Masindi and is designed to assist farmers commercialize their medicinal crops internationally. This is important work considering Uganda’s economy is agriculture based, with agriculture employing over 80% of the population and generating 90% of its export earnings. In Kenya its nice to see social ventures like the Recycling plastics and Empowering Youth. Kenya has a great need for low-cost housing and productive waste management. This recycling company will operate in the interest of the local community employing collectors using bicycle with trailers to bring various grades of plastics to processing units for ecologically-sensitive, efficient sorting, granulating and moulding (under low heat) into panels to be used for cheap housing. Not only is this an innovative approach that addresses a growing need, they are clearly taking the steps to embed the program and design it in a way that makes it socially sustainable and thereby economically viable.

A Nigerian based venture to watch is eHealth. This project supports the management of health facilities in Nigeria to influence health-related funding and policy decisions, and provides doctors with the patient information needed to improve decision-making before, during, and after care. This is not only a support service needed in Nigeria but I can imagine there are needs for their products in other African countries too. But given there are at least 85 listed hospitals in Nigeria there is plenty of work needed to get the company up and running. A venture that caught my attention in Cameroon is Hot Ice. Hot Ice is a fashion company that specializes in supplying affordable African-styled fashion accessories for trendy suburban women. Hot Ice really looks to differentiate its brand and seeks to build a fashion culture that local consumers can identify with.

Finally Agro-Hub, Geofeed, Naijaborn and Hizonotes offer a nice sample of the web and mobile related projects we have in our network. More projects are signing up by the day and clearly 2011 is set to be the year of Entrepreneurship in Africa!

Afrilabs is registered and ready for business in 2011

ActivSpaces in Buea, Cameroon

Last year, at the launch of the iHub in Nairobi, Bill Zimmerman (ActivSpaces), Jon Gosier (Hive Colab), Erik Hersman (iHub), Bart Lacroix (1% Club) and myself came together to discuss the emergence of technology incubators on the continent. Especially this idea that the labs we see coming online are often independent initiatives i.e. either a single entrepreneur or small group of entrepreneurs coming together to form an open collaboration space for the local tech community.

From our discussions it was made clear that there was not only a need to start working more together but to see how we can support new initiatives just starting out. And at the same time coming to the realization that the entrepreneurs with the best ideas still need support if they are going to successfully transition to market. These are some of the initial motivations that have been transformed into the network organization Afrilabs. We have two primary activities where on one side we are looking to support the development of healthy/sustainable labs and on the other we seek to support the most promising entrepreneurs ready to escape their walls.

We are pleased to announce that the foundation has been registered and we are now working to secure the partners and support we need to roll out a number of exciting plans and activities.

Watch this space, let’s join forces and connect soon!

Join us at the next VC4Africa Meetup at JokkoLabs in Senegal, February 11th

With our friends at JokkoLabs and and BantaLabs, we would like to organize a VC4Africa Meetup on February 11th. I think this is a great idea and I am reaching out to you to see if you feel the same way.

Sign up for this free event!

As with all VC4Africa Meetups, the event will simply be a place for members to meet one another and share thoughts and ideas. No speeches, no agenda, nothing planned. The loose structure allows for lots of networking. Just remember, everyone is expected to pay for their own drinks : )

Time: February 11, 2011 from 6pm to 8pm
Location: JokkoLabs
Street: 1er espace de coworking d’Arique de l’Ouest ! Jokkospace 65-66 Résidence Machala Nord Liberté 6 extension
City/Town: Dakar
Website or Map: http://jokkolabs.net/
Phone: Tel. : +221 338 27 38 31

Let us know if you will attend and If you want to help out please add your name to the list and help spread the word!

Greetings,
Ben, Karim and Joeri

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