MEST at 10: Learnings from the first Pan-African tech incubator

Celine Duros, Monday April 9th 2018

This post was written by Celine Duros, our Director of Operations, who has been with MEST since 2014.

Crossing the symbolic bridge that separates the MEST Incubator Accra and the Training Program HQ, each morning, I can often feel Ghana’s embrace in the faces and gestures of the entrepreneurs and EITs filtering through the courtyard for breakfast.

Four years ago, I crossed that bridge for the first time. Today,  I doubt I will ever tire of crossing it. It stands as a powerful symbol, one of entrepreneurs who have made it through a rigorous year at MEST and come out successfully, achieving investment, support, and a lifelong membership to the MEST community  

This year we are celebrating the 10th anniversary of MEST. In 2008, at a time when very few programs like MEST were present on the continent, Jorn Lyseggen, CEO and founder of Meltwater, committed to creating a training programme in Africa, inspired by the continent’s incredible amount of potential talent and continually growing population. After dedicating a full team to this project, he chose Ghana as a flagship.

[caption id="attachment_6637" align="aligncenter" width="600"]Celine Duros with MEST Founder and CEO Jorn Lyseggen Celine Duros with MEST Founder and CEO Jorn Lyseggen[/caption]

10 years later, nearly 300 young entrepreneurs have learned how to code and build a business, a network of three physical startup incubators has been established in Ghana, Nigeria, and South Africa, and entrepreneurs are being recruited from  six African countries to participate in the MEST training programme.

We have learnt a number of valuable lessons since we started. Here are a few I’ve personally observed:

  • It’s vital that we empower women who will naturally  empower other woman. This trend has allowed us to increase our female participation from 3% in year one to 32% today.

  • Eight years ago, when we invested in the first  MEST portfolio companies, most entrepreneurs were looking to target international markets. The entrepreneurs did not have faith that the local market would enable them to generate enough revenue. Instead, they learned how to understand and market to customers in the US and UK,  building e-commerce solutions that can compete in foreign markets.

    Today, the portfolio looks entirely  different, with a majority of solutions looking to solve local problems and create  Pan-African opportunities. In large part, our entrepreneurs have become more savvy and creative, while over the course of the last decade the local economies have developed in leaps and bounds, to the point where many of our markets are now increasingly receptive to tech solutions. 

  • The economic situation has allowed this change and purchasing power has been transformed, but we, as an organization, have also learnt how to leverage local expertise and train our entrepreneurs to simultaneously think locally and globally.

  • The training programme used to be a two-year commitment; in 2015, we decided to reduce  this to one year in order to get our entrepreneurs into their final markets sooner. The results have been fantastic. The urgency created and the pressure under which the entrepreneurs have been learning have had positive results, and we believe the quality of  ideas pitched has continued to improve.

  • By recruiting people from multiple  nations, we knew we would bring another dimension to the training programme. However we questioned whether we would end up with more l Pan-African companies or whether  the entrepreneurs would choose to work with people from their home country.

    After the first year, any doubts subsided. We see a Ghanaians, working on a team with Kenyans and Nigerians, across the program. They saw the opportunity it would bring them, and they valued the international perspective. When asked whether they  felt it could bring complications when it comes to choosing the country in which to set up the business, the answer was that : they couldn’t see how choosing the best people could complicate things. “Where my co founders come from does not matter; diversity can only bring value and enable us to change faster as an organization.”

For me, this  feels like just the beginning. I can’t wait to see what the next decade has in store at MEST. After the growth we saw in 2017, with the entrance of over 15 new companies into the MEST portfolio, the opening of two new incubator spaces, and more, I know the next ten years are going to be filled with growth and innovation.

In the past decade, Africa has seen an immense technological boom that is only going to continue as ecosystems and support for entrepreneurs grow.

Interested in learning more about how technology is supporting the rise of Africa? Check out our article on Eric Osiakwan’s African Economic KINGS!