Are you a “Growth Masai”?… Key skill gap in Africa Technology Startups

By Mbwana Alliy  |  May 4, 2012


One of the opportunities and challenges of the tech industry is how rapidly it continues to advance and in its wake change not only how we live, disrupt current solutions but also redefine how we work. Jobs can get eliminated overnight whilst new ones can emerge from nowhere. I’ve been looking forward to writing this post- especially after my first trip back to Nairobi last week to see the progress of Nailab and iHub but also a few startups new and old. Many have noted the skills gap that exist such as “business” skills- but none have written specific examples of exactly what these skills actually are. Trust me, it’s much deeper than just being able to code in python or ruby and be a “certified” developer or having a certificate in accounting or marketing- even though being proficient in these languages/professions is important to actually get something solid built and understanding the basics of business. A recurring theme was apparent in my 1st 2 weeks back in East Africa- many startups had either skills and role gaps they cannot fill, are actively building them or have no idea that such roles even should exist. The last being the most dangerous as its perilous to growth and even long term survival. At the same time, one of my favorite Silicon Valley Ninjas, Andrew Chen, came up with a new term for role in a startup that disrupts traditional marketing functions – the Growth Hacker, an intersection of a few key core skills that help a startup gain new customers and achieve rapid growth. The tenacity of a hacker to solve problems, to being able to work with social platforms and understand data to tap millions of customers. These new skills are not silos- they are actually an intersection of many disciplines- I also strongly believe in the “systems thinking” approach.

Product Management & Marketing evolve to African Growth Masai

In a previous post I highlighted the pitfalls of adopting a copy to/clone strategy for building a startup without revisiting the market and customer assumptions. The same applies for roles and hence skills in startups. I think every African startup needs to first figure out how to productize (be able to scale) a product or service (finding a market niche, willing customer to trial and eventually pay) but then also scale the business to multiple markets and languages. The last being the most challenging for whoever is tasked with this growth role. I am calling this a “Growth Masai”– I use the Masai term here to illustrate a point. Borrowing from the Growth Hacker and adding African elements- like the Masai (who historically is not bound by geography- they can be found in Tanzania AND Kenya), this role involves someone who is nomadic in nature “explores new pastures” and looks after his/her goats (aka customers). One term I will never forget that I learnt from Microsoft is “Sell what me make and Make what we sell“- this adequately captures the inherent tension that happens between engineering/development and Sales depending on the dominant culture. Textbooks will say that you should listen to customers first then give them what they want- that makes sense, but sometimes, customers don’t even know what they want (enter Steve Jobs visionaries). In western markets, the Product Manager (PM) takes the CEO’s vision and makes it happen day to day within the different functions. In Africa, this means a PM must figure out the link between product and sales in highly uncertain and often unproven markets when you are likely the first one to try radical new solutions (markets often not definted!), these can include:

  • What value promise is the startup selling? Is the startup serving the right problem?
  • What are customers using right now instead of your solutions- are you in the business of making things “more efficient and better” or a total new product or service in the eye of the customer (e.g. have they ever used mobile payments in any manner, a CRM or marketing solution, a new energy alternative.
  • What customer educational programs work in the face of low literacy and tech adoptions?
  • What local partner do you need to provide “customer credibility” (i.e. don’t just show up with your urban look and rural africans to trust your solution). Or in some markets- connections to Government officials to get things done fast and accurately?
  • What are the best distribution channels and business models to reach and serve the target segment “mobileweb, SMS, USSD/, Android Marketplace, Billboard/Newspapers, Social Networks (Mxit, Facebook?)”?
  • What are the best pricing and payment mechanisms? Pay in full, pay as you go, carrier billing, credit card or COD?
  • How often does the customer need handholding and what are the particular needs of their business?
  • What are the drivers behind retaining customers and why do they leave and go to the competitors or alternatives.
  • Should you be adopting a lean approach, constantly listening, iterating and releasing frequently, learning and failing fast- or is your industry such that customers cannot tolerate and a more traditional “waterfall” (shut yourself in the bunker and code for months for a big release?)
When I visited Mobile Planet when I was in Kenya last week, I noted Karanja Macharia had begun to train and groom his first product managers. I was shocked and impressed- I had never seen one in Kenya before. But Mobile Planet is a successful 10-year old company- they must know a thing or two.
Africa Personas and customer understanding needs to be better captured
Nielsen did everyone a favor and conducted this market research study to identify the different types of African consumer. I think this is a good start but does not adequately capture the complexities of the markets and needs across regions and product/services types (in other words it does not cater to tech markets). We might all use nokia feature phones, but we don’t all use mobile payments as preferred payment mechanism and we might have different incomes dependent on what geography one resides- this is challenge for a manager analyzing an app delivered to the Nokia platform.
Same there are perils in relying on World Bank and UN data that might be outdated. I have blogged before about how much I think better research and africa data is critical to investors to understand the industry but also for startups internally to navigate opportunities.

Adjacent Markets Provide Additional Areas to Discover of Growth- The Masai exploits

Many startups might be able to conquer their home market and a specific product, but to reach true scale they need to scale to multiple markets and sometimes branch into multiple products to achieve growth. Sometimes I hear folks say “I’ll just own my own market”, our neighbors don’t know my market! That may be true now, but it may not be true in the future– Growth Masais from other countries who can handle multiple turfs will start to invade your terroritory with not only superior products but better ways to sell and delight your customers. For example, in Tanzania, Customer Service is notoriously bad at some of the mobile operators- this provides an opening for new service centric competitors. Another one is mobile payments/m-commerce, It becomes very clear that one can’t live of payments alone- you need to have additional value. In the first wave of tech startups- many customers will learn first hand what is lacking in their teams- many will fail because they can’t identify or fill these positions from the available talent pools in Africa. The best way is to recognize that these skills actually exist and form industry associations and companies can contribute in creating training programs for the industry. Yes, surprise, surprise it comes back to good old education and training. I was very excited at the iHub to see that not only are the creating a Research Unit, UX lab, have a thriving mobile lab, but they also are now installing a super computer- hubs play a key role here and some of the best hubs on the continent will have leaders who will identify what skills they want to develop not just what skills are good in their community to reinforce (good incubators/hubs will act and invest accordingly).