Africa Spotlight: Global Entrepreneurship Congress Report from Rio, Brazil
Last week over 1,500 delegates from 100+ countries involved in entrepreneurship ecosystem building descended on the lovely city of Rio De Janeiro for the 4th Global Entrepreneurship Congress backed by Kauffman Foundation, supported locally by the city of Rio, Endeavor Brazil and other sponsors including Dell. You would be forgiven for thinking parts of Brazil remind you of Africa, and Brazil certainly pulls its weight in helping support some of the former portuguese speaking colonies inc. Mozambique and Angola and acting as a counterweight against China influence on the continent.
On entreprenuership, Endeavor Brazil is one of the most successful chapters of the Endeavor model globally. As a BRIC country, Brazil is a top destination for foreign venture capital with presence from Redpoint, Sequioa and others. 500 Startups is quite active in Brazil too with atleast 20 investments where my good friend Bedy Yang, Chinese/American/Brazilian, who was instrumental in supporting Savannah Fund and who I spent a lot of hours with formulating strategies for supporting each other’s regions and figuring out the best way to act as a “bridge” to Silicon Valley.
I was on a panel with Brad Feld of TechStars Fame, Lesa Mitchell of Kauffman Foundation and Alexey Komissarov from Moscow’s Government’s department of Industrial Policy and Entrepreneurship. Brad Feld is an author of some very important books recently on Startups inc. Startup Communities, a must read, and what I consider a bible for anyone trying to get involved in the entreprenuership wave in Africa and across the world. One of the strong themes in his book that was brought up in the panel is the need to empower “Entreprenuerial Leaders” to do their work in a grassroots manner and have a long term view vs a top down Government initiative- I contributed by validating this and talking about the great work that iHub has done with little Government involvement but with strong support from the “feeders” like Google, Omidyar Network, Wananchi Group (in Kenya) etc.. Feeders should not be confused with leaders, but play important roles in supporting the ecosystem.
The issue of Government’s role came up multiple times including on my panel and several suggestions around giving tax credits for angel investing to spur more access to finance at the early stage without distorting the market but providing investment incentives for the right local high net worth individuals. But the consensus was for Government to stay out the way and focus on areas such as education and infrastructure.
As an example I talked about the challenges of Tanzania, where the more grassroots KiNU workspace is fast rising in contrast with a more top down model the Government and Development Finance Institutions (DFIs) such as the World Bank and Finnish Government has with the Dar es Salaam Technonohama Business Incubator.
Africa was definitely on spotlight as could be seen with invited 200+ deletages from the continent , and the host Johnathan Ortmans at times could not stop himself bringing up Africa. The LIONS Africa partnership team were also present to talk about their work. On the whole, besides their DEMO conference in Nairobi last year, and set to happen again this year, I find it hard to understand what tangible on the ground plans are beyond the conference. At the session, Nokia wasn’t present, nor were IDG. Africa Development Bank recently jumped on board in the partnership and were even talking about piloting a “seed fund”. Microsoft has recently launched their 4Afrika initiative, but not sure how this fits in with the LIONS Africa partnership. Frankly, I don’t really know how the partnership measures its success and how one fits in to collaborate on the ground. These are important questions to answer as we see more initiatives with the promise of “helping entrepreneurs”. Is the partnership primarily a development, promotional or investment initiative?
One of the big points that was brought up was the fact that the partnership is top down heavy and not enough grassroots (yes, its hard to help Africa from Washington DC), also its very easy to exclude whole countries- the focus is heavily on Nairobi, Lagos, South Africa and Accra- I get this as this is where the bulk of startup action, growth and stability is right now. But what about Francophone and Portuguese speaking Africa such as Mozambique and Angola (we were in Brazil after all!)? What about Arab Speaking North Africa. This is the exact same thing I echoed in the panel. When I was further asked what is one thing we need in Africa to spur entrepreneurship: “Stop treating Africa as a country, the continent is huge and diverse, we need to collaborate more.”. My thoughts are that the LIONS Africa initiative is modeled too heavily on Startup America but is not empowering the diverse entrepreneurial leaders enough. StartupWeekend is perhaps one of the only partners that is capable of executing in a grassroots manner and if anything, more should be done to spread that model across Africa. The other point that Lesa Mitchell and Brad Feld highlighted is the importance of network theory vs heirachy- rather than act in a dictatorial fashion, find the key influence points in the network and enable them to do their best work better rather than try recreate push down initiatives. I believe what this mean is empowering the likes of 88mph, Meltwater Entreprenuerial School of Technology (MEST) and the network of hubs already “on the ground”. That’s just my two cents, if any other delegates had other take aways or a different interpration or point of view, please comment below.
And networking and connecting is exactly what I did even outside the conference. I teamed up with MEST from Ghana who were also present to go visit a local ecommerce startup founded by one of my Stanford MBA classmates, Peixe Urbano– Dropifi and a winner of StartupWeekend Accra, MEST graduate, presented their work and so did Victoria Haynes from MEST and I gave overview of Savannah Fund/iHub/Nairobi tech scenes and we talked ecommerce from the local 30 year old Brazilian payment platform Boleto that still powers some 20% of ecommerce (despite high credit and debit card usage) to the classic interest in M-PESA and mobile money as important infrastructure to enable ecommerce. There was a good level of exchange, I also wanted Dropifi to see what a startup that has grown to 400+ employees looks like – its very easy to start a business but important to see how a grown up one looks like as well- and we certainly lack enough of those in Africa to inspire a generation of startups. I remember one of the Dropifi team were introduce to the Peixe Urbano CFO who was busy sorting some things under the table, they remarked “wow- even the CFO is doing some of the grunt work!”… Yes, this is startups even after 400+ employees and millions of funding. I believe we need more in Africa- rolling up of the sleeves, “on the ground”- but for me, Nairobi is already epicenter. Washington DC or Silicon Valley may not be as important as Cape Town, Lagos or Accra in getting real work and learning done to help startups- but they can act as great feeders into those ecosystems in providing knowledge, talent and experience.