Beyond the Pitch: my week with 5 African startups — by Raphaëlle Neyton

“Awesome”, “Engaging”, “eye-opening”, “inspiring”, “intense”, “exhausting (but in a good way)”: when you get these kind of user feedback, you know that somehow, you got it right. That you had an impact. Mid-June I had the opportunity to spend a full week with 5 startups from Ghana, Nigeria, Cameroon, Kenya and Senegal, for which I organized a 1-week bootcamp at NUMA.

During this week I think that I heard each of these startups pitch about 20 times. But beyond their pitch, I want to share some of my understandings of their entrepreneurial journey and the realities that they face in their respective countries.

Our mission at NUMA is to help tech entrepreneurs solve the global challenges of 2030. We are convinced that solutions will come from everywhere, that’s why we have opened offices in Moscow, Mexico, Casablanca and Bangalore, alongside our development in Paris, Berlin, New York and Barcelona. We also believe that solutions to the most urgent problems in low income countries (traffic jams, food and water crises) will most probably stem from homegrown entrepreneurial communities.

So when the French Development Agency published a tender to organize a 1-week bootcamp for 5 African startups that were all addressing crucial problems, NUMA had to answer this opportunity!

Yes they were right, this week was intense… During this bootcamp I decided to focus on several key aspects of an entrepreneurial journey:

  • Team: at NUMA we often say that we would rather take on a killer team with a weak product rather than the opposite… So of course building a great team was one of our key focus for this week, with 1 session with our head of human resources to challenge their team set-up and a very important session on the definition of a long-term vision, company culture, and OKRs (objectives and key results)
  • Product: then of course, having a strong product cannot harm a start-up. So on the product side, we organised 6 master classes on technical subjects such as growth hacking, communication and branding, finance and 1:1 meetings with our CTO who shared many tips and advice on their technical developments. They also benefited from the insights of the head of Google Campus London that met with each founder individually
  • Network: we leveraged our network and organised tailor-made meetings depending on the specific sectors and needs of each startups including meetings with Doctors Without Borders, University Paris Descartes, Tiler Systems, and of course 1:1 meetings with potential investors. 32 individual meetings were organised in total.
  • Funding: two of these startups had already raised a seed round and were thinking about raising a second one… the others knew that at some point, talking to investors would be on their roadmap… so I organised meetings with Orange Digital Ventures and Partech Ventures, that had just announced the creation of special vehicles to invest in African Startups.
  • Fame / Spotlight: I also organised an open event to talk about the African tech scene from a very hands-on point of view. 120 participants attended this event, during which the startups shared their own experience of entrepreneurs on the ground.


                          1:1 meeting between Farida Kabir (OTRAC) and Sarah Drinkwater (Google Campus London)


Big problems lead to impactful solutions

Digital entrepreneurs identify a problem worth solving and explore different solutions by talking to their potential users, collecting feedbacks and iterating. When entrepreneurs come from very emerging countries, the problems that they face in their daily life are often much more acute than in more developed countries… thus leading to very impactful solutions.

As an example in France, a startup in the field of mobility will develop incremental innovations (how to make public transport smarter, more efficient, less energy-intensive etc.), with a marginal impact on people’s lives. In emerging countries the problems will rather be how to build a public transportation system from scratch. With an expected impact that can make the life of millions of people better.

Looking back at these 5 African startups, they all address ambitious problems and come up with impactful solutions.

  • Gifted Mom (Cameroon) aims to reduce infant mortality in Africa through remote mobile support to pregnant women and young mothers;
  • FarmDrive (Kenya) aims at helping smallholder farmers access credit and thus strengthens food security in Kenya;
  • OTRAC (Nigeria) improves the quality of the health system in Nigeria through online training;
  • Mo’Go (Ghana) solves public mobility issues in Ghana through a car-sharing app;
  • and Weebi (Senegal) helps small shop owners keep track of their customers expenses and understand their patterns of consumption, thus helping these shop owners professionalize their activity.

This confirmed my expectations: entrepreneurial communities in emerging countries are not scared of tackling super ambitious challenges.

A lack of African role models: where is the African mentor scene?

One striking learning is that most of the 5 entrepreneurs I met are quite isolated: they lack mentors to challenge them, other entrepreneurs to shape their vision and give them hope that they can succeed. Without this network, giving up can be quite easy.

In Paris, NUMA has built over the past 17 years a network of 250+ experts, mentors, successful entrepreneurs that are used to mentoring startups. I tried to give these 5 entrepreneurs access to key mentors (serial entrepreneurs, mentors from Google for Entrepreneurs, former employees of Twitter and Indeed) to shape their vision. Now the real issue is how to create these networks in their home countries. There is no reason why African entrepreneurs should look for role models abroad.

Entrepreneur in Dakar or in Paris: the challenges are the same…

African startups face the same issues as French startups and their challenges are the same as the ones the 8-startups in the NUMA acceleration program face: how to recruit the best people and build a strong company culture, how to focus on one-single solution, how to acquire more users, how to talk to investors.


… Resources are not

Some of the resources (networks, mentoring, expertise, financing) that are available on a daily basis to French entrepreneurs are game-changers for other startups that do not evolve in the same environment. According to the startups, one of the most valuable sessions was the workshop on growth hacking delivered by Brice Maurin, founder of Farida, the founder of OTRAC told me “I knew that all these tricks existed but I had no idea that I could actually use them for my startup”.


After the bootcamp: what happens next?

It was great to host these 5 startups for a whole week in Paris. I learned a lot, and I think that this week also broadened their horizon. Yet, this week was only a surgical action in their entrepreneurial journey. The question that the French Development Agency and other international finance institutions should address is how to structure strong entrepreneurial ecosystems in these countries. Entrepreneurs in Cameroon, Senegal, Kenya, Nigeria and other African countries will not all have the opportunity to come to Paris, London or San Francisco. We need to help the development of strong entrepreneurial ecosystems in each country, to truly help these entrepreneurs to grow in the long-run.

=> Want to become a mentor for entrepreneurs based in emerging countries? Contact Raphaëlle

=> Want to learn more about the Challenge Digital Africa and to stay updated about the 2nd edition ? Read here


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